Plant Rescue

Behind my fiancé’s office building, there once were signs up warning employees not to feed javelina. There were thick bushes where coyotes hid. There were roadrunners and quail. Now there is a flattened patch of bare earth occupied by heavy construction machinery hidden behind a chain link fence. A place of cactus and palo verde has become a construction zone. There are still rabbits on the grass near the office building that antagonize our dog when I walk Erin to work in the mornings. Gone are the other animals though. It’s hard to even imagine javelina in the area now. The thick desert scrub of plants has become a dusty lot.

The reality is that for better and worse, we live in a rapidly changing world. Forests are turned into subdivisions of houses with small green parks interspersed. Preserves like National and state parks and wildlife reserves save small patches of original habitats but it often leaves isolated islands of wildlife species, unable to connect with other populations of their own. Our culture rather than our species is incredibly disruptive to ecosystems and destructive to individual plants and animals. In the ways of bulldozers and backhoes, what happens to the plants and animals that lived in a once natural ecosystem when it’s developed? Following these thoughts I stumbled upon the idea of plant rescue, a way of salvaging some of a doomed piece of an ecosystem from inevitable development. Wild Ones is an organization dedicated to plant rescue, where volunteers go into an area slated for development and transplant as many of the native plants as possible, a process that Denise Gehring of Wild Ones describes as akin to wildlife rehabilitation but for plants. I asked Denise some questions about her work and Wild Ones in general. In the rest of this article, the text in italics are the words of Denise Gehring, everything else is mine.

It’s interesting what drives people to protect places or species. Usually it comes from a loss of a place at a young age or a love of nature from childhood. Denise told me her background is no different,

I grew up in Queens, NY in an old neighborhood surrounded by gardens, mature trees and diverse urban wildlife. My kindergarten teacher fostered my love of nature with science books and arranged a field trip to my yard. There, classmates shared the joy of nature– hiding under drooping branches of weeping willow, discovering bumble bees and butterflies feeding on colorful flowers, crowing back to the male pheasant, smelling fresh mint, planting flower seeds, and before heading back to school, rolling down our grassy hill. Sadly, by the following spring, most wildlife had not returned to our neighborhood. Earthmovers began to transform the cobblestone farm across the street into a cityscape: high-rise apartments, no trees, shrubs or flowers, or places for wildlife– nothing but hardscapes. It was heart-breaking. Witnessing these harsh environmental changes during childhood set in motion my life-long calling– to protect and restore nature, and to help others develop an appreciation of the natural world so they could become good stewards.
After these brutal lessons at a young age, Denise went to college in Ohio where she studied ecosystems throughout the US and Britain and gained a passion for teaching out of doors. She became an environmental educator and then a park naturalist, where she shared her passion for the environment and outdoors. It was only after she retired as Director of Environmental Programs for the Metroparks of the Toledo Area that Denise discovered a place in Wild Ones and a new job working with plant rescue and natural landscaping. Denise explains the history of Wild Ones, an organization rooted in landscaping but also embraces ecosystem restoration on small scales adding up to (hopefully) large results,
In 1977, nine people attended a natural landscaping workshop offered by the Schlitz Audubon Center of Milwaukee, WI and became very interested in the new concept of landscaping with native plants. Their enthusiasm blossomed into Wild Ones, a national nonprofit organization which educates and shares information with members and community at the “plants roots” level. We try to “heal the earth, one yard at a time.” Today, Wild Ones has 54 chapters nationwide with over 4,000 members that get involved locally with a keen focus to grow, educate and promote the benefits of native plant landscapes to care for the natural environment. Our yards are wildlife-friendly. The Wild Ones national headquarters is at the WILD Center in Neenah Wisconsin surrounded by 16 acres of planted prairie, marsh and riparian woodland in the Great Lakes watershed. Here visitors can learn the “how to’s” of sustainable landscaping, rain gardens, growing habitat for wildlife, and helping monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
The first step in plant rescue is finding areas that are slated for development and getting permission for plant removal/relocation. To my mind, this means cooperation between those who love first and foremost wild places (and ecologies) and those who work to convert these places into human development for a profit. I wondered if this relationship is sometimes fraught with misunderstandings or distrust. Denise told me that most developers aren’t too unfriendly,

As long as you work on their construction timeline, developers readily provide permission to remove plants by conservation groups with waivers for their volunteers. Every once in a while, a developer considers the quality of life and health benefit of a natural common area for the new residents to walk and enjoy nature.

The rescues as Denise described them are very scientific affairs, taking into account not just the plant’s wellbeing but also its ecology,

During rescues, notes and photos of the landscape before development were essential to capture the natural history and conservation of the region. This information was critical for appropriate habitat restoration in the recovery efforts for the federally endangered Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). Original plant locations, associated plants that grow along with the rescue plants were identified providing data about past vegetation for future restoration work. When planted in the new location, plants were mapped and tagged if rare. With technology, it’s easier to use GPS, GIS and database management for landscape records and data sharing with partner conservation agencies, academia, and volunteer groups like Wild Ones for better stewardship of regional biodiversity.

Plant rescue is also an evolving process, becoming more important to local conservation as development increases and animals like butterflies and bees are threatened, the work Denise describes reminds me a bit of reforestation efforts I helped with in Madagascar, where we sometimes collected seeds from the forest to be grown in a nursery and replanted into old agricultural land and other restoration practices I’ve heard of,

For the last decade or more, “rescue” has evolved to be proactive instead of reactive for conservation. Instead of spending too much time on individual plant rescues, we now do longer term planning for landscape level outcomes and regional conservation. If the larger natural landscape’s ecology isn’t functioning and secured, it’s not resilient for the future. Sometimes we preserve a habitat by re-establishing its hydrology or removing invasives such as buckthorn, honeysuckle, garlic mustard, and lesser celandine. In fire-adapted ecosystems, another option is to conduct a prescribed burn to control problem invasives, reduce leaf litter, and warming the soils for greater native growth.
Another “rescue” strategy is native seed collection of 10-30% of the seeds in a wild population. Staff and volunteer crews come together to annually harvest selected local genotype seeds for specific agency projects, including wet prairie restoration and expanding monarch milkweed and nectar resources. The intended use is two-fold: for the conservation project, and as a trustworthy stock source of native plant materials for local native plant sales and natural landscaping. When a community grows natives in their home gardens, beautiful living landscapes, corridors and quality refuges for wildlife are created. We have learned native flora cannot live in parks and preserves alone. Research shows that these collective small-scale efforts add up to be significant, improving the environment and mitigating habitat loss and fragmentation caused by commercial and residential development.

This sort of work, doing the best we can as humans to mitigate losses of habitat to development and restore what we’ve damaged is important. The sad truth is though that despite enormous amounts of effort, time and money, habitat restoration and plant rescue can only do so much. Denise explains,

An unintended consequence is people may think that the individual plants rescued out of harm’s way is the equivalent of protecting wild land, naturally occurring ecosystems and plant communities. This is a false equivalency. We can manage and restore lands by planting native plants and seeds, prescribed fire, repairing hydrology, removing invasive species. It helps the land repair itself more rapidly, but does not create entire, complex ecosystems.

Despite the scale and imprecision involved in recreating even small pieces of an ecosystem, there are some positive results. Using native plants in your own yard means using less precious water, importing less synthetic fertilizer and spraying less toxins, this means better things for the environment as well as you. Native plants also help native wildlife as Denise explains,

Research by entomologist, Douglas W. Tallamy, show that native trees like oaks, willows, cherries, birches, and poplars support 1000s of butterflies and moths which in turn, provide food for birds and other wildlife. As an example, when counted, the oak and pussy willow, can support 999 moths and butterflies if planted in a suburban yard. Tallamy noted that chickadee parents need to find an average of 500 caterpillars each day to feed their nestlings. By planting keystone native tree species, we can help the future survival of wildlife. With the acceleration of climate change, we can also make an impact by what we plant in our home landscapes. Worldwide, native trees are efficient carbon sinks taking up more CO2 from the atmosphere for photosynthesis than it releases. Trees use the carbon to grow roots, branches, trunk and leaves. When the leaves fall, nutrient rich leaf litter and soils are created still storing carbon.

If you’re interested in helping in plant rescue events, visit Wild Ones to find a chapter near you or just google plant rescue organizations. I recently joined the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society, which also engages in plant rescues.

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