Associated Press

ABERDEEN, Idaho (AP) -- University of Idaho scientist Stephen Love says forays into the state's backcountry have taught him the most inhospitable territory is often home to remarkable beauty.

The sandy soil of Owyhee County, in Idaho's remote southwest, fills with brilliant penstemon each spring. Up in Seven Devils country near Hell's Canyon, Indian paintbrush and pink-belled mountain heather blanket the landscape from horizon to horizon. In the mountains above Bear Lake where Idaho, Wyoming and Utah meet and plants must endure the region's arctic winter, guardian buckwheat clings to the rocky earth like a climber hanging on for dear life.

Every year, Love scouts these remote locals for promising specimens whose seeds he can harvest and bring back to the fields at the UI Research Center in Aberdeen in southern Idaho.

After spending most of his 25-year career helping develop new potato varieties like the Clearwater Russet, Love is taking that same scientific rigor and injecting it into native plants of the northern Rocky Mountains, in hopes of cultivating progeny that will thrive in a more domestic setting, go easy on the water in a parched climate and eventually help plant retailers aiming to capitalize on interest in sustainable gardening.

"What is needed is a more consistent product. I'm applying those scientific principles to select the best plants," Love told The Associated Press while standing in his four-acre test field just north of the Snake River. "We keep them if they're garden worthy. If not, the shovel goes to work and they are discarded."

Love started the program in 2004; this year, he did field tests on about 600 species.

After five seasons of annual selections, some individual plants he and other UI scientists including Tom Salaiz have grown are nearing the point where they'll be ready for the commercial greenhouse.

"Over the five years, we may have planted a hundred individuals" of one species, Salaiz said. "Five years later, we may be down to 10 that really look good. Of those 10, maybe only one of them will be good enough to make it in the industry."

Traditional ornamental gardening has often focused on exotic plants imported from the eastern United States, Europe and Asia that are ill-suited to the weather extremes of the West's high desert.

In fact, Love said, European gardeners are more likely than Americans to cultivate the descendants of Rocky Mountain plants like penstemon, after 19th-century botanist-adventurers descended on the West with their collection sacks and lugged the resulting bounty back across the Atlantic.

It's a more recent phenomenon that this region's drought-weary residents rediscovered plants from their own backyards, said Susie Kohler, of the Salt Lake City-based Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association, which maintains a seed bank for its members.

"The plant industry has been hybridizing and propagating plants for hundreds of years, where people have found some wonderful specimens they like in some dark corner of the world and brought them back to their own gardens," Kohler said. "Plant material in the Intermountain West is really beautiful. Sometimes when something is right under your own feet, you don't think of it as beautiful."

This past summer, Love transported 50 plants of 14 different species that showed promise during his field tests to the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise. They'll be tested over the next three years here on the rocky slopes above the state's old sandstone penitentiary, to be evaluated for a possible release to nurseries.

Among the plants Love sent: hummingbird-luring agastache from Wyoming and New Mexico, daintily flowered buckwheats from Idaho and Utah, even a Nevada columbine.

The plants that survive trials must have to have robust flowers or foliage, grow predictably under commercial production regimes -- and thrive with just a third the water demanded by traditional gardens.

"Steve and I are both very happy with the buckwheat -- that's probably on the top of the list," said Salaiz.

Not everything goes just as the Idaho scientists hope.

Take finicky Indian paintbrush, also known as prairie fire for the way it lights up meadows and slopes with flowers that seem dipped in red and gold. Gardeners have long struggled to cultivate them, largely because the plants rely on a nearby companion -- sage brush or native bunch grasses -- to help them soak up the moisture they need to thrive.

Success could come in finding a genetic super Indian paintbrush that gets along better by itself. So far, however, the search has been elusive.

"We have brought hundreds of them," Love said. "I have one plant left."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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