Lightning crashes in the Great Basin. A spark flickers into a wildfire; flames incinerate crisp dry vegetation, leaving behind scorched earth. But this blaze eventually simmers down and quiets. After the flames burn out, there’s a key moment in the recovery of this rugged land: Will things return to normal, or veer off on an unnatural path?
Newly barren land in a post-fire Great Basin sets the stage for a struggle. In one corner are the wildflowers, shrubs, and grasses that have grown here for millions of years. In the other, invasive species like cheatgrass, medusahead wildrye, Russian knapweed, leafy spurge, and skeleton weed.
“Aggressive, invasive plants tend to disrupt the natural order in the Great Basin,” said Erik Feibert, an OSU researcher at the Malheur Experiment Station. “After a fire, the land is vulnerable, which allows non-native plants to set seed early and claim land before natives can.”
In this semiarid desert, exotic species are increasingly crowding out native plants, dominating areas that once teemed with a diversity of vegetation and habitat. Many of the invasive plants are highly flammable and others can be toxic to the domestic and wild animals that call the Great Basin home, like cattle, antelope, sage grouse, and deer.
These invasive species hail from locales with similar climates to the Great Basin, but they have become established without a corresponding set of natural enemies, allowing them to prosper without much control.
While fires—and the resulting environmental fallout—can threaten life as usual in the Great Basin, the fat lady has not yet sung. What will ultimately decide which plants rise from the ashes of these wildfires will partly come from the work of researchers at Oregon State University.
Growing wildflowers outside of their natural habitat can be tough, especially when farming them for seed. Growers who try mostly face hassles and headwinds.
Even if farmers wanted to cultivate wildflower seed, many don’t know how to sow and reap it successfully. Plus, there are few buyers who seek the seed, making for fickle prices. Most wildflower species have extremely small seeds that have trouble breaking through hardened soil that turns crusty in winter. The seedlings that beat the odds and establish a stand in spring are vulnerable to birds and bugs looking for a snack.
These challenges have conspired to keep Pacific Northwest farmers growing crops that make more financial sense, thus keeping the supply of wildflower seed low.
As a result, scorched Great Basin rangelands were traditionally restored with native and non-native grasses, which take hold in the soil much easier than wildflowers—but can turn formerly diverse areas into spans of homogeneous vegetation.
Then, about a decade ago, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) set out to change this pattern. But, with little grower knowledge of how to grow wildflowers, few willing to take the risk to do it, and no market for the seed, the BLM supposed that restoring fire-scarred tracts of the Great Basin must start with the basics: new research and a lot of experiments.
Since 2006, scientists at the Malheur Experiment Station (MES) in Ontario have tested and developed agronomic procedures for over 40 species of wildflower seed, including western prairie clover, sulphur-flower buckwheat, basalt milkvetch, sand penstemon, and many other annuals and perennials.
With Forest Service and BLM funding, OSU researchers are helping to write the book on how to grow wildflower seed by testing techniques in planting, irrigation, weed and pest control, harvesting, and seed cleaning. OSU’s findings are paired with research from other institutions that’s part of the Great Basin Native Plant Selection and Increase Program, which in turn is allied to the Great Basin Restoration Initiative.
“Private farmers can’t afford to experiment with wildflowers on their own and waste their time trying things that don’t work,” said Clint Shock, superintendent of MES since 1984. “Growing these plants can be pretty tricky, so our experiments will show growers how to get started and keep going.”
Ontario’s dry desert climate is similar to swaths of the Great Basin, a colossal 75-million-acre watershed that stretches over most of Nevada and portions of Utah, California, Idaho, Wyoming, and Oregon. It features the lowest (Death Valley) and highest points (Mount Whitney) in the lower 48 and all manner of ecoregions in between, where diverse flora thrive—including a dense catalog of North American wildflowers.
Raising wildflower seed outside of this wide range of natural Great Basin habitats is a constant balancing act, especially on farms.
There’s almost no leeway in when to sow. The seed cannot be buried too deep because of its small size; if planted too shallow, it dries out or becomes bird food. Seeds must spend two to three months in moist, close-to-freezing soils. After the snow melts, the seed starts to germinate. But once breaching the soil, the seedlings are vulnerable.
While there are some similarities among the 40-plus varieties OSU is testing, each species requires a different regimen of care: some species need 8 inches of irrigation while others produce just as much seed with no water. Harvest dates are all over the calendar. Some can withstand a combine, while others can only be cut by hand.
“The varieties that can have their seed production figured out easily, those don’t come here. We only get the problem children, the ones that are valuable but whose production hasn’t been solved. Those are shipped here for us to take care of,” said Shock, laughing among rows of carefully planted wildflowers in various stages of growth.
OSU researchers have found a fabric permeable to water and sunlight that can be used as a row cover for wildflowers. If used correctly, this aid can provide a nurturing environment for seed emergence while helping to stave off weather damage.
As you read this, OSU’s tests are ongoing. Researchers at MES collect data on each species for about four or more years—enough time to get a handle on the plant’s agronomy, Shock says—and then publish their findings in academic journals, Extension bulletins, and public domains online.
Now, with OSU’s help, over 50 private growers in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington grow the wildflower seed, a vast improvement from just a decade ago.
In the meantime, BLM is improving the supply side. With commercial supplies of wildflower seed not always available, the agency is compiling a seed bank by purchasing from farmers every year—not just when there’s a fire.
“Farmers used to rely on fires to make money on wildflower seed,” said Feibert, who oversees OSU’s native plant trials. “In years with no fires, we’re hopeful that the government will try to stabilize the market so farmers are compelled to keep planting.”
Back in the Great Basin, wildfires will continue, as will the wrestling match between native and exotic plants. But these days it’s more of a fair fight: native wildflowers now have OSU’s research, dozens of dedicated growers, and seeds in the hopper.