Required use in mitigation projects, blossoming popularity by homeowners leading to resurgence of many of these species — and a boom for those far-thinking nurseries that saw the trend coming
For many years, Todd Jones, a nurseryman in Whatcom County since 1978, spent his days happily growing and selling ornamental plants.
In the late 1980s, however, he noticed, little by little, certain species of native plants — long considered weeds by some in the business — were growing in popularity with his customers. So he gradually began shifting his focus at Fourth Corner Nurseries to native plants, setting him apart from many other nurseries.
“I think we were in the right place at the right time because demand started to pick up,” recalled Jones on a recent warm afternoon, as he sipped bottled water inside a farmhouse overlooking his 70-some acres of native plants on Sands Road.
Around the same time Jones was finding value in native plants, so were many state, county and local governments. Wetlands, which for years had been afterthoughts, while homes, businesses and roads were built on them, were starting to be recognized for their environmental significance.
Today, native plants are required in numerous areas of development, such as wetland mitigation, streambed-restoration and stormwater-runoff projects. Meanwhile, plenty of homeowners have come to appreciate native species in their gardens.
For many nurseries that supply native plants for these projects, including Jones’, business is, well, blossoming.
At Fourth Corner, one of the state’s largest wholesale growers of native plants, trees and shrubs, the nursery last year had its best year, shipping more than 1 million plants.
And just as important as the company’s success, employees said, is ensuring native plants remain part of the landscape.
“My customers are the people who are out there daily doing this work and it’s really inspiring to me to talk to these people,” said Fourth Corner botanist Julie Whitacre. “They’re making our streams healthy, getting our wildlife back to healthy populations and trying to maintain and find ways that people can live here and maintain healthy habitat.”
Whitacre said the three biggest consumers of native plants are developers doing wetlands mitigation, conservation groups doing habitat recovery, and homeowners, respectively.
For developers, Whitacre explained, there are myriad reasons to maintain healthy wetlands.
“Native plants can be a really important sponge that keeps our rainwater in the land and releases it slowly, so streams run all year round,” she said. “Whereas if you don’t have the wetlands, all the rainwater runs into the streams and runs out faster, and then they’re dry in the summer. That’s really hard on our fish because the streams don’t have enough water for them.”
In addition, she said, when there’s wetland mitigation, or native plants are planted near streams, the plants’ roots can help absorb chemicals from roads and parking lots after rainfalls, before they reach streams.
For habitat recovery groups, Whitacre said, native plants are planted along streambanks to provide shade for salmon and to keep the water at colder temperatures, which salmon prefer. The root systems of native plants also help hold streambanks together and keep them from eroding.
Darrell Gray, a project manager with the Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association, a longtime Fourth Corner customer, said native plants are key to the restoration work done by his organization and others like it.
For example, when restoring a stream, he said, there’s no sense introducing new species.
“We’re pretty much just going back in and trying to replant with the native plants that would’ve grown there naturally,” he said. “You could assume (native plants) are best suited because they’re the ones that have evolved and adapted over thousands of years. The habitat evolves with the plants. Salmon, insects and other flora and fauna all evolved with these plants and it’s all very tied together.”
While developers and habitat restoration groups make up the largest percentage of native-plant buyers, Whitacre said there continues to be a steady increase in homeowners who prefer the natives.
“I think (locally) it’s part of the population density in Washington,” Whitacre said. “When we still had lots of native plants around, people thought, ‘Oh, we’ve just got to clear it.’ Now that we’re so heavily urbanized and suburbanized, with the loss of our native plants people are starting to take more notice of them. They say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to lose that.’ You just have to lose them before you appreciate them.”
On the retail side of native-plant sales, Nancy Henshaw, co-owner of Kent’s Garden & Nursery, who buys her native stock from Fourth Corner, said increased interest in her native selection has coincided with the county’s building boom.
“I think people are more concerned about the development around here and articles that have pointed out how some plants have brought in different insects and are not feeding our birds,” she said. “People want to stay true to the natives.”
Also, said Henshaw, some natives can be cheaper and easier to maintain because they’re accustomed to wet winters and dry summers.
Cheryl Thornton, co-owner of Cloud Mountain Farm, which has been growing and selling some natives for about 15 years, said native plants account for about 10 percent of her stock and business.
While not too many of her retail customers seek all-native landscapes, “people do like to mix and match,” she said.
For Fourth Corner, bringing native plants to the masses has required much more than simply propagating at its Sands Road farm and selling plants wholesale at its Bakerview Road nursery.
Because Fourth Corner sells plants that are “native” to areas other than the Pacific Northwest, one of its botanists, Rich Haard, is constantly flying to different regions to collect seeds.
Fourth Corner then grows the seeds locally and customers, though the company’s catalogue or web site, 4th-corner-nurseries.com, can tell company officials exactly what plants they want. A minimum order is $100, while orders from agencies like the U.S. Forest Service or Dept. of Transportation can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Because the business has been built on an indexed seed collection, “that means when someone orders a plant, we can tell them exactly where the seed came from,” Jones said. “Some customers, like the U.S. Forest Service, can be very fussy and want everything to be within a very narrow area, like within a certain watershed — they want the seed to be that specific.”
Currently, Fourth Corner grows 500 species. Among the most popular with customers are Oregon Grapes, Serviceberries, Douglas firs, Western Red Cedars, Redtwig Dogwoods, Salmonberries and Small-fruit Bullrush.
In addition to Whitacre and Haard, Jones also employs Karen Brimacombe as a botanist, and has 14 other year-round employees who process plants, putting them in bundles and packaging them for shipment.
Jones, who declined to share his gross profits, said he’s having his best year financially. He attributes the success to the region’s building boom.
“The whole nursery industry is an adjunct to the housing industry, so as long as the housing
and construction industries are booming, nurseries, in general, tend to do well,” he said. “I think there’ll be a demand for native plants even without a lot of construction because of salmon-enhancement and restoration groups.”
While Jones has benefited from the construction craze, he said the most fulfilling part of his job is to be a part of one of Whatcom County’s oldest industries — agriculture.
“I get to work with some very interesting people and participate in the agricultural community in Whatcom County, which is wonderful,” Jones said. “It’s a good group of people and a healthy part of the economy. And I get to produce a commodity that I feel there’s a great need for and helps the environment.”