Seasons at the Sanctuary: Our Americorps Journey

By: Alexis Mikanik, Hana Duncan, LaRanda Piatt

Americorp Program Overview

There are many ways to get involved in environmental conservation initiatives, one of which is by volunteering through AmeriCorps, a national service program focusing on community development, environmental restoration, and climate action. During an AmeriCorps one-year term of service, members work to implement a variety of service projects, ranging from community tree plantings to hosting environmental education events. For their term of service, members receive a living allowance, education award, health insurance, and other benefits, including gaining new skills, knowledge, and experience for their career paths. The Appalachian Ohio Restore Corps (AORC) is a state level AmeriCorps program sponsored by Rural Action Inc. and connects volunteers with nonprofit organizations involved in natural resource conservation, agriculture, environmental education, and other related endeavors. There are currently 70 AmeriCorps positions available through AORC in Southeast Ohio, including three here at United Plant Savers (UpS). The AmeriCorps team this year includes Alexis (2nd year), Hana (2nd year), and LaRanda (1st year).

Planting Stock Production

While serving our AmeriCorps term at United Plant Savers we have been very grateful to work so closely with the almost 400 acres of forest, tall grass prairie, and reclaimed mine sites here at the sanctuary. Much of our time over the last two years has been spent learning how to propagate at-risk species, planting root production beds in the forest, and helping to organize forest farming workshops and educational events. Ultimately, we hope that our efforts will pay off, and UpS will be able to provide members, and the broader forest farming community, with sustainably sourced planting stock for at-risk species.

In September, we began our term planting goldenseal and other medicinal roots, including false unicorn root, Solomon’s seal, black and blue cohosh, trillium, and bloodroot. The first step in our planting process was to select suitable sites that would provide the habitat needed for our desired species. After a site had been selected, each bed was planted using a string-line system to make sure there was consistent spacing between rows, and that the roots have plenty of room to spread. The string provided a nice guide for our tools as we excavated each shallow planting furrow.

For two months, site preparation and digging were our daily grind. After each bed was planted, we calculated how many roots were in each bed, and recorded the location. During the past two years, approximately 200 pounds of goldenseal, and 120 pounds of mixed woodland species have been planted.

We also had the opportunity to build raised beds and learn how to propagate roots under artificial shade. Each bed was constructed using local lumber, and measured approximately 5’ W x 40’ L x 14” D. Absent of native forest soil, each bed needed to be filled with a mixture of compost and organic minerals to provide essential nutrients for healthy root growth. To provide the necessary habitat conditions, 70% shade cloth was erected over each bed to simulate the natural forest environment. Finally, the beds were planted with a mixture of goldenseal, bloodroot, trillium, Solomon’s seal, and false unicorn root. Ultimately these beds will be a source of fast growing roots to propagate, and provide a demonstration site for folks who want to grow forest herbs, but may not have suitable forest habitats to do so.

Woodland Creatures/Nature Sightings

In our role as trail stewards, we have had the opportunity to develop our naturalist skills by observing the Sanctuary’s flora and fauna. One day whilst planting, we continuously unearthed earthworms that were tied in knots. We learned that this phenomenon is called estivation, and earthworms do this as a means of survival. Unlike mammals, earthworms must stay moist in order to absorb dissolved oxygen through their skin, and into their bloodstream. When the soil is dry, they tie themselves in knots and hibernate until the rain returns and soil moisture increases.

We were also able to observe several species of caterpillars on their host plants, including Laurel & Pawpaw sphinx moth larvae feeding on spicebush and pawpaw. Over the course of the seasons, we have witnessed moths in various life stages, including pupation under leaves and soil, and even death in the form of cordyceps (Akanthomyces aculeatus). Cordyceps is a type of parasitic fungus that targets numerous arthropod species and serves as a biological population control. Once infected, the host will become disoriented and climb to a higher elevation, where its tissue will become mycelium and then disperse spores.

Along with winged ephemeral creatures, we’ve also encountered amphibious ones, such as chirping gray treefrogs and wandering red efts. Wood frogs and spring peepers are starting to call as we write this. Spring is just around the bend and we’re anticipating the return of migrant species and the emergence of new life.

Workshops & Volunteer Days

Over the past two years of our service, we have been able to help engage community members through volunteer and environmental education opportunities. These events are a great opportunity to teach people about medicinal plant conservation, and showcase how sustainable cultivation and management practices can be used to restore populations of at-risk species.

As one of our first activities we organized an Earth Day volunteer outing for our fellow AmeriCorps members. Our goal for the day was to plant 30 red elm (Ulmus rubra) trees, more commonly known as “slippery” elm in the herbal trade, with the hope of creating a future seed nursery and education/demonstration site for sanctuary guests. Unfortunately, slippery elm is becoming increasingly rare and is being pushed to the margins by habitat loss, Dutch elm disease, and the detrimental harvesting of bark from living trees for use in herbal products. Small nurseries like the one we planted will be an important source of local seed stock that can be used to propagate new seedlings, and demonstrate how this “at-risk” species can be sustainably managed for both valuable medicine and ecological diversity.

Another way we have been able to engage the community has been through organizing and
hosting educational events about forest farming. Forest farming is the cultivation of high value
crops under the protection of the tree canopy. Last year we were able to participate in three
workshops focused on ramps, goldenseal, and American ginseng. Overall, the goal of these
workshops are to help aspiring herb growers learn how to successfully cultivate these unique forest
species, and market sustainable forest grown goods. Our favorite memory from these events was
demonstrating how to make value-added products with ramps, which included a tasty ramp pesto
and ramp seasoning salt. While harvesting the leaves for these demonstrations, we wanted to make
sure we collected mindfully in a sustainable way; in essence, this involves only collecting one leaf
per plant, while leaving the bulb to continue growing.

Medicinal Plant Propagation & Harvesting Knowledge

Interacting with a diversity of medicinal plants, and learning how to propagate, harvest, and properly use them, has been a definite perk of serving at United Plant Savers. Two of the species we have worked with closely are butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Butterfly weed is used medicinally to remedy dry coughs, commonly brought on by bronchitis. It is an expectorant and helps keep moisture around the lungs. Most commonly used for immune system enhancement, Echinacea can also soothe sprained muscles as it is a great anti-inflammatory.

In the fall of 2021 we collected butterfly weed seeds from the prairie here at the sanctuary, cleaned them by removing the downy fluff, and planted them in flats to stratify over winter. Spring brought us successful germination, and we were able to raise about 200 seedlings! Once the seedlings were mature enough, we transplanted them to a raised bed filled with rich compost where they thrived, and even bloomed in their first year.

Next to our butterfly weed planting, there was a large bed filled with purple coneflower that we spent two seasons helping to weed, water, deadhead, and mulch. Since the plants had reached maturity and were starting to overgrow the confines of their bed, it was time to harvest the plants and make room for something new. We carefully dug the roots and untangled them from each other. Cutting away excess fibrous roots, we began the long washing process to make sure all soil was removed and that roots were cut down to a proper drying size. After drying for several days in our greenhouse, the material was packaged up and sent to a facility where it will be made into medicine!

Conclusion

Overall, our time here has been incredibly rewarding. Witnessing the sanctuary change throughout the seasons and watching the seeds we’ve planted grow has been truly magical! We intend to finish our service knowing we made a lasting positive impact on these beautiful Appalachian foothills.