by Neal Laferriere
Sitting with my daughter Aislinn at the top of a steep ridge in Highland County, Virginia, we can see for miles. The beauty of this place is stunning. It is April 14th, 2018, and we as we look down at the beauty of the valley our focus is on a 125 foot path. It cuts up over the ridge we are on and continues for more than two miles across the centennial farm below us in the valley before going up the next mountain. It is only marked with orange marking tape.
This 125 foot path is the right of way for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and everything on this path is slated to be cut down and dozed. So we take a moment to give thanks for the brushstrokes of nature as we begin our search. Aislinn and I begin our descent looking for native plants that our group can rescue.
On the other side of the valley my wife Beth is leading a small group of herbalists and plant protectors through another area rescuing plants what we had identified on a previous visit. Today we have the venerable Kat Maier from Sacred Plant Tradition (president of United Plant Savers) and several of her clinicians and students helping save the plants in the path of destruction. They are working with hepatica (Hepatica spp.), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), and partridge berry (Mitchella repens)—beautiful spring ephemerals on death row.
Back on our side as we climb down, we are looking for medicinals and rare plants to rescue. We come across a huge patch of mixed cohosh, black (Actaea racemosa) and blue (Caulophyllum thalictroides). Interspersed through the patch is bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) popping up all over the place. I hit the radio to let our group know we will be moving to this side of the valley.
As the group joins us, we work together to rescue as many of the plants as possible. We spend time with the land owner and a few of her family explaining the properties of the plants. My twins explain the difference between the black and blue cohosh roots (“ Blue cohosh roots look like cooked ramen and black look more like worms.”) Working together we rescue hundreds of pounds of roots. We learn about the passion each of us has for the plants, we laugh, and we share the sorrow of the loss of habitat that this invasive infrastructure project will destroy.
The next day my family and I spend a few quiet moments replanting some of the rescued plants with the land owner in a safe location close to her house.
This is what plant activism can look like!
In our ever progressive world there is a very real need for folks to become more involved with efforts just like this one. From large infrastructure projects like the one I described to road construction, housing developments, to any variety of habitat destruction you can imagine. The plants are losing ground every day.
We may not be able to stop all of these projects and the expansion as our population continues to expand. What we can do is protect the native and at risk plants! We can protect the genetic diversity of plant species! We can take these plants off death row and put them into a protected environment that will ensure they thrive and reproduce.
Our rescued plants found homes at many places including the United Plant Savers plant sanctuary in Ohio, the Rentschler Arboretum, and the University of Virginia Wise County botanical garden. We have given them a new home where they will be used to help educate others on their value. Everyone that volunteers at our rescues also takes a few plants home to plant in their area or gardens.
We chose plant activism for a couple reasons. The first is our love for the plants and the environment. The second is we felt that a proactive approach allowed us to resist these projects with less risk. Third was the ability to create a positive of something we define as negative.
I would encourage you to get involved! It is not difficult to get started. Find a project near you that is going to take plant habitat. Reach out to the landowners and ask if they will let you rescue the plants.
You would be surprised how many people will be happy to let you do it!
Once you have permission, set a date and call some friends. If possible relocate some of the rescued plants onto the same property.
If you would like more details or have questions about getting involved, please feel free to reach out to me at Blackberrybotanicals@gmail or on our Facebook group, Appalachian Native Plant Rescue. We are happy to help and have permission slips and release forms available to share.
Neal Laferriere is the co-owner with his wife Beth of Blackberry Springs Farm and Blackberry Botanical. His love of native medicinals is evident on his sustainable certified organic forest farm in the mountains of West Virginia. Neal and his family have been leading plant rescues across the two Virginias as well as teaching others how to get involved.