National Wildflower Week Day 4: Rescuing Threatened Native Plants

It’s Day 4 of National Wildflower Week, and we’re taking a look at a back list favorite: Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers by Harry R. Phillips (with contributions and collaboration from lots of other folks, including our friends at the North Carolina Botanical Garden).  Named one of the “75 Great Garden Books” by the American Horticultural Society, this has been a go-to guide for gardeners and wildflower enthusiasts alike.

Yesterday’s NWW post was all about conserving these native plants in their natural environments. But what if that environment is threatened?  In this case, to conserve the plants is to rescue them.  Phillips provides a handy guide for how to orchestrate and execute a plant rescue if an area of native plants might meet their demise at the hands of new development or construction.  Continue on for an excerpt on how to rescue these desirable plants and help them live a healthy, happy life in a new location:


How to Organize a Plant Rescue

Native plant rescue, like propagation, is a way to acquire plants for the garden without harming the environment. Each year residential and commercial development and highway construction claim more of the natural landscape. Plant rescue means going into areas destined to go under the bulldozer’s blade and removing desirable plants. It is not the solution to the problem of protecting our rare species, but it does provide opportunities to salvage plants for use in the garden which would otherwise be destroyed and it is a means to preserve a few of our native plants.

Plant rescue should appeal to anyone interested in displaying native wild flowers, shrubs, and ferns. The possibility of acquiring plants of usable size is of course an attractive one. In addition, rescuing plants gives gardeners opportunities to work with native species essentially untried in the home garden. Ruellia caroliniensis, for instance, is a little-used perennial found in dry woods and sandy fields in the southeastern United States. It requires little care and has attractive blue flowers that bloom in summer. We first became aware of the potential of this plant for the home garden when we collected several specimens on a rescue operation and began working with the seeds and taking cuttings.

In addition to botanical institutions and home gardeners, local nurseries, garden clubs, and landscapers will find these operations valuable. For nurseries in particular the can be a source for stock plants of certain species that are generally hard to come by. For example, Green-and-Gold is an outstanding evergreen groundcover that is in considerable demand by wild flower gardeners, but sources of propagated plants are limited. Nursery operators can rescue plants, propagate them by cuttings and division, and in, say, two years’ time offer attractive potted plants for sale.

The Botanical Garden has conducted a native plant rescue program for many years. The success of the program is due largely to the enthusiastic efforts of Garden volunteers. Interested persons are usually quick to respond to the need to plant rescue in the community as a means to save and utilize threatened native plants. Although a plant rescue can be carried out by a group or an individual, a successful rescue involves proper organization, best achieved by establishing a network of cooperating individuals. The following ideas should prove helpful as you organize our rescue operation.

1. Compile a list of individuals and organizations in your area interested in participating in a local rescue. Determine the kinds of native plants they could use–evergreen shrubs, shade-loving wild flowers, ferns, and so forth.

2. Find out about potential rescue sites in your area. Individuals who are in positions to know about local development plans can be invaluable here.

3. When you have targeted a likely site, get written permission from the owner, developer, or holding agency to scout and later remove plants from the site. Most owners are glad to comply once they understand the reasons for the rescue activity. If the owner has any doubts, make it clear that he or she is not legally responsible for anything that may occur during a rescue but is simply allowing your group to enter and remove plants from the site. It is important to have a copy of the permission form, signed by the owner or contractor, in hand during the rescue. Be certain that someone in your group knows exactly the boundaries of the site within which you can remove plants. [See sample Letter of Permission to Dig and Remove Plants on page 315.]

4. Scout the site before digging plants. Ideally, you should try to engage a local botanist to identify the species on the site and an experienced native plant gardener to assess their application in the garden. They can supply information before the dig that will enable rescuers to prepare for the types of incoming plants. Scouts can also tag desirable plants on the site and estimate their numbers.

5. Notify diggers when written permission is secured and the site is deemed worthy of rescue. You would want to let each participant know such details as the time and place to meet, car pool arrangements, tools and equipment needed, proper clothing, plants on the site and their numbers, and a rain date.

6. Prepare for the rescue. When participants know ahead of time the plants they wish to rescue and reestablish in their gardens, they can make proper preparations at home. These may include preparing a new planting bed or making a small nursery area close to a water source where plants can be tended immediately after a rescue.

7. Dig. Make sure everyone knows the boundaries of the site and where they may and may not remove plants. Demonstrate the proper methods for digging the different plants on the site. Woody material will need to be pruned back by two-thirds before removal.

8. Set out rescued wild flowers and ferns in permanent plantings or heel them in in holding beds of loose soil or sawdust as soon as possible.

9. Moisten the plants and beds thoroughly and mist foliage frequently until the root systems recover. Extra care at this critical time will prevent plant loss and keep specimens looking healthy.

10. Thank the landowners or developers for their permission and assistance. Everyone appreciates this courtesy, and some developers are more likely to invite you to conduct plant rescues in the future.


Excerpt from Growing and Propagating Wild Flowers Copyright © 1985 by Harry R. Phillips.