Native plants thrive if meant for Montana: A foundation for life – Missoula Current

Kevin Moriarty/Missoula Current
CHARLO – As the sun rises over the mountains, Elliott Conrad is busy watering the vast assortment of plants available for sale at his nursery. Conrad methodically pours water over each plant he owns, all 110 species, without missing one.
Conrad’s nursery is unlike others. Every plant grown here is native to the five valleys region of Montana, encompassing Missoula and the surrounding area. Many of the plants for sale are not much more than a few inches tall at this point, in large part because Conrad grows his plants from seeds that he collects himself.
To collect seeds for his nursery, Conrad said he starts in the spring by wandering around while noting the different locations where plants are growing. Throughout the year, he revisits the sites and collects seeds if the plant is flowering.
A tedious process, but Conrad doesn’t seem to mind any of the work involved with growing or maintaining native plants.
“Usually when I'm hiking or going for a run or something, it's because I need to go get seeds,” said Conrad as he cracks a smile.
Conrad’s nursery, Pipilo Native Plants, is named after the Pipilo maculatus, a species of sparrow that rely on Montana’s native plants for food and shelter. Conrad started his business four years ago in Missoula, but after he discovered a passion for growing native plants, his small yard quickly ran out of space.
One of the biggest challenges that Conrad faces with growing native plants is the lack of information that exists for many of the species he grows. Conrad has a good understanding of plant biology, but in many cases, he said getting a seed to germinate can be difficult because every plant has different needs.
Many seeds need pretreatment before they will sprout, meaning they need to sit dormant in a cold, dark setting that mimics a Montana winter for about six months. Conrad stores seeds in his refrigerator over the fall and winter months and many begin to sprout in the spring.
However, some seeds have to sit dormant for even longer, needing two winter seasons before they will begin to sprout.
“For each species, that prevents them from sprouting at a bad time,” said Conrad, “It’s almost like a little timer, they need six months of cold, damp before they even consider opening.”
For Conrad, getting seeds to germinate often comes down to trial and error, and keeping good notes. Conrad sells most of his plants online and delivers them to a pickup point in Missoula since his nursery is an hour from the city.
Demand for native plants has been growing at nurseries around Missoula, but true local native plants, like the ones Conrad grows, are still in short supply. The definition of native varies depending on who you ask. Larger nurseries often carry plants that are native to the entire Western United States, but not necessarily Montana.
Most of Western Montana’s native plant species fall under the category of grasses, forbes or shrubs. Being native to this area makes these plants tough and many can survive with little water during the summer and fall.
When it comes to landscaping in Missoula, native plants will certainly make things easier in terms of watering needs and may not even require fertilizer.
“They are perfectly tailored to the environment, assuming you put them in the right spot.” said Conrad, “They expect a super wet spring, they expect a super dry summer, they expect a cold winter.”
Peter Lesica, who has been a botanist in the state of Montana for over 35 years, agrees with him.
“Those plants are adapted to this kind of environment, this kind of climate, so you don’t have to fuss over them so much,” said Lesica, “If you plant an azalea, you’ve got to pay attention or it’s going to croak off on you.”
Just outside of the Oval on the University of Montana campus is the Montana Native Botanic Garden. The garden was started in 1967 and features over 300 plant species, all native to the state of Montana.
Kelly Chadwick has been volunteering at the Montana Native Botanic Garden for nearly four decades while working as a gardener in the university center for most of that time.
She said in many ways the purpose of the garden is to display the diversity of Montana’s native plants, and demonstrate that they do well, and look appealing in a garden setting.
Plants in the Montana Native Botanic Garden are grouped according to the type of environment they would be found in and represent plant communities from across the state.
“There's a lot of people who are, you know, older who can't go out and see bitterroots anymore, but we can show them bitterroots in the garden,” said Chadwick.
It’s late summer, and the garden is alive with insects buzzing to and from flowering plants, particularly the golden rod. The plant looks even more alive as insects crawl along the stems and flowers and hover above the bright yellow plant.
Plants and pollinators depend on one another for survival. Flowering plants provide a food source for native pollinators, while insects like bees and beetles transfer pollen to other plants, fertilizing them in the process.
“Plants are the foundation for so many other things.” said Teagan Hayes, president of the Clark Fork chapter of the Montana Native Plant Society. “Birds and other animal species are adapted to using these native plants for food, for shelter and just for places to rest.”
When starting a native plant garden, Chadwick recommends starting small.
“Don’t overwhelm yourself," he said. "Start small so it’s controllable and manageable and see how you do.”
Another important factor is managing weeds. Clearing the intended planting area of any weeds or grass is crucial.
“A native garden can be pretty easy, unless you are fighting weeds," Chadwick said. "Grass is your big enemy.”
The Montana Native Plant Society has resources available on their website covering the ins and outs of native plant landscaping in west-central Montana including a list of recommended species for the area.