In appreciation of native plants

What began 10 years ago as a way to restore habitat through the San Juans has developed into a full-fledged native plant nursery.

“The Land Bank and San Juan Preservation Trust joined forces to create this because we wanted plants and seeds of local species for our restoration projects and we just could not get them. They were not available, at least not easily,” Eliza Habegger, project manager, explained. Gathering seeds directly from the local plants turned out to be ideal.

‘We really want to grow local types of these plants because they are so well adapted to our climate and local conditions. So we started by collecting seeds in the wild. Then we grow the seeds in the nursery,” she said. Some plants take five or more years to grow from seed to flowering.

Staff members of both organizations put their heads together and decided to attempt to grow them themselves. The Preservation Trust, a non-profit with the mission to “conserve the natural beauty, vital ecosystems, and unique character of the San Juan Islands for future generations, care for the lands and waters under our protection, with our partners, connect people to nature, to each other, and to the Preservation Trust,” according to the website.

The Preservation Trust provides the land and facility at San Juan Valley, while the Land Trust provides the labor and runs the operation. “Over the years with grants and private donations we have built this awesome workshed, put in irrigation and power,” Habegger said. The site rests between working farms, cattle watch and graze beyond the nursery fence while Habegger and staff tend to the seeds and bulbs.

Shooting stars and fawn lilies are already blooming, with camas and chocolate lilies ready to pop as soon as the weather warms a few more degrees.

Many of the plants, like camas, grow in grassland, prairie habitats or oak savannahs.

“The plants aren’t technically rare,” Habegger explained. “So much of their habitat has been lost or converted to other uses that they need help. Camas is a good example. It was grown by the Coast Salish people who maintained habitat for it. It was tended by people for thousands of years.” Camas, she continued, is a culturally significant plant as well as an important pollinator plant.

Being key pollinator plants is another common feature. Bumble bees, of which there are several species, are just one insect attracted to many native plants. Bumble bees will pollinate shooting stars by “buzz pollination” using the frequency of the vibration in their buzz causing the flower to release the pollen. Watch when a bumble lands on a plant, and when it gives off a tell-tale bzzzz, it’s likely using the magic of its wings to coax more pollen from the plant. It isn’t just handy in the wild either, buzz pollination is used on tomato plants and other commercial plants as well.

When asked if she had concerns about how local plants will fare with climate change, Habegger responded that while all may not do well, others would likely either find a niche to hang into, while others may actually thrive.

“These plants have been here a long time, and they’ve been through some climate changes already. They also have the ability to evolve, adapt, or find places in the landscape where they can continue to live. While we suspect not everything is going to make it, I’m personally not willing to give up on plants that have been here for thousands of years” Habegger said. “They are not helpless, they do have genetic variability and have already adapted to a place that has really dry summers,. They’re adapted to a maritime setting and other aspects of an island setting.”

Oaks, in fact, were more abundant during eras of a warmer climate and would like adapt well to warming temperatures. Habegger pointed to a patch of Spring Gold as another example. Spring Gold is in the carrot family. The plant doesn’t grow very tall, and when the foliage is crushed it releases a parsley-like scent. “These plants bloom very early while there is still moisture. They die back to the ground in a couple of months and they are dormant for the whole summer. They don’t need water during the summer,” Habegger said. “Their root system is deep underground surviving the hot temperatures. When the fall rains start in September, October or November they spring back to life and green up for the winter. Their lifecycle is really suited to a climate with a wet winter and dry summer.”

The nursery over the years has become successful enough that each September they hold a native plant sale where residents on each island can buy native plants. Salish Seeds has sold out each year. That doesn’t mean the nursery is turning a profit – those funds go back into the cost of running the organization. This year the Department of Natural Resources has ordered 10,000 little plants for restoration projects.

For those interested, there are several tours scheduled.

April 21: Habegger will lead two, one-hour tours through the Salish Seeds Project nursery located at the San Juan Preservation Trust’s Red Mill Farm. Habegger will share the challenges and rewards of growing our local wildflowers in habitats ranging from a pot on the deck to a restoration project.

Email to register for one of the two tour timeslots or for more information.

Tour One: 1 to 2 p.m.

Tour Two: 2 to 3 p.m.

April 24 and May 1: Habegger reprises her popular “Lawn Be Gone” workshop at Driggs Park describing how to replace your lawn with a patch of native wildflowers. During this in-person, one-hour workshop, you’ll learn how the Land Bank has converted 500 square feet of lawn into a meadow of 30 plant species, all native to the San Juans.

Email to register for a workshop or for more information.

April 24 Workshop: 5 to 6 p.m.

May 1 Workshop: 5 to 6 p.m.

April 18 is the first Third Thursday of 2024. Join Habegger and staff at the Red Mill Farm nursery for the full three hours – 9 a.m. to Noon – or drop in as time allows. RSVP’s welcome, but not required.

Interest has been continuing to grow around local species. Habegger wanted to make clear anyone can grow them, even if a pot on their deck. “People want to grow native plants because they know that we are learning it just makes sense. They are the best thing there is for local wildlife and pollinators. And they are really beautiful too,” said Habegger.

Heather Spaulding \ Staff photo

Heather Spaulding \ Staff photo

Heather Spaulding \ Staff photo

Heather Spaulding \ Staff photo

Heather Spaulding Staff photo
Chocolate lilies buds ready to burst wide open.

Heather Spaulding Staff photo Chocolate lilies buds ready to burst wide open.