Native Plants of North America

About Fourth Corner Nurseries

Fourth Corner Nurseries was incorporated in 1982 and is located in the coastal lowlands of Whatcom County, Washington on 80 acres of sandy loam soil. We are a wholesale grower of native plants with 40 acres currently under production. Our core focus is the preservation of genetic diversity within the 500 or so species we routinely propagate and grow; over 95% of what we produce is propagated from carefully collected seed sources.

Our experience with native plants began in 1987. At the time we were looking into bare root crops we could produce that were best suited to our sandy loam soils. Our first bare root crops were ornamental and coniferous timber species and a selection of native plants that were commonly found in the vicinity of our farm. Now we are producing over 500 species of native trees, shrubs, perennials, sedges and grasses.

The first natives we produced were those that had a prior market in the ornamental trade such as red flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum) and vine maple (Acer circinatum). In the succeeding years, the demand for native plants in wetlands mitigation and restoration has expanded, and to serve this market we began to grow other species of native deciduous trees and shrubs. Selected species are mainly from seed collected in Washington mid-elevation sites, eastern Washington, western Oregon, northern California, British Columbia, western Montana and northern Idaho.

Our species list has expanded greatly over the years and we have continued to look into other kinds of native plants that fit into our system of plant propagation. Over the past 24 years we have perfected our own techniques for reliably propagating and growing native species, some of which are seldom seen in cultivation.

We also produce plug-grown conifer seedlings from low-elevation seed collections. We believe these trees will perform better in stream bank and lowland restoration than the ubiquitous timber reforestation trees commonly in use today. The rapid-growing, straight-trunked trees selected for timber reforestation are perfect for production on tree farms, but they may not include the full range of genetic variation found naturally in the area.

Due to our large selection of species from different habitats, we have had to collect our own seed. The advantage of doing our own seed collecting has been to acquire considerable information about the distribution and fruiting patterns of native plants throughout their natural range. Thus, over the years we have developed the special skill and expertise required to carry out site-specific seed collecting assignments. All of our seed collections are indexed as to location and referenced to geopositioning satellite waypoints that we have established throughout our collecting zones. We take care to index all our seed sources, and we are currently growing plants on contract from specific seed collections.

Due to our concerns for protecting the genetic diversity of the plants we grow, we have adopted US Forest Service standards for all collected seed. It is possible, for example, to obtain seed for an entire crop of ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus) from a single specimen plant. To do this, however, would provide the buyer with a very limited sample of the actual genetic diversity available from this species. Our approach is to collect seed from many different specimens and populations within each specific region. It is our belief that bare-root native plants produced in this manner have the best vigor and survival rates.

We supply native plants from comprehensive seed zones representing elevation bands from the north slope of the Oregon/California Siskiyous range to British Columbia, as well as east to northern Idaho and central Montana. In addition, we have collected in areas as far east as the Black Hills of South Dakota and south to the Grand Canyon.

It is known that, over time, selective environmental pressures fix the normal mutations and variations represented in the DNA of a species subject to genetic isolation. Botanists and ecologists refer to differences within a species as ecotypes and varieties. Growers recognize that certain seed sources thrive under their naturally adapted growing conditions.

A designer who specifies, for example, Salix scouleriana in a Sand Point, Idaho restoration project might be using S. s. var. scouleriana, a plant that is a medium-sized tree adapted to the mild climates of the western Cascades. Another variety of Scouler’s willow, S. s. var. coetana, would be better adapted because it has a scrubby growth habit and occurs in dry sites in western Washington as well as in the drier and colder eastern provinces. Very often, the coastal and interior strains are recognized as separate varieties.

Over the years, we have noticed variations between strains of native plants that are consistent with distribution. Sometimes these differences are very subtle and noticed only by the seed collector or the grower when they are put side by side with the same species from different sources. For example, when we planted seed collections of red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) from western Washington from near sea level and from around 5000 feet, we noticed that the timing of seedling emergence and the growth rate of plants reflected the apparent habitat of the parent plants. These differences tended to disappear in the seed bed by the end of the first growing season but nonetheless represent an inherited adaptive feature. We have also noted differences between strains of other species in disease resistance and frost hardiness.

We believe that our commitment to propagating native plants from indexed seed sources, and the painstaking care we devote to tracking seed lots from collection to harvest, is what separates us from other native plant producers. Over half of our production is shipped to other wholesale native plant nurseries that buy our seedlings for use in their own production.

Thank you for taking the time to learn more our nursery. We look forward to working with you in the future.