Restoration efforts in the Willamette Valley have turned native plants and seeds into hot commodities
Atop Steiwer Hill, Lynda Boyer stands under 400-year-old oaks and looks proudly at the grasses and wildflowers stretching out over the gently rolling countryside.
The scene wasn’t always so. Less than 10 years ago, the landscape was buried in blackberries, Scotch broom, English ivy and poison oak — a far cry from the native savanna and prairie that once covered a million acres of the Willamette Valley.
It’s been Boyer’s job, as restoration biologist and native seed manager for Heritage Seedlings & Liners, to restore 200 acres of oak habitat just south of Salem that were purchased by owners Mark and Jolly Krautmann in 2002.
“In this business, we make a living from resources we inherited from generations before us,” Mark Krautmann said. “We have a responsibility to honor those generations and leave it better than we found it.”
It wasn’t so long ago that the landscape of the Willamette Valley was swept with grasses, dotted with oak trees and quilted with wildflowers.
Lomatium twinkled like yellow stars amid the tangle of grasses. With its long stems and sunny yellow flowers, tarweed belied its unattractive common name. Larkspur, Oregon sunshine, pink checkermallow, lupine, aster, columbine, Clarkia, all lent their colors and textures to the wide open spaces.
An endangered landscape
The prairie evolved in a dry climate that arrived about 10,000 years ago as the last ice age ended. The land began changing again 4,000 years later when Mount Mazama erupted, carving out Crater Lake and shifting the climate to warmer, wetter winters.
Left to its own devices, the oak savanna would have eventually progressed to a full-fledged forest, but Native Americans such as the Kalapuya in the Willamette Valley learned to keep this succession at bay with fire. This maintained the savanna and allowed continued access to the best food sources.
The arrival of Euro-American agriculture and development in the early to mid-1800s put a stop to burning, and much of the prairie was plowed under. Now, less than 1 percent remains, leaving plants, birds, animals and invertebrates vulnerable.
Iconic natives such as Willamette daisy (Erigeron decumbens), Nelson’s checkermallow (Sidalcea nelsoniana), Bradshaw’s lomatium (Lomatium bradshawii), Willamette larkspur (Delphinium oreganum), Kincaid’s lupine (Lupinus sulphureus ssp. kincaidii) and golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) are either threatened or endangered.
“You don’t have to have a big imagination to know that in a generation or two, many more plants will be endangered,” Krautmann said. “Without nursery intervention to collect seed from a variety of sources and grow them out and provide them to people to do the restoration, they’ll go the way of the dodo bird.”
In 2005, Boyer and her crew set to work at a farm that Heritage owns in Jefferson, Oregon. Invasive species were dug, sprayed, burned and mowed. Dense stands of oak were thinned to allow the open space for natives to return and the larger oaks to spread their branches, which provide habitat for Western bluebirds, white-breasted nuthatches and other wildlife. More than 120 species of natives, collected and propagated by Boyer, were seeded or planted.
As the project progressed, it became clear to the Krautmanns that there was a niche in supplying seed to government agencies and nonprofits involved in preservation work. So they started a native seed division of the nursery. The division now sells 4,000 pounds of seed a year, accounting for 10 percent of business.
The need for seeds
Champoeg Nursery, which opened in 2002, found the same opportunity. About 60 percent of its sales of native plants come from contracts with government agencies responsible for mitigation and restoration projects, such as parks departments and conservation and watershed districts.
“We did our research and agency contracts is where the demand was and still is,” Paul Stormo, general manager of Champoeg, said. “There are big opportunities there and it’s growing.”
Metro regional government, which has a role in maintaining and restoring lands in the three-county area around Portland, grows only a small fraction of the plants it needs for the approximately 500 acres of prairie restoration currently underway and purchases the rest.
“It’s a great chance for our two groups — restoration practitioners and the nursery industry — to work together,” Jonathan Soll, science and stewardship division manager for Metro, said. “The number of acres that’s gone into restoration has increased. We need the seeds.”
Boyer, who knew where to collect source-specific seed for propagation, agrees. “The nursery industry is a valuable — in fact, vital — resource for restoration professionals needing to restore land on a meaningful scale,” she said. “Nurseries have the facilities and expertise to produce high-quality material at a cost-effective scale.”
At the farm in Jefferson, Boyer leads twice-yearly tours to bring together professionals, landowners and preservation experts. The events are opportunities to share information and to inspire other owners to start their own restoration efforts. Most of the Willamette Valley’s oak savanna is scattered, the majority in private hands.
“We need to connect these fragmented habitats,” Krautmann said. “If we think that government and nonprofits can do the job all on their own, it’s a delusion. We need to empower people who own pieces of the oak prairies to do something rather than just read about it or go to a seminar.”
Soll echoed Krautmann: “It’s very important to make the effort before it’s too late,” he said. “We still have the chance to protect and restore a functioning ecosystem. If we wait a couple more decades, we’ll be protecting a few museum pieces, and that would be a shame.”
Pollinating the prairie
One doesn’t need acreage to help bring about a return of prairie environments. Even in small spaces, gardeners can plant their own piece of prairie. Boyer knows of a couple near the nursery with a flower bed around a flagpole seeded to wildflowers and grasses — one of four mixtures Heritage supplies to Pro Time Lawn Seed in Portland.
“Is it going to attract imperiled meadowlarks?” she said. “No, but boy, the pollinators love it.”
Pollinators are just one reason clients ask landscape designer Bob Hyland, owner of Contained Exuberance pottery shop in Portland, to create what he calls “prairie-esque” gardens in larger spaces with prairie-adapted plants.
“There is mounting interest in wildlife value, and prairies teem with birds and pollinators,” he said. “But they’re also about movement and motion.”
Hyland gets that motion from grasses like cool-season Deschampsia cespitosa with its neat clumps of dark green leaves and airy masses of buff-colored inflorescences, or low-mounding, purple-flowering Eragrostis spectabilis.
His must-have perennial is Amsonia hubrichtii, which has 2 feet of feathery foliage and bursts of blue flower clusters. But most Amsonia will do, including ‘Blue Ice’, A. tabernaemontana and A. cilata ‘Halfway to Arkansas’. A favorite of butterflies, magenta-flowered Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’ and violet-spiked Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ are on the top of his list, too.
“I plant a matrix of grasses and perennials,” he said. “I want something light, airy, ethereal and moody.”
Most of the plants Champoeg sells through contracts do well in home gardens, too. Stormo recommends camas (Camassia quamash and C. leichtlinni) for the towers of sky-blue flowers, but also for its cultural significance as a primary food source for early Native Americans in the West. For wildlife, he stresses the importance of native milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) for threatened monarch butterflies.
Andrej Suske, general manager of T&L Nursery in Redmond, Washington, suggests any of the Echinacea, but particularly the hybrid ‘Cheyenne Spirit’, which shows up in a surprising array of orange, red, purple, yellow and white.
“It’s a rainbow of color,” Suske said. “If planted in mass, you’d get a stunning effect. If I were to do it in my garden, I’d use a whole bunch of those and some Panicum. You’d get a real cool effect out of that.”
If you’re going to use seed to start a prairie garden, be patient, Boyer said. Clean the area of weeds, wait a year and clean it again.
“Seed needs dirt, but the weed seed bank is ginormous,” she said. “So you need to clear it as good as you can or you’ll be disappointed.”
Boyer learned from experience. At Jefferson Farm, invasive species, which are tough competitors, are always waiting in the wings.
“The issue with restoring to open prairie savanna is that it is a created habitat,” Boyer said. “It was a managed ecosystem for 5,000 years. You can’t just plant it and walk away.”
It takes dedication, but Krautmann is convinced landowners want to do the right thing, not just for ecosystem preservation, but also to keep their lands clear, slow down soil erosion, enhance pollinator and wildlife habitat, and give their families and friends a place for relaxation and recreation.
And, he added, there is help available. His project was partially facilitated by volunteers from nonprofit organizations and grants from state and federal agencies that Boyer helped identify.
There’s also a wealth of information on the Heritage website, including instructions on site preparation, creating habitat and weed-control methods.
“Just ask yourself, ‘How much can I bite off?’” Boyer said. “How many acres can I touch, fix to the best of my ability and maintain? That’s what everyone has to figure out.”
There are many reasons to restore the prairie habitat — ecological, legal, historical, ethical — but perhaps more fundamentally, they’re beautiful.
“When people have the opportunity to walk through a Willamette Valley prairie, they are amazed,” Soll said. “You think of Oregon and you think of Douglas fir forest, and I love that. But there’s something about oaks and the grass moving and grassland birds chirping and wildflowers blooming that moves me, and I know it does other people, too.”