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Restoration of native plants gets a boost

TUALATIN — It's an unassuming little nursery, tucked behind an elementary school. And it is about as low-tech as it gets, with one staff member relying heavily on volunteers for the painstaking work needed to harvest and nurture wildflowers, grasses and wetland plants.

Nonetheless, Metro's Native Plant Center is the foundation for hundreds of acres of habitat restoration in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

Workers glean seeds of native plants in the wild and grow the plants to produce more seeds, or to transplant to the agency's 12,000 acres of parks and natural areas, like the newly opened Cooper Mountain Nature Park on the southern edge of Beaverton and Gotter Prairie, in Scholls. At Gotter Prairie, an old potato field and grass pastures are being restored to wet prairie.

The Tualatin center also propagates rare and endangered natives, such as the threatened Nelson's checker mallow and the endangered white rock larkspur.

"We're imitating nature," said Marsha Holt-Kingsley, the center's manager and only staff member.

The center shares space with a satellite Metro office and storage for heavy equipment. Old plum, apple and cherry trees line the driveway, and the Tualatin River borders its northern edge. Deer, birds and other wildlife are drawn to the hedgerows and stands of trees. The center opened five years ago. Holt-Kingsley, a former commercial nursery manager who was an AmeriCorps volunteer with Metro, was charged with making it grow.

The nursery includes a greenhouse for seedlings, a barn for storage and seed sorting, and a small field, filled with rows of grasses and plants in various stages of growth.

The plants grown there — like the silky California oat grass and the flashy golden gumweed — are important for reclaiming land from invasive plants, stabilizing stream banks, luring pollinators and creating habitat for other native species.

Holt-Kingsley said she still is learning about her charges.

"I knew natives, but mostly trees and shrubs," she said. "And I knew propagation. But I didn't know about propagating natives."

Late this spring, Holt-Kingsley and AmeriCorps volunteers Amber Ayers of Portland and Ashby Leavell of Charlottesville, Va., plotted blooming patches of flowers at Cooper Mountain with a global positioning system. Ayers and Leavell returned weekly to chart first blooms, length of bloom and seed ripening to better understand the native plants.

Similar research is being done at other Metro nature sites.

"We want to get a good format and get more volunteers involved," Ayers said.

The brief, intense bloom of wildflowers turned into a treasure hunt. A plant might be invisible one week and gloriously open the next.

"The palette changes every week," Holt-Kingsley said. "Once these plants are out of flower, they disappear into the grass. Because in a month, all this green will be brown."

The nursery beds of wetland plants undergo a similar transformation. Some are lined to hold water, but other beds receive minimal irrigation to mimic normal growing conditions. The brown tendrils of camas and chocolate lilies dry and crumble, while underneath the soil new bulbs form for transplanting.

Lilies flourish at Cooper Mountain after prescribed burns, a management tool also used at Gotter Prairie, a 170-acre plot of wet prairie and oak woodland at the confluence of McFee Creek and the Tualatin River.

Hayfields there yield tufted hair grass, camas and other wildflowers.

"It's a source of lots of the seeds that are used to restore other areas," said Curt Zonick, Metro's natural resource scientist. "We have monitoring plots so we can see how haying, burning and flooding affect the vegetative community. It's tedious, but the things that you do to restore a prairie like that is expensive — you want to make sure you're doing it right."

This spring, students from nearby Athey Creek Middle School visited the plant center. They learned about restoration projects, how the plants were grown and even helped with weeding. Holt-Kingsley said she hopes more schoolchildren will come by the nursery.

"With our projects, there's always learning going on," she said. "This is all science-based. We're working with the scientists, supporting their restoration projects."

There is little downtime.

Winter is planting time. By spring, young plants are transplanted into beds, where they will live for a year before being planted in the wild. Seed gathering at wild areas and at the center begins in June and continues through fall. Mature plants are transplanted at restoration sites in the fall and winter.

And the beds always need weeding, Holt-Kingsley said with a sigh.

On one July morning, a small crew of volunteers harvested seed heads — slow and laborious work and just the first step of an intensive process to clean and preserve the seeds. Conversation and laughter flew over the beds.

"I see this as ecosystem integrity," said volunteer Karen Mathieson of Cedar Mills, who first visited the center for a Saturday work party more than a year ago. "The plant center is integral to the integrity of the ecosystem complexity here."

Working the beds is part quilting bee and part barn-raising, she said. As a passionate gardener now living in an apartment, the volunteering fills a personal need.

"The knowledge that I'm helping this region that I love so much is fantastic," she said. "I no longer have a garden, but I can garden for the world."