TWIN FALLS, Idaho — A small company is making big strides as a supplier of ornamental plant species native to the Great Basin.
Now in its fourth year of sales, Native Roots will supply wholesale nurseries in the region with 30,000 plant plugs and about 10,000 seeds.
The company markets 46 species of ornamental native plants and has more than 500 species in development.
The business started with baby steps and the tenacity of a University of Idaho researcher. Steve Love, a long-time potato breeder, had the opportunity to shift gears to horticulture and native plants — his first loves — in 2005 when the university wanted to strengthen its horticulture extension work. The university created the position of statewide consumer horticulture specialist and tapped Love for the job.
“It was not a hard decision to make the move,” Love said, adding that he also enjoyed his work in potatoes.
When he made that switch, which mostly involved teaching and training, he also wanted to develop a unique research project. Idaho was in the middle of its last significant drought cycle, and with a static water supply and growing demand it was clear landscapers were going to have to learn to get by with a little less, he said.
He and then UI turf grass researcher Tom Salaiz started teaching water-saving principles for home landscapes. But they needed the plant materials to back up the principles, he said.
That put Love on the path of trying to “create a whole pallet of plants people can landscape with and save water.”
His first efforts to collect native plants were during a camping trip to the Pioneer Mountains in 2005. Since then he’s collected about half of his materials himself. The other half has come from other collectors, and he now has seeds and plants from many sources.
Domesticating those species, which are highly variable, to produce a consistent and viable commercial product is a long-term endeavor. It takes years of breeding, selection and cultivation. Once he had several species stabilized, the Native Roots people stepped up to develop a market for the plants, he said.
“It’s been a really exciting deal. I have a lot of personal investment in the plants,” he said.
Six years ago, Native Roots started bringing Love’s plants into their operation to begin seed production.
“We’re trying to create a whole new line from wildflowers. It’s been a fascinating process,” Love said.
Native species now flourish on 130 Native Roots plots, where plants are grown and harvested for seed. The seed is cleaned and either sold or planted to produce plugs. Both are sold to wholesale nurseries, said Andy West, Native Roots lead grower and production manager.
The native species can replace ornamentals in landscapes to save water and increase pollinators. Because they are perennial, there’s no need to replant every year, he said.
“Essentially, it’s giving back to the environment, putting back what’s already there, creating a natural ecosystem with native plants,” he said.
Native Roots started marketing 31 species in 2014 and adds five species to the offerings every year to avoid saturating the market.
“Most nurseries only have a small section dedicated to native plants. We’re trying to educate the public on options available to them,” he said.
Lack of education is the only thing keeping the business from booming, he said.
In addition to its Native Roots branded line for use in ornamental landscapes, the company also produces other genetically diverse plants and seeds that were not developed by Love. They go to restoration projects.
In that business, the company sells as much as 1-1/2 tons of seed, including a native turf grass mix, and up to 250,000 restoration-grade plants a year.
Location: Twin Falls, Idaho
Product development: Steve Love, University of Idaho Extension horticulturist
Lead grower and production manager: Andy West
Owner and CEO: Steve Paulson
Products: Native plants and seeds
Operation: 14-acre production facility, three greenhouses
Employees: 4 full-time, 4 to 7 part-time
Legal contract: Licensing agreement with University of Idaho to bring the products to market