OPLE© (Open-Pollinated, Local-Ecotype) Explained
Restoration is more than just revegetating; dedicated practitioners need site-appropriate species grown from regionally specific genetic stock. Think of it this way: although using red maple might be appropriate for a wet site in Massachusetts, planting trees there grown from seed collected in Georgia is not. This established and research-vetted concept has yet to permeate the horticulture industry but is rapidly becoming normal practice for ecological restoration practitioners.
But where can intentional land stewards procure native plant material with traceable genetics to authentically restore ecological function on their projects?
ArcheWild created the Open-Pollinated, Local-Ecotype (OPLE©) standard to designate those plants grown from seed, selected and collected by our botanists from unimpacted, wild populations following a strict code of ethics. This practice ensures, firstly, that the plant material we source from has been Open–Pollinated, meaning that only natural pollination processes have aided in the growth and genetic development of a given species with no man-made alterations or modifications. Secondly, identifying and accessioning each seed lot allows us to ensure that each plant’s Local Ecotype, or the genetically distinct geographical variety, is appropriately and precisely prescribed to each client, each site, and each intended outcome. In this way, plant material that meets the OPLE© standard is appropriate, if not required, for true restoration.
Plants adapt to their environments. That’s why we have native and non-native species (and of course a host of other classifications). There are entire schools of thought and fantastic debates about the nuances of native versus non-native species, but the essential driver for OPLE© material is that one species “came from” and has therefore become genetically attuned to the site in which it lives. The other species is, of course, the interloper. However, even native species can act as an interloper in certain scenarios. Consider an effect called Outbreeding Depression. OD occurs when genetic material from two different, disjunct populations of a single species interact and produce offspring having genetics that are not as well attuned to either location. Each subsequent generation experiences a fractalizing effect as the plant becomes less able to compete or contribute to its natural environment.
Here’s an example: our botanists discovered a truly spectacular population of Cercis canadensis on a rocky roadside outside of Ripley WV. The slight variations in color, size, and texture indicated that it was excelling in its core habitat: harsh rocky soil blasted by sun and subjected to soot, road salt, and other pollutants present immediately off a highway. The untouched and naturally evolved genetics in this population allow these trees to not just survive, but to thrive on this site that would spell doom for perhaps even other robust Fabacea like Robinia or Cladrastis. Thus boasting its unique ecotypic characteristics.
Now, the issue occurs when a misguided horticulturalist identifies this stunning stand of Redbuds and decides to breed them with Cercis canadensis var. alba and market them to buyers interested in filling their roadsides with show stopping white Redbuds, capable of withstanding challenging conditions that other var albas cannot. Sure, those offspring will survive and offer beauty to the neighborhood and habitat for birds and insects, but those trees will often be unable able to compete in the harsh environment of their parent material. Not only that, but the WV Redbud’s ability to provide specific ecological function to its system has become diluted and confused in its offspring. Would this genetically modified progeny be as perfectly suited as a straight species at supporting Gold finches and Gold-cheeked warblers? Probably not. And what happens when those trees are bred again with yet another ecotype or species? The effects compound.
Using OPLE© plant material for restoration allows us to bypass these confusions. Open-Pollinated plants will gain unique genetic characteristics on their own and will evolve to meet the constraints of their environment without intervention. The manipulated or constrained genes originating in gardens, plantations, or the breeders’ program result in man-made products that have been shown to be less resilient and provide fewer of the intended ecological functions. The Diablo™ version of the native ninebark shrub (Physocarpus opulifolius) has been reported to be visited by birds and insects far less frequently as their wild cousins, for example.
Cultivars, hybrids, nativars, and genetically modified strains are creeping into the natural world at a blistering pace, and many ecologists are concerned about the impact on indigenous plant communities and the overall fitness of ecosystems. Adoption of OPLE© principals is of paramount importance to high-quality restoration, especially considering the newly discovered seed/gene dispersal mechanism, represented by the acronym UPS. Indeed, mail services are one of the biggest contributors to unnatural gene diffusion and dilution.
A “native seed mix” for sale on Etsy, for example, can be purchased by anyone within that seller’s shipping zone, which is often the entire continental US at minimum. So, someone from New Jersey purchases Butterfly Milkweed seed they found from a seller in Illinois. The buyer did their research. They want Asclepias tuberosa because it is a native flower that will do well in their well-draining soil and will attract beneficial pollinators. They make their purchase confidently.
What the buyer doesn’t know, and what the seller perhaps doesn’t know either, is that the customer needs Asclepias tuberosa var tuberosa for their New Jersey uplands. What they get instead is Asclepias tuberosa var interior. The “interior” means what it says: this species comes from the landlocked Midwest (like Illinois) and has its own unique ecotype. The buyer receives their seeds, plants them and watches them grow. It cross pollinates with other locally native species, and the genetic dilution begins, unbeknownst, at first, to anyone.
Alternatively, certain Ranger Districts (US Forest Service) will buy tree seedlings to be planted on a mountaintop only if the supplying nursery can prove the seeds were collected from the same mountain range. Similarly, it is not uncommon for an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) biologist to require that the seeds to be used to grow plants for a wetland mitigation project can only originate from the site itself. We’re catching on.
OPLE© plant material is uniquely qualified to mitigate the long-term disasters caused by misplaced genetics; Local Ecotypes tracked in accession codes ensure that unique ecotypes stay where they belong. However, this practice must hold hands with the Open Pollination portion of the acronym. Propagation from nursery stock, even of the exact correct ecotype, will eventually bottleneck genes and swing the pendulum in the other direction. Ecotypes in the wrong locations, like our poor var albas and var interiors, will inevitably contribute to local Outbreeding Depression (OD), while replicating the same genetic information over and over again from a small founder plot results in Inbreeding Depression (ID). ID occurs when genetic material is replicated to the degree that natural mutations and evolutionary advantages are halted. Thus, the plant is unable to adapt to its environment and their hard-won resiliency is lost.
And this is exactly why ArcheWild developed the Open-Pollinated, Local-Ecotype (OPLE©) standard. “OP” plants gain the specific and naturally occurring benefits of authentic and wild populations. “LE” plants preserve the integrity and function of their species in their natural habitat. Together, these advantages are strengthened, ensuring the genetic fitness and appropriateness of every species capable of meeting the standard. In an age where landscapes and plants have been so stripped of their ecological function, OPLE© can be part of the solution.