Before the Bulldozers Come, the N.C. Native Plant Society Tries to Rescue the Plants | North Carolina | Indy Week
Pin It

Before the Bulldozers Come, the N.C. Native Plant Society Tries to Rescue the Plants 

Diane Laslie digs up a Downy rattlesnake plantain while on a plant rescue outing at a Chatham Park development site near Pittsboro.

Photos by Alex Boerner

Diane Laslie digs up a Downy rattlesnake plantain while on a plant rescue outing at a Chatham Park development site near Pittsboro.

A knot of about eight people is slowly progressing through dense forest, making their way through blackberry and greenbrier vines, over mossy logs, and under loblolly pines and sweetgum trees.

Suddenly there's a shout.

"Guess what we found?" yells John Clarke, who's in charge of today's group. "Aristolochia!"

There's a sharp intake of breaths, and people gather around a tiny plant with long, narrow leaves rising from the forest floor. It's Aristolochia serpentaria, or Virginia snakeroot, a tenacious plant beloved by swallowtail butterflies, whose larvae will decimate its foliage but not kill it.

And it's native to this area, which makes it valuable today. Someone procures a shovel, quickly digs it up, and deposits it into a bag.

This is what's known as a plant rescue. The participants are combing a plot of land slated for development, identifying the native plants they deem worthy, and digging them up for their own gardens and other uses.

"We're just trying to save native plants," says Tom Harville, a leader of the Triangle's plant rescue movement. "We're racing the bulldozers—the cutters and the graders."

He and his colleagues have organized plant rescues all over the area: prior to new construction in Research Triangle Park, before the development of the toll road that connects N.C. 147 to I-540, and during the creation of greenways in Cary. They spent months clearing out a site that was flooded to create Randleman Lake near Greensboro.

Most of the people who do this are members of the N.C. Native Plant Society, a group of about seven hundred around the state whose goal is to preserve plants native to this region. Rather than a xenophobic impulse, it's an effort to aid the underdog: many of the area's invasive plants, like Japanese stiltgrass and Russian olive, are aggressive and can quickly take over, throwing the fragile ecosystem out of balance.

The philosophy isn't new; plant rescues have been occurring in the state since the 1960s. The fruits of many of those early efforts populated the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, which opened its doors in 1966, as well as Duke Gardens and botanical gardens in Greensboro and Charlotte. And the best specimens of the current rescues wind up in some of those collections, too.

Today—June 9—the group is working a sixty-six-acre plot off Eubanks Road near Pittsboro that's part of the giant Chatham Park. Though the development has largely faded from the headlines, its construction is continuing; Preston Development, the company building Chatham Park, now owns over eight thousand acres just east of Pittsboro.

Not every developer is comfortable allowing plant rescues on its land.

"They think, You're just trying to find something rare to stop my development," explains Harville, a former Native Plant Society president who lives in Cary.

He contacted the Chatham Park people via email several years ago and didn't get much of a response. But he had a stroke of luck one night after dining in downtown Pittsboro. Spying Julian "Bubba" Rawl and Tim Smith, the owners of Preston Development, on the town's main drag, he introduced himself and told them about the plant rescues.

"And Tim Smith said, 'Oh, that's a marvelous idea,'" remembers Harville.

That was in early 2016. Since then, the native plant people have been spending months at each parcel—there are many—before it's declared off-limits and the construction vehicles move in. Last summer, they explored an area about a half mile to the west of this one and found quite a few notable plants, including the lily-leaved Twayblade orchid and hundreds of ferns. A year later, the property is a giant, treeless red-clay gash in the earth.

During today's rescue, Clarke and the others muse about how the land will be used in the future—this section is slated to become a power substation—but there's no resentment in their voices; they're plant nerds, not activists. Still, the difference between this site and the flattened parcel is almost unfathomable. This one is teeming with life so dense that one can barely see a hundred feet ahead; it's a few orders of magnitude beyond walking in Duke Forest or Umstead Park.

And yet the native plants—small, shade-loving flora with subtle characteristics—are almost impossible to spot. Which is why this group of mostly self-trained aficionados is helpful.

"Oh look, black snakeroot," says Clarke, the plant society's vice president and a Chatham County resident.

"No, that's not black snakeroot," says Judy West, a retired teacher who lives near High Point and seems to be the resident expert on this outing. Like everyone else, she wears a hat, long sleeves, and long pants tucked into socks to keep the ticks at bay.

In the end, the plant rescuers find partridgeberry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, lobelia, and wild ginger, but none of those plants is particularly notable.

Some sites are more fruitful, though. The land that became Randleman Lake, for example, had thousands of trillium, a delicate plant that flowers in the spring. But they couldn't be rescued.

"They're all underwater now," says Harville.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in North Carolina



Twitter Activity

Comments

Looking for a home for myself and my boys. I also have one on the way. I am in college …

by Amanda Sharek on Abandoned mobile homes plague North Carolina (North Carolina)

Have to disagree with ct. When did the N and O last provide strong city and county govt news coverage …

by Leanne Sigmon on The N&O Promises Less Spinach. What Does That Mean for Local News Consumers? (North Carolina)

Most Recent Comments

Looking for a home for myself and my boys. I also have one on the way. I am in college …

by Amanda Sharek on Abandoned mobile homes plague North Carolina (North Carolina)

Have to disagree with ct. When did the N and O last provide strong city and county govt news coverage …

by Leanne Sigmon on The N&O Promises Less Spinach. What Does That Mean for Local News Consumers? (North Carolina)

I fear the N&O wants to bet its future on being the "newspaper of record" for state government and is …

by ct on The N&O Promises Less Spinach. What Does That Mean for Local News Consumers? (North Carolina)

To clarify my comment in the article: my feelings are that the reader-focused shift is not NECESSARILY a bad move.

by andrew losowsky on The N&O Promises Less Spinach. What Does That Mean for Local News Consumers? (North Carolina)

I dropped my long-time subscription to the N&O after a columnist wrote a love letter to Art Pope because he …

by SomeCallMe...Tim on The N&O Promises Less Spinach. What Does That Mean for Local News Consumers? (North Carolina)

© 2017 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation