Pacific Southwest Region
Native Treasures: Forest Service propagates, showcases plants
By Laura Christman
Posted July 2, 2010
Fragrant evening primrose is a favorite of Forest Service botanist Twyla Miller. She says the Native Plant Interpretive Garden in Mount Shasta shows visitors how beautiful many native plants can be. Photo by Laura Christman, Record Searchlight.
A small pond in the garden is bordered by native plants, such as Indian rhubarb, that grow near water.
Common woolly sunflower creates bands of yellow in the garden.
The garden includes different plant communities. Mountain pride is a penstemon that grows in harsh, rocky conditions.
Native plant seeds and cuttings are propagated in the small greenhouse next to Shasta-Trinity National Forest’s Shasta-McCloud Management Unit in Mount Shasta.
Shasta penstemon, foreground, and sulfur buckwheat complement each other in the garden.
Deep in the woods, high on mountains and along meadows, seeds are gathered and cuttings snipped. These botanical beginnings are taken to an 18-by-36-foot greenhouse in Mount Shasta and coaxed to life. Which isn’t always easy — native plants can be rather demanding about sprouting. Some like sandy, rocky soils; others prefer loamy, duffy dirt. Some seeds insist on a period of cold moistness, others require six months of dryness.
U.S. Forest Service botanist Twyla Miller is well aware of what each of her botanical charges needs. Under her care 10,000 to 30,000 plants are grown annually in the small greenhouse at Shasta-Trinity National Forest’s Shasta-McCloud Management Unit. When the plants get big enough, they are transplanted in the places where the seeds and cuttings were originally gathered. The plants have a genetic connection to the location.
“The native species are adapted to the site,” Miller said.
The seed-to-plant effort brings heather, lupine, yarrow, spirea, oaks, conifers and many other native plants to areas that have been scraped, burned, logged or trampled.
The plants look nice, hold the soil, attract bees and butterflies and provide food and cover for other wild creatures. They also keep invasive plants in check.
“If you denude a site, one of the first things to come in is noxious weeds,” Miller said.
There are only two Forest Service specialty native plant greenhouses in California, Miller said. The other is in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California.
Small batches of native plants, including a few rare plants such as Shasta pincushion and Shasta snow-wreath, are grown in the Mount Shasta greenhouse. Miller said the greenhouse deals with fewer and more labor-intensive plants than commercial growers, who provide conifers and other plants for reforesting large areas that have been burned or harvested. While up to 30,000 plants are grown at the Mount Shasta greenhouse in a year, commercial growers “grow in the millions,” Miller noted.
The propagation program was launched in 1993 with a $10,000 grant from the McConnell Foundation in Redding. “That’s what kicked off the whole program,” Miller said. “And we are so appreciative of that.”
The first project was to help plant communities at Panther Meadows, a heavily used area on Mt. Shasta that is important to American Indian tribes. Miller continues to work with volunteers from local tribes to help ensure the health of plants valued by native cultures.
From its Panther Meadows beginning, the propagation program expanded to other locations. Plants have been grown for roadsides, environmental mitigation sites, campgrounds and Altoona Mine, a federal Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site west of Castella.
The program is funded through the Forest Service’s Native Plant Materials and Restoration Program and from projects it does for the state Department of Transportation and other agencies or organizations. It leans heavily on volunteers, who weed, mulch, gather seeds and transplant. The Youth Conservation Corps also provides hands-on work.
“Our program depends on the YCC,” Miller said.
The program expanded in a new direction in 2008 when a half-acre native plant display garden was planted next to the greenhouse. The Native Plant Interpretive Garden is part of the People’s Garden Initiative, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that challenges its employees to create gardens that connect with communities. Among the goals are attracting native pollinators, using water wisely and gardening without chemicals.
A native plant garden does all that, Miller said. Native plants are adapted to the area. They aren’t prone to diseases and pests, so they don’t need pesticides and fungicides to thrive. Most get by on very little water. They draw lots of native butterflies and bees. And they can be quite beautiful.
“So many people think that native plants aren’t pretty. That’s a fallacy,” Miller said. “Some are subtle, but some are absolutely gorgeous.”
The plants in the display garden back her up. The place is popping with colorful flowers right now.
Miller hopes that when people see how beautiful native plants can be, they will consider growing native plants in their home landscapes. But the main mission of the garden is to increase awareness and appreciation of the native plants north state residents might see growing in the wild. The garden highlights the area’s varied plant communities, such as serpentine-soil plants that willingly grow in harsh conditions — soils low in calcium and nitrogen, and with heavy metals.
“I would like people to realize there are some gorgeous plants out there,” Miller said.
The garden, near the intersection of Pine and West Alma streets, is open to the public, but because it is a working operation, Miller asks that those who want to visit call her at 926-9660 to arrange a time.
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