Coeur d’Alene Nursery and upland wildflowers

Harbor view of Coeur d’Alene lake.

It is not often that I get to spend the entirety of a day surrounded by millions (yes, millions!) of tree, shrub, and forb seedlings. We were sent to collect 1,096 wildflower starts from the US Forest Service Coeur d’Alene Nursery to plant in southeast Idaho for forb island research promoted by the Caribou-Targhee National Forest botanist, Rose Lehman, and Rocky Mountain Research Station (RMRS). This nursery is a force to be reckoned with. It consists of a seed extractory, germination facility, large cold storage warehouse, extensive land for tree reserves, and current forest health research sites. They also have roughly 20 greenhouses fully stocked with various conifer species such as: white bark pine (Pinus albicaulis), western larch (Larix sp.), and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa). One conifer greenhouse can hold up to 1.2 millions seedlings! Additionally, they have four native plant greenhouses filled to the brim with multiple species including: kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.), and black elderberry (Sambucus racemosa). These plants are grown for various projects throughout Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, and Utah for reforestation, landscaping, timber sales, and forest conservation. 

One of the four native plant greenhouses.
A glorious representation of ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) seedlings.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos sp.) plugs being grown for a wildlife corridor in Washington.
Black elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) is being grown extensively at the nursery. We were all impressed with how productive the flats are.

The main goal of the trip was to arrive early enough to individually pack each one of the wildflower seedlings needed to complete the restoration project south of Idaho Falls on the Curlew National Grassland at the end of the week. The initiative is working to establish native plant zones in a low elevation, sagebrush-steppe landscape by hand-planting the following forbs: parsnip buckwheat (Eriogonum heracleoides var. heracleoides), curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), tansy aster (Machaeranthera canescens), low beardtongue (Penstemon humilis), and tapertip hawksbeard (Crepis acuminata). These flowers provide strong pollinator habitat, upland establishment, and tender forage for sage-grouse chicks. The chicks thrive off of the insects found on wildflower species and often use the vegetation for shelter. 

Orchestrating a planting operation like the Coeur d’Alene Nursery is beyond impressive. Seedlings are documented from the beginning of their seed collection, through gestation, germination, upsizing, transplanting, and then their shipment. Every flat, in every greenhouse, has a barcode that provides a timeline and location for the individuals. It acts as an electronic paper trail for each organism on the property. For our specific project, we were able to see the final stages of a plant’s life at the nursery. This consists of collecting the flats, removing them from their plugs, getting rid of any dead leaf matter, cleaning the root bases by trimming them with scissors, compiling them into plastic bags, and placing them safely into large shipping boxes. We loaded them into the chiller for the evening so they would remain properly hydrated until we picked them up the following day.

Example of removing plugs from their flat and trimming the ends before bagging them up. This is curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa).
Olivia Turner is cleaning off dead leaf matter off of curly cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) to ensure the individuals look fresh for their long journey to the Curlew National Grassland.
One of seven boxes each filled with 200 or so wildflower seedlings for our restoration planting.

Overall, this was an incredibly successful trip and partnership! Each one of our chosen species grew with great success which ensured we could get them to the restoration project safely. We were able to see a very small snippet into what it means to facilitate active plant conservation on a national forest scale. Learning that there are only six national forest nurseries made us both overwhelmed with the importance of these facilities. I certainly look forward to future opportunities that allow me to be involved with any one of these nurseries.

To learn more about what came next for these plants and the planting process for our project, check out my co-intern Olivia Turner’s recent blog post, “A Planting Frenzy”.

Here’s to working for three more weeks in such a special place!

Claire Parsons

Caribou-Targhee National Forest, S.O.

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