When my husband and I adopted the half-block of degraded industrial property where we now live, it was a forbidding sight: colonized by knee-high clumps of prickly invasive weeds native to distant lands, littered with industrial junk that even Richard, who collects rusted metal and such for his sculpture work, didn't want, and surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with three strands of barbed wire. The "soil" was a mix of river gravel from eons ago when the nearby Arkansas River once flowed here, along with more recent additions of fly ash, clinkers, broken concrete chunks, and a layer of coarse "roadbase," which is just what it says. Still, we imagined restoring the native high-desert grassland, while seriously questioning if anything besides tumbleweed and cheatgrass would ever take root on our half-jokingly labeled "decaying industrial empire."
But we were determined to do something positive with the site gave us a historic building for Richard's studio and would eventually sprout our house. So we called Alex and Suzanne of Western Native Seed down the valley, and asked them to consult on a mix of native plants that might help us return the place to some semblance of its wild community. One hot afternoon, they came, walked through the weeds, shook their heads, and went away. A week later Alex called to say that they'd come up with a mix of locally collected native species that might be tough enough to survive on our harsh site. They called it Roadbase Mix.
That fall, we prepared a test patch about 50 feet long and ten feet wide at one edge of the property: we raked the dry soil into ridges so the winter winds wouldn't blow the seeds away, scattered our precious mix, spread a layer of wood-chip mulch, and snaked soaker hoses through the area so we could water now and then to mimic natural precipitation. And then we waited.
The next spring a pale wash of green sprouts came up through the mulch, and most of them weren't weeds. We were elated. By mid-summer, the rectangle seeded with Roadbase Mix was awash in tiny native plants: blue grama, sand dropseed, and needle-and-thread grasses; and wildflowers including scarlet bugler and violet-blue Rocky Mountain penstemon, golden blanketflower, mahogany and yellow Mexican hats, pink Lambert's loco, and best of all half a dozen tiny Indian paintbrush plants tipped in scarlet. The plants were all miniature, because the "soil" they rooted in was so shallow. But they were there, returning to the place they had once called home.
When Alex and Suzanne stopped by, they stood gazing open-mouthed at the dwarf display. They hadn't really believed that any of the seeds would germinate, especially the Indian paintbrush, one of the trickiest of our native plant community to grow because it requires blue grama grass or sagebrush nearby for its roots to tap into.
The next year our high-desert plants were a few inches taller, and more species appeared. Eleven years later, our wild front yard stops traffic when the wildflowers are in full bloom, and each year we find new species—including mystery arrivals that weren't included in the original Roadbase Mix. There's the microbiotic crust, a miniature community of mosses, lichens, fungi, and algae that bind together the surface of dust-dry desert soils, trapping moisture and creating an insulating layer. The scatter of golden-banner that puts up short stalks topped with sunshine yellow sweet-pea sized flowers in May and June. And the solitary clump of Rocky Mountain iris, the same species that paints wet meadows in a mist of pale purple flowers in early summer.
This year's surprise was a slender plant with narrow, deeply divided leaves that came up through a dense bunch of fine-textured native grass. I didn't even notice the plant until it bloomed in flat-topped heads of many tiny yellow flowers. But when I stopped to look at this mystery arrival, something tickled my memory. I headed for my wildflower books, and sure enough, I knew this plant, although it had been decades since I'd seen it last. It's called nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum for those who are fluent in botanical Latin) and it is a characteristic resident of sagebrush country, the part of the arid West dominated by the gray-green shrub with the three-tipped leaves that flavor the air with its signature scent, a mix of turpentine and orange blossom with a hint of spice.
Of all the landscapes I've lived in—from the shore of Lake Michigan and the flat former fens of Cambridgeshire in England to the sandstone bluffs of southern Illinois, from the high-desert basins of northwest Wyoming to the dark hills of West Virginia and the rain-drenched shores of Washington's Puget Sound, from the dramatic rise of the Rocky Mountain Front to the prairie-turned-cornfields of central Iowa and the wide-open Chihuahuan Desert of southern New Mexico—I am only truly home where sagebrush grows. Nineleaf biscuitroot is the same: it only flourishes in sagebrush shrublands. To see it here, sprouting from seeds that must have survived dormant in the soil through more than a century of industrial disturbance since finged sage last colonized this site, is a gift. Its flat heads of tiny yellow flowers and slender form are like a blessing from the land. "Good job," they say. "Thanks for welcoming us home."
I return the thanks, as my patch of decaying industrial empire re-greens itself, inviting the native species back to thrive on this ground we now share.