Plants for the Future: Climate Adapted Plant Materials

By Jake Picardat, Lauren Berger, and Emily Hayden, April 2024

During an overcast and rainy January day, Institute for Applied Ecology staff are hard at work collecting cuttings of red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea), and other shrub species native to the Pacific Northwest. Though today this work is being done in the rainy, cold environments these plants have spent so much time adapting to, in a few decades these same habitats are expected to be much warmer and drier.

These collections are part of a study coined the Climate Adapted Plant Materials (CAPM) project, which is designed to determine the viability of plant populations to deal with increased weather fluctuations in the face of a changing climate. Native plants have developed characteristics that make them specifically suited to their native ranges, and even individual plants within a species adapt to the very localized conditions where they are persisting. For this reason, local seed has been regarded as the absolute best option for restoration efforts within a region. But as our world faces an increasingly shifting climate, these locally adapted plants may no longer be the best option for restoring our native landscapes, and they may even have a hard time surviving where they are already established.

But plants aren’t the only ones that need to adapt; as staff work to collect plant materials, our seed collection crew has learned to adapt as well. While for much of the season our team focuses on seeds from forbs, this project has required our team to think bigger as we turn our attention to woody shrubs and trees. Even some of our most common Pacific Northwest native plant species present unique challenges when collecting plant materials. Creativity and flexibility have been key as we’ve tested different methods to reach tall samaras from bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and acorns from Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), competed with local fauna for Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium), and have had to redirect our efforts in collecting red alder (Alnus rubra) due to beaver dam construction mid-trail. These collections have given our team the unique opportunity to keep the field season going even with snow on the ground, and to test out our waders for any leaks!

After our team has collected plant materials, they get delivered to facilities belonging to Tualatin Soil and Water Conservation District, one of our partners for this project along with Clean Water Services. These plant materials will be grown out in a common garden experiment in a multi-phased, long-term study that will evaluate the abilities of different populations of plant species to best tolerate climate conditions we are expecting to see in the near future. To accomplish this, seed and cuttings are being collected from about 20 different species of plants across 4 different regions: the Tualatin River watershed, southwest Oregon, coastal northern California, and inland Northern California.

To cover all of this ground, the Institute for Applied Ecology is also working with Jonny Native Seed and The Understory Initiative for all of the on-the-ground wild plant material collections. Projects like this one are important to inform our understanding of how these plants will perform under climate conditions of the future, and to what extent the ecosystem services they provide will be impacted. We are looking forward to seeing the results of this project, and learning how we can curate our restoration efforts to be more successful in the face of climate change.