Central Whidbey prairie flower blooms belie all the hard work

Joseph Sheldon, vice chair of the Pacific Rim Institute Board of Trustees, discovers a chocolate lily during a tour of the Pacific Rim Institute prairie.  - Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times
Joseph Sheldon, vice chair of the Pacific Rim Institute Board of Trustees, discovers a chocolate lily during a tour of the Pacific Rim Institute prairie.
— image credit: Rebecca Olson/Whidbey News-Times

From bright yellow buttercups to star-shaped, purple camas, the prairie at the Pacific Rim Institute south of Coupeville has an ecosystem unique to the area, making it well worth the time-consuming efforts to restore it with native wildflowers and grasses.

During a rare time that the prairie was open to the public, Robert Pelant, CEO of the Pacific Rim Institute, and Dr. Joseph Sheldon, vice chair of the PRI Board of Trustees, offered tours to the community.

Thursday morning, nearly 50 students from Evergreen State College, plus community members, attended a tour to view the restoration work.

“It’s a very precious, rapidly vanishing ecosystem,” Pelant said of prairie.

Restoring the prairie to its natural state before agriculture and the introduction of foreign plant species is “painstakingly tedious,” Pelant said. At one point, he said he had tears in his eyes because it is so much work, especially since six of the acres they received were splattered with piles of junk and metal.

The prairie at PRI was carved by meltwater coming off a glacier front, as opposed to Ebey’s Prairie, which was a lake bottom at that time. This results in differing soil compositions: the institute’s prairie soil has a lot of gravel and sand, whereas Ebey’s Prairie consists of rich silt, making it perfect for farming.

The prairie at the institute, on the other hand, is perfect for native grasses and wildflowers that prefer sandy, rocky soil.

There are approximately 20 species of native wildflowers in the area. One of those is the golden paintbrush, a threatened species. The golden paintbrush has bright yellow modified leaves that outshine its small green flowers.

Sheldon showed the group the best restoration site in Washington for the golden paintbrush, called so because the species has increased its numbers greatly there. The project is funded by the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The greatest problem for the golden paintbrush is deer. Sheldon pointed out a series of fenced enclosures. The center enclosure was blanketed with the yellow plant but the outer enclosures were sparse because deer can reach those.

It isn’t unusual to see a dozen deer on the prairie in the mornings, Sheldon said, adding that there are so many because residents of the 60 nearby properties like to feed the deer, which is illegal.

However, these residents also help fund the institute, leaving institute employees in a difficult place.

“We’re trying to educate our neighbors, we’re trying to be good neighbors,” Sheldon said.

The institute also experiments with ways to rid the prairie of non-native species, like using herbicides, burning, tilling, mowing or solarization, a process that uses a plastic sheet to kill the plants, including non-native weeds.

They also dedicate land to a project by the University of Washington called Nutrition Network. The purpose is to study the nutrient uptake level of weeds and grasses and compare that to data from projects across the nation and in other countries.

Ellen and Ken Dickey, of Freeland, attended the tour to get some tips on restoring their own property. They plan to add native herbs, especially camas, and encourage all pollinators in order to convert a pasture area into a meadow garden.

While they have visited the institute before, they had never been to the native prairie.

“I’m heartened that this has been taken over by a wonderful group of people,” Ellen Dickey said.

“Restoring places once they’ve been trashed is sort of a holy task. It’s a lot of work,” Ken Dickey said.

With the human population growing so large, “We have to learn to share. We’re not good at sharing. We have to learn to share with wild- life,” Ken Dickey added.

The Pacific Rim Institute was once called the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies and was used as an environmental studies location for Christian schools. When the Au Sable Institute closed, a group decided to fight for the nearly 200 acres of land and created the Pacific Rim Institute for Environmental Stewardship, which is dedicated to caring for the environment and offers educational programs about environmental health, sustainability, biology and more.

The institute offers summer internships for people who’d like to contribute to the prairie’s future. From trapping voles to building propagation beds to helping with prairie burns, “There’s 101 different things that can be done out here,” Pelant said.

The Pacific Rim Institute is located at 180 Parker Road, a couple of miles south of Coupeville.

For more information about the prairie or internships, call 678-5586 or visit



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