Kyle Chamberlain

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since Oct 17, 2011
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Recent posts by Kyle Chamberlain

Would you like to polish your plant identification skills and feast on wild edibles? Join Kyle Chamberlain and Thomas J. Elpel, author of Botany in a Day and Foraging the Mountain West for an intensive two weeks of botanizing, wild food foraging, camping, and exploring the diverse landscapes of the inland Northwest.

This intensive is geared toward making foraged foods the center of our daily diet, and preserving a small supply of food for the future. This is also part of an ongoing mission to locate and propagate the region's most useful plants for permaculture projects. Though too early for fruits and berries, March is a prime time to collect a cornucopia of tubers, shoots, and greens. Honing your forager's eyes with Tom and Kyle, you will learn to feel as much at home in the big green world as an ape in the jungle.

Our aim is to equip students with more than knowledge of a particular set of plants in a particular region. We offer a working taxonomic knowledge of food plants throughout the cold climate world, useful in modern horticulture, traditional foraging, and everything in between. This broader kind of education is in the spirit of Botany in a Day and Kyle's articles, Our Associates and The Botany of Nothing.

Learn more here:
7 years ago
There are exiting ways to get involved in the Human Habitat Project this coming year!

I'm gearing the agenda toward providing a cutting edge bioregional education experience, through foraging, ancestral skills immersion, permaculture, resource stewardship, travel, exposure to congruent communities, and connecting with intriguing individuals. After all, my own desire to continually learn and explore was the impetus for the project. A satisfying education involves more than books and tests. The education we all want is an adventurous path to leading a rich life. The Human Habitat Project is about pursuing nature's 'good life'. This journey is made of intimate connections with life's great variety, finding lifelong friends and mentors, exploring the land, learning from the land's cultures, giving to the greater community, and finding your niche.

The agenda linked outlines activities planned for the year, at the project site, and across the broader bioregion. If you'd like participate, or have ideas for integrating your own plans, please get in touch (

-Kyle Chamberlain
The Human Habitat Project
8 years ago
Thanks Bill. There were these two botanists, Daubenmire and Daubenmire, who took my understanding of native plant ecology a long way. I recommend their stuff. The trouble with botanists is that they are more interested in determinants than potentials. They tend not to see a lot of wiggle room in succession.

But I got on a roll, and I didn't address some of Erica's questions:

-Oregon grape doesn't seem like a great indicator for blueberries. Oregon grape can handle sterile acid soil, but it seems to have a wide soil tolerance. Blueberries need more water than Oregon grape. Evergreen leaves are an adaptation to both nutrient stress and winter moisture. Blueberries loose their leaves. I've never seen naturalized blueberries in the Inland Northwest. The native Vaccinium are mostly at altitude, except in wet North Idaho. I haven't had a good look at that habitat. The Vacciniums I'm most interested in are the evegreen huckleberry of the coast (is it hardy anywhere in the interior?), and West Asian species like Vaccinium arctostaphylos (similar precip regime). But overall, I think the genre requires particular environmental conditions that are difficult to create here. I'd rather live here, where pome and stone fruits were indigenous staples, rather than on the soggy coast, where Heather Family plants like salal and red huckleberry were the staples.

-Wild rice and wapato both grow in a little bit deeper water than cattails. Wild Rice is harvested commercially in Benewah Lake in Idaho. This is the logical seed source. I have not seen how it grows there. Wapato may be tricky because it relies on particular cycles of high and low water, which typify larger lake and and river systems. The nearest indigenous wapato complex I'm aware of is that of the islands and sloughs of the lower Columbia. John Callas of Portland knows some good spots there. There are several species. I have yet to see any of the species growing in harvest able quantities in the interior.

But there are a number of aquatic options. I'd like to see a Nelumbo lutea trial. Water caltrop is invasive and illegal, but it probably kept our Mesolithic European ancestors alive. Our regular yellow water lily has edibles seeds, which were a staple of the Klamath and Modoc. I still wonder if there's a hardy Eleocharis for us somewhere. Then there are things you can grow on the landward side of the cattails, like Potentilla anserina. In the Mint Family, there's a local Lycopus uniflorus and some European Stachys for pond edges. Cattails are a very versatile veggy themselves.

Okay. Getting too late. Beddy bye.


9 years ago
Hi Erica,

I was not aware of the FS database. Thank you! I like the thoughts on indicator plants.

In my own observations of the region, I have found what I call "soil development" to be one of main determinants of vegetation. This is particularly true of the northern half of the Washington, which has not had much time to develop soil, since the retreat of the ice sheet. To me, a "developed soil" is one in which parent rock has weathered down and accumulated as finer particles, and/or has been colonized by plants for a long time, thus acquiring organic matter, and all of those luscious qualities gardeners look for. But developed soil is rare in the mountainous Inland Northwest- maybe 10% of the landscape. Much of our horticulture comes from agricultural areas, river valleys, and grasslands, and doesn't doesn't translate well onto our rugged, brushy, shallow-soiled landscape.

Your valley shows the full spectrum of soil development, from the bare rock on the ridges then sterile gravels, then colonized gravels, then stony soil, and then the deep dark soil of the creek bottom. The soil is moving. The best stuff all moves down. Bitterbrush (Purshia) is an indicator of undeveloped sterile soils- it can live here because it is a colonist nitrogen fixer. It grows on stony slopes, sand dunes, and in the understory of frequently disturbed pine forests. In soils with more organic matter, sagebrush will replace bitterbrush. Both species are indicators of some of the driest conditions in our region. Bitterbrush, being N fixing, is superior browse for ungulates, and crucial food source for seed eating rodents. It is so attractive to animals, that the Sanpoil Indians avoided it in the Spring, thus avoiding ticks. Both bushes yield a profusion of fibrous bark on favorable sites, once used for clothing.

These shrubs tend to prevail over native grasses where the summer precipitation is lacking. That is why, as you move east of the Cascades, you encounter less shrub steppe more grasslands. You are moving from a West Coast (Mediterranean) winter precipitation regime, to a Continental summer monsoon regime. Grasses also do better at higher altitudes, which experience less summer dryness. By the time you get to Eastern Idaho, Central Montana, and Wyoming, you're in bison country. Mismanagement of grazing achieves the same affect as low summer precipitation- it creates shrub lands out of grasslands.

Undeveloped soils can be used to advantage. In some cases, as on talus slopes, moisture availability might be very high, due to reduced evaporation and low plant completion. Riparian colonists, like cottonwood and siberian elm, can grow in bare sand and gravel in otherwise dry sites. Most fruit trees are slope adapted, and do excellently where there is just a little dark soil forming between the stones (as in basalt). Among the reasons for this are: air drainage, temperature moderation, condensation, freedom from grass competition, freedom from competition from taller riparian and climax trees, and reduced browsers accessibility. Elderberries, particularly in the southwest, will grow here and there on such slopes- not necessarily because there is any ground water there. On stony slopes, plant establishment may be a greater challenge than moisture availability. It is hard for a seed to find foothold in stone.

Of coarse, slope direction matters. In general, east facing slopes are the best for fruit trees. In hot arid locations, north may be best. South is workable if there is moisture. West facing slopes are very harsh.

Basalt seems weather into the most fertile floury soils around. It seems great for everything. But some plants, like apricots, seem to prefer coarser soils from metamorphic rock. And it seems like the more geologicaly "recycled" parent rock is, the less fertile it is. Sandstone and gniess tend to be bad. Some rocks form poor soils simply because of the way they break down physically. Granite that rots into coarse sand will be infertile. Granite that breaks down into a mixture of fine and coarse particles, especially clay, can be fertile. Limestone isn't terribly common in our region. Caliche is or main calcareous rock.Slow breakdown of rock by plants (humic acid) seems to result in fine soil more often than mere physical weathering. Soil deposited by water can vary in texture depending on what part of the former watercourse you're in. My place was under an ancient glacial lake! Soil blown in from grinding glaciers is the awesomest, but don't let it blow away again!

Tall leafy forbes, perenial grasses, and leafy deciduous trees/shrubs, in that order, are the best creators and indicators of developed of soil. Fire is helpful in developing soil where significant organic matter is retained below the soil surface. When shallow rooted vegetation (like doug firs) is burned, the soil may be briefly fertilized, but loose organic matter. The more plant material returning to the soil each year, the more developed it will be. Woody growth, especially in our semi-arid climate, tend to lock up nutrients and stall soil development. Evergreen trees and shrubs, are the poorest nutrient cyclers, and can colonize nutrient poor soils (they are adapted to conserve nutrients). Most native conifers can colonize a fresh road cut, whereas grasses and forbs may take many years. Conifers can take hold at low nutrient conditions and perpetuate them indefinitely. Conifer forests with less forbs, grasses, and deciduous shrubs in their understory are less fertile- this is is either due to soil texture, or some factor preventing understory plants from establishing. In our dry conifer forests, light is not a limiting factor. Water and nitrogen are limiting factors.

Soil wood is another important vegetation determining factor. Fallen wood stores moisture. Most of a douglas firs' fine roots grow in soil wood. Soil wood promotes rhizomatous shrubs like snowberry and oregon grape. Soil wood does not promote soil development, because it is slow to release nutrients, and does not shed organic matter deep within the soil. A conifer forest has a very thin layer of organic soil, the deeper soil will be sterile.

Evaporation is critical to pH. In an arid area, the pH will be low, and bulrushes will grow in ponds. In very humid areas, where there is little evaporation, sedges may dominate ponds. Cattails have a wide tolerance. pH and evaporation determine stream-side vegetation as well. Places where water is drawn out of the soil by evaporation are the most fertile areas (look for butterfies). Here you will find nettles, and other tall leafy forbes. Even though sagebrush is an evergreen, and a poor nutrient cycler, sagebrush soils will be fertile because of the minerals drawn up by evaporation. Large Brassica weeds like tumble mustard indicate a fertile basic soil. In many sagebrush soils, there will be a layer of chalky white caliche stone several feet below the surface. Caliche forms at the level where the evaporation and leaching have equalized. In wetter places, we can assume that leaching takes lost minerals to an indefinite depth.Too much evaporation leads to surface mineral deposits, or salt flats, and greasewood shrubs.

Some practices and vegetation types cause acidity by limiting either evaporation or transpiration. This can be seen when bracken ferns take over a pasture or woodlot. In forested place, If grazing devegetates an area, the soil will leach out and become acid. On the flipside, if herbivory is insufficient, shallow rooted woody plants may dominate, the ground will be shaded, and acid conditions will prevail. Bunch grasses are excellent at regulating pH, because they are deep rooted, transpire water efficiently, and let the soil breathe between bunches.

"Savanah trees" are those that can tolerate grass competition. Savanah trees are more compatible with soil fertility than forest trees. Savanah trees include: legume trees, ponderosa and pinyon pines, oaks, and walnut family members. These trees tend to have deep roots.They tend to be fire adapted.

Forest trees like Douglas Firs, Larches, Red Cedars, and Grand Firs, tend to be less compatible with other plants. The tend to be shade tolerant and have shallow roots. I believe than any alleopathic effects of these plants are insignificant compared to their effects on pH and nutrient cycling. Paul Wheaton seems to be very anti native conifer. This is not a very sophisticated position. At low densities, the intermittent shade and sheltering provide by conifers, even the more "alleopathic" species, is of great benefit. A ponderosa pine never hurt nobody.

You ever think: those wetter places where deciduous forest grow- don't they also get less sunlight because of all the rain clouds? And maybe the reason we don't grow deciduous forests here is as much because of too much sun as not enough rain? I think a little shade is good for most wild plants here. The damn domesticates are sun hogs though.

The conifers arrange themselves along a moisture gradient, which mostly corresponds to an altitude gradient.

Some plants, like high altitude aspens, may indicate areas of snow accumulation and conservation, more than ground water. North facing cliffs achieve this in arid areas.

Pocket gophers are another overlooked limiting factor. Open areas with high gopher depredation will be dominated by rhizomatous shrubs and unpalatable annual weeds. And don't underestimate herbivory from deer. Deer can totally curb succession away from soil development by causing unpalatable evergreen dominance.

Soil depth is another great determinant. It takes at least four feet of topsoil to grow wheat, and perhaps more for perennial grasses. Deep, well developed soil has high water storage capacity, but it can only be used by deep rooted plants. Some plants prefer not to grow in deep soils. Gopher vulnerability and grass competition are factors. Only a few fruit trees excel in deep bottom-land soil, and they tend to be the cold tolerant ones. Pears and hawthorns love it. Many of the best edible native plants, like biscuitroot and bitteroot, grow only on the droughty frost-heaved, stony soils of ridge tops.

Camas prefers vernal pools, mucky black soil, and freedom from grass competition. In well drained soils, this condition is only achieved in lenses of soil held by bedrock. If I had to plant camas on Erica's sight, I might burn part of the apsen grove, or make a stone-lined vernal pool in a draw, filled with black mucky soil. Like the soil that forms under sphagnum moss growing on a rock.

But if you really want feral root veggies, I'd sow those dry slopes to salsify, the the valley bottom to yampah and wild carrot, and feral parsnips in those prime evaporating wet spots. Burdock in the shady places around riparian trees. Bull thistles in the slash piles and compacted soils. Evening primrose on the sandy soils. All of these are bienial, vs. perenial. Camas takes a while to develop.

I wouldn't take willow type as a temperature indicator. The whole poplar family is very cold hardy.Willows grow in the Arctic circle.The shrubbier willows are probably more dispersive and browse/beaver resistant.

There don't seem to be many good native indicators of temperature or frost. We don't have many frost sensitive plants in the first place. The dominant plant communities haven't changed much since the ice retreated. There where historic cold spells that froze the major rivers and caused the service berries not to fruit. The native plants seem to simply adjust their timing as they go upslope. The only warm areas in the region are the river valleys, so I'm not sure if the plants that grow only there are just adapted to riverine dispersal (smooth sumac, hackberry, poison ivy, white alder). The best temperature indicators may be exotic plants, like evergreen blackberries. Don't get me wrong, a spruce obviously can hack the cold better than a ponderosa, but that's not going to give you any sharp boundaries about what you can plant.

I think people too often blame temperature or precipitation when they kill plants by planting them where they don't want to grow. An apple tree doesn't want to grow in a lawn on a valley bottom. It wants to grow on slope or a in minor draw. People try to plant things on sites where they would face great competition of succession were allowed to proceed. Most of our edible plants naturally grow on sites too dry and marginal for climax forest trees.

From an ecological perspective, the best use of deep soiled areas is grass and grazers. The best use of riparian areas is wetland, fish, and beavers. The best place for orchards are the draws and foothills.

Don't forget to look at the length of first year wood, and whorl spacing on conifers, when making site comparisons. Conifers don't care much for fertility, so greater whorl spacing is a good sign of greater summer precip. Mature conifers which retain their lower branches indicate marginal moisture.Poor recruitment of conifers means marginal moisture. Poor recruitment of deciduous shrubs could just mean deer.

Okay, enough for now. Maybe I need specific questions about how particular plants fit into this framework of determinants.
9 years ago
If I made a big batch of bone salve (the key ingredient in Sepp Holzer's legendary deer repelent) would you want to purchase some? Email me: practicalnaturalist (at symbol)

Another mission:

What: The elusive east side Salal. Salal, Gaultheria shallon, was a staple fruit of Coastal Natives. It's an adaptable bush capable of surviving in the understory of evergreen forests. Salal seems to be confined to warm coastal climates, but the Washington Native Plant Society lists it in thier county lists for Kittitas and Chelan Counties. Is there a hardy salal variety to be found in the Eastern Cascades?
Where: Who knows? Maybe some some low pass permitting the intrusion of coastal species... It would have to be a wet place.
When: dormant season for transplants. Plants are evergreen.
11 years ago
I just remembered another mission!

What: a regional variety of Northern Bugleweed, Lycopus uniflorus. A great deal of attention has been given to the Chinese Artichoke in permaculture circles, it is an unusual edible tuber from the mint family. Less know are the edible tubers of Northern Bugleweed, the only other mint family root vegetable I know of. I've never identified this plant, much less tasted it. But native people used to eat it for desert- it must be good.
Where: Swampy places in Southern BC or Northern WA. Apperently it grows with cattails and other riparian vegetation.
When: I have no idea when the seed ripens. Presumably one could transplant tubers any time durring the dormant season.
11 years ago

You just made the Garry Oak Mission so much more awsome! Thankyou for your interest in this. This kind of intimate local knowledge is just what I was hoping this thread might generate. Maybe you'd agree that there's more to a tree than it's species name. I think that where a plant comes from, and its story, are very imporant, from both a utilitarian and a poetic standpoint.

I would very much like to perpetuate these special trees you've described. And I would treasure the act even more if the seed was gathered with appropriate respect. I'll be in touch as the collection season nears, to strike a deal with you.

I have space for the seedlings on my land, but think it would be best not to put all the eggs in one basket. Perhaps others know of another good site for preserving special trees like this. My site is in a cool and relatively high rainfall area (21"). I think it would be wise to have another repository at a hotter drier site.

I am very supportive of your idea of scouting upstream for the northernmost grove. I, for one, would love to know exactly where it is. However, seed from the Simcoe grove would suit my purposes just as well. Do you think it would be worthwhile to pursue specimens from a higher altitude?

I dont' know when I'll have the time to make my botanical exploration of Snake River, but I'll need at least one fellow explorer, and I'll keep you in mind. Do you have any white-water experience? I think there are a few rapids along this stretch. I'm fairly confident with a canoe on flat water.

12 years ago
Vital Botanical Missions for Bold and Intrepid Souls
For the Greater Good of Inland Northwest Permaculture

I am of the belief the best plants for our polycultures are localy adapted wild plants, which can't presently be bought from nurseries. Another post I made in the gardening forum made me realize I have a mental list of botanical 'missions' I'd like to make, to obtain seed from prime locations around the country. The seed could be propagated by a trusted gardener and shared. But there isn't any reason I couldn't have help with these missions. In fact, I'm sure many of you have your own missions in mind. Maybe we can help each other out. I know that we live all over, and many of us travel.

These missions, should you choose to accept one, would be of great service to permaculture in the Inland Northwest. If any of these missions interests you, I can provide information and garden space. But you wouldn't neccesarily have to work with me. And if I should suddenly die, I'll feel better knowing that other permies know about these resources. I may think of more later, but here are some missions:

Where: Pullman and Palouse, Washington
What: Remarkable Salisfy, Trogopogon mirus. This beautiful wildflower is a rare natural hybrid between widespread weedy yellow salisfy and purple salisfy, the garden vegetable that brought us ‘mammoth sandwich island’. This plant must be examined as a wild root vegetable for our polycultures. I suggest enlisting the help of a local botany professor. Get the seeds to trusted gardeners for propagation.
When: Whenever the large dandelion-like seed heads ripen, probably in mid-summer. Watch for common yellow salisfy to ripen.

Where: Canyons of the Southeastern Oregon Desert
What: The most Northwestern wild specimens of Silver Buffaloberry, Sheperdia argentia. This is a nitrogen fixing shrub with very tasty berries. My favorite candidate for apple interplant. It is a native alternative to Russian Olive. It is desert adapted. Gather the best fruits from a diversity of the best bushes. Select types for saline soils and non-saline soils.
When: sometime in the summer, when fruits ripen.

Where: Orofino, Upper Clearwater River, Idaho area
What: The most prolific stands of wild sweet cherries I’ve seen anywhere in the region. Select for fruit quality, drought tolerance, and diverse ripening times. Also in your area, wild cherry plums, European plums, apricots, apples, blackberries.
When: Late June-July

Where: Snake River and Tributaries Upstream of Lewiston
What: We desperately need tap the botanical resources of this area. This is the epicenter of our region’s wild fruit diversity. Old World fruit trees have been naturalizing here for hundreds of years. One of these days, I’m going to float these rivers and collect seed along the way. This is probably the best way to access this extremely rugged country. Look for: mulberries, apricots, cherries, plums, cherry plums, walnuts, pears, and maybe peaches. Ideally we’d get the seed to several nursery locations around the region.
When: Late June-August, late September for walnuts

Where: Foothills of the Eastern Cascades, from Ellensburg South
What: The northernmost stands of Garry Oak in the Interior. The northernmost grove is supposedly on the Yakima River near Ellensburg. Select seed for palatability (taste them, aim for less bitter), yield at early age, drought tolerance, and cold tolerance. Collect from high and low altitudes. We need to aid the northward movement of oaks in light of accelerating climate change. Seed must be planted quickly after collection.
When: September

Where: the Black Hills, South Dakota
What: Some of the Northwesternmost Burr Oaks. Select for acorn size, palatability, yield at early age, drought tolerance, hardiness. Collect both tree and scrub forms. These may be the best food acorns for our region. Seed must be planted quickly after collection.
When: September

Where: Northern Utah, foothills
What: the northernmost stands of Gambel Oak. A good hardy, edible oak, see instructions for other oaks.

Where: Idaho?
What: find the famous Sweet Idaho Bur Oak!

Where: City of Rocks, South Central Idaho
What: The northernmost Single Leaf Pinyon Pine Forests. Select for yield at an early age. This may be one of the few food trees suited for places too dry to grow Ponderosas.
When: September, production can be geographically sporadic.

Where: Boise, Idaho
What: Giant Persimmons, desert apricots, Kentucky Coffee Tree. There is a persimmon tree as big as a ponderosa pine on 11th and Fort. It fruits abundantly and obviously does well in our climate. Wild apricots in the foothill canyons, on the road to the dump from town. An amazing arboretum east of downtown with all kinds of food trees, and a large Kentucky Coffee Tree Specimen.

What: Wild parsnips
Where: I don’t know! Wild parsnips have been documented growing in the Inland Northwest. I’m still looking for a patch. Please help me find them.

Where: The Mojave Desert/Great Basin Desert Transition, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
What: Hybrid Oaks, hardy Prickly Pears, others. Screw Bean Mesquite? There are many great wild food plants in this region. Helping these plants move North, as the climate changes, will be to our benefit. Gambel Oaks hybridize with Live Oaks here. This hybrid is hardy and will grow with Joshua Trees in sand! The Timbisha Shoshone are the native people of the hottest driest desert on the continent, Death Valley. They have a food forest! It’s a screw bean mesquite orchard in the sand dunes of the valley floor. This is an excellent staple food. This tree might do well in the hottest, driest parts of our region, on the saline soils of the Lower Columbia.

Where: Northern New Mexico, extreme Southern Colorado, foothills
What: New Mexico Locust. All the uses of Black Locust, but smaller, and even more drought tolerant! Could probably grow in our treeless regions.
When: collect dry pods in September

Challenges for the Inland NW- Find wild reproducing stands of:
-almonds (don’t believe me? grape
-interior salal
Or any of the other plants on my master list:

Missions Completed:
-I live near what I think may be the northernmost stand of Curl-Leafed Mountain Mohagany. It is very hardy desert adapted N fixing small tree. No edible uses, but wildlife browse it. Contact me for seed.
-I found a wild grove of Siberian pea shrubs, in the middle of nowhere, growing beneath a ponderosa pine canopy, I’ll try to collect seed next year.
-The biggest, most productive ginkgo tree I’ve ever found is in the Sun Lakes State Park Campground, near Soap lake Washington.
-Spokane’s Finch Arboretum has many good plants, including Cornelian Cherry, Chinese Dogwood, Italian Alder, and watercress.
-I have local sources for localy adapted fruit. I’m greedy with the seed. But I might hear an offer.

-Kyle in Kettle
12 years ago
I notice the wild carrot, aka Queen Annes Lace, is much better adapted to my environment than garden varieties are. It's a weed. It self sows. Deer don't bother it. Nobody waters it. Sure, wild carrot has much smaller roots. But what if I could breed a variety intermediate between the wild carrot and my wimpy domesticated ones? Since they're the same species, this should be possible. There are other veggies we might back cross with localy adapted weeds, like brassicas. Has it been tried? How might one go about this?

Also, it seems far fetched, but I wonder what would happen if I tried grafting cherry tomatoes or tomatillos onto hardy perrenial nightshade vines. I've got nightshade vines up here that overwinter. Is it stupid to think maybe I could create perrenial tomatoes this way? How are tomatoes grafted?

And while I'm at it- Internet databases indicate that there are wild parsnips growing in parts of Eastern Washington. I've gone on wild goose chases looking for them, to no avail. If you know of any patches growing anywhere in the Intermountain US, I want seed. The drier the habitat, the better.

And speaking of that, another plant I'm after is a rare natural hybrid between purple and yellow salisfy, called 'remarkable salisfy' that grows in the Palouse region of Washington and Idaho. Yellow salisfy is a tremendously successfull edibe weed. Purple salsify is it's tastier relative. If anyone in that region is looking for a special mission...

The more I study the matter, the more I realize how paramount localy adapted plants are.

12 years ago