Unlocking the secrets of native plants

Believe it or not, growing native plants is difficult. It seems crazy, right? I mean, they’ve existed here for thousands of years without any human help. Essentially, the issue is that growing native plants in nurseries is difficult – they haven’t really been domesticated/cultivated/bred by humans and have a lot of wild traits that sometimes defy our ability to make them behave the way we want them to. It’s not easy for native plants to sit above ground with their roots trapped in pots without access to the microbial partners found in soils, not to mention being bound to our production schedules.

At Oxbow, our mission is to get more native plants out on the land. We accomplish this by growing and selling native plants, of course, but perhaps you didn’t know that much of our work involves investigating ways to make it easier to grow natives, and sharing that information widely to help more people in the region grow natives. We do this through both informal applied and formal research conducted here at Oxbow’s Native Plant Nursery.

Ongoing applied research in the NPN

At this time, our research is focused on two broad areas: seed propagation and organic growing methods.

Many native plant species have seeds that don’t germinate easily. There are all sorts of complicated processes, some poorly understood, that need to happen to trigger germination; in some cases, it can be difficult or even impossible to find information about certain species. Each season, we look closely at 20 or so species and compare multiple propagation methods As much as possible, we aim to unlock the plants’ germination secrets and share what we learn in a way that’s accessible to all growers, making it easier for natives to be more widely grown.

Though our farm is certified organic, our nursery is not. In fact, very few nurseries operate within organic standards, but Oxbow is working towards using all organic practices in our production of native plants. Again, we’ve found a lack of information regarding organic practices in a greenhouse/container nursery, so we hope to contribute to this field with the results of our trials and serve as a resource for others to use our practices. One of our major focuses for the next few years is finding organic fertilizer products that will work well in a greenhouse setting.

Fellowship program

Additionally, Oxbow provides a very unique Fellowship program through Oregon State University. Masters students  spend part of their school year at Oxbow, focusing their thesis work on a project that aligns with the work and mission of Oxbow, as well as spending time on nursery projects and daily tasks. This year’s students are focused on work with native plant production, performing formal research on species of interest.

Matt Davis joins us this year for a second season, working with a species of significant ecological and cultural importance, great camas (Camassia lechtlinii), from our Puget Sound prairie ecosystem. Based on the knowledge that excessive fertilizer application during plant propagation can be detrimental to both the plant and the environment, Matt is exploring fertilization methods in growing camas. His objective is to determine how nitrogen, both inside and outside the plant, affects the way that great camas moves nitrogen to different parts of the plant. He hopes this research will allow him to make recommendations to growers on when to apply nitrogen fertilizer to native bulb species.

New to the Oxbow team this year, Christina St John is investigating the germination and growth requirements of two woody plants important for restoration projects. She will look at pre-germination treatments for snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), a somewhat finicky germinator, that would allow it to germinate faster and more reliably in the nursery. Christina is also working with the Hispaniola pine (Pinus occidentalis), a species native to heavily deforested Haiti. She will trial different pre-germination treatments for increasing the germination rate and fertilization rates for maximizing the tree’s outplanting success. Hispaniola pine is an important ecological component of forests and has the potential to be harvested commercially, bringing much needed economic opportunities to rural communities in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

We’re happy to have them on our team!