Prairie restoration turns into American Indian business enterprise

Mary Pierpoint
12/31/03

HAYES, S.D. - With the success of the prairie restoration on the Mortenson Ranch, a new awareness and interest in the diverse plants growing on the ranch soon became a business for Jeff Mortenson. Prairie Exotica was born. Originally seeds from Echinacea plants held the small business together, and then as other plants began re-establishing themselves on the ranch he started collecting seeds from plants such as Sensitive Briar and Dwarf Indigo.

At first Mortenson sent the seeds to companies across the country that were involved in restoration projects after forest fires. "Some were interested and some weren't," he remembered. "Then there were the tree seeds and vines. There aren't many sources of wild grape seeds and such." His variety of hard-to-find seeds began establishing Prairie Exotica as a small business that packed a punch. But Mortenson cautions that he has found from personal experience that seeds need to be planted in a certain order to prepare the ground for each level of seeds.

The most delicate and often the most beautiful with bright flowers are the most-needed plants for any prairie restoration or even for a piece of prairie in the back yard are the forbs. They are the first ones Mortenson suggests that people plant.

"The one essential for people to remember is that those big tap roots work as a conduit for the rain and for air to get down to the soil," Mortenson said. "The land up here where the Lakota are at doesn't have the best soil in the world, so it needed a very complex diversity of nitrogen fixing and large tap rooted plants. They are the fastest reproducing ones now on the ranch, a lot of them have the edibles and the medicinal plants in their mix."

Seed collection for these plants is done by hand throughout the summer and fall as plants come to maturity and begin producing seeds. One of the biggest obstacles in seed collection is the short window of harvesting time for many plants. Wind and hot summer temperatures, along with varying locations mean that not only do the wide variety of seeds mature at different rates, but that the seeds can be sent to the four directions if they are not collected at exactly the right time. He spends long hours as he combs the countryside for plants that are ready to harvest.

Part of the reason for starting his own seed company was that the plants were virtually unknown to many seed companies across the country. "What I learned when I first got into it was that a lot of these plants we have at the ranch, when I called seed companies around the country, was that they had never heard of the plants or had these seeds available," he said. "So a lot of the restorations that have been going on like in the Black Hills were still using European plants rather than the native ones. I realize that back then I was just one producer and small, still you start out small and get larger. You do that when you do restorations too."

As the seed business began to grow, Mortenson soon began a landscape consulting business that works on restoration projects after fires and also does residential landscaping. Prairie Exotica seeds are beginning to find their way to stores across the country and a Web site is now in the making.

His advice to those thinking about a business like Prairie Exotica, "Don't quit your day job," he laughed. "The start up is slow and you really have to love what you do and be willing to spend a lot of time listening to the wind and enjoy the solitude of the prairie. For me it is the walking on Mother Earth and feeling that life that under my feet."

Those wanting more information on Prairie Exotica seeds may contact Mortenson at Lakota1953@yahoo.com.

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