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Idaho researcher touts low-water turf grass, wild flower

By John O’Connell

Capital Press

A University of Idaho native plant program out of the Aberdeen Research and Extension Center has high hopes for commercializing a native turf grass and Indian paintbrush.

ABERDEEN, Idaho — A University of Idaho Extension horticulturalist anticipates strong commercial demand for a low-water, native turf grass that his program selected from wild Idaho fescue.

Stephen Love, a scientist with the UI Aberdeen Research and Extension Center, said the grass is the product of a research effort started in 2005 in Aberdeen to enhance low-water landscaping options by improving plants found in the Intermountain West.

UI struck a partnership in 2011 with Conservation Seeding and Restoration, Inc., based in Kimberly, Idaho, to commercially market plants developed from the program. In return, CSR has vowed to contribute $30,000 to the research program over seven years and will give 5 percent of sales to UI.

UI has already transferred 109 potential products to CSR, which is marketing them under the subsidiary Native Roots, and the company commenced with selling more than 30 of the initial varieties this winter.

Love said his fescue is narrow-leafed and has an ideal texture, has a much darker color than other native grasses on the market, doesn’t turn brown during the heat of summer and can survive with roughly half the water standard turfs require.

“Drought-tolerant and native turf, there’s an endless need for it,” Love said.

CSR already offers a mix of native, low-water grass seed that includes Idaho fescue, but company owner Steve Paulsen expects that mix will be replaced by Love’s fescue, which would grow more uniformly and lay flat, providing softer turf. He anticipates the turf will be popular among home owners eager to significantly cut back watering and mowing, as well as municipalities seeking efficient turf options for public spaces.

“We’ve never had the consistency this offers,” Paulsen said.

Paulsen hopes to find Idaho hay farmers who will help his company raise its Idaho fescue seed for commercial sale. Love, who started developing the fescue in 2009, anticipates supplies could be increased enough to support commercial sales within four years.

Love and Paulsen also have high hopes for a collaborative project to propagate the popular native wildflower Indian paintbrush with greater success and consistency. Paulsen explained the wildflower is hemi-parasitic, meaning it can draw some of its own nourishment but its roots must also tap a host plant to survive and thrive.

CSR developed a method of pairing newly germinated Indian paintbrush with certain long-lived perennials and woody plants by raising them together and transplanting them as a unit with a ball of intermingled roots. In Aberdeen, Love has been selecting for vibrant plants that consistently reach a desired height and profile. Native Roots expects to sell potted plants containing paintbrush to wholesalers within three years.

“I think that particular product has unlimited potential,” Love said.


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