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Culturing the Land: Native Species Restores Locale

Biology students took to the field once again May 14 to 17 at St. Cloud Park to promote ecological restoration through the outplanting of native plant species, which students nurtured from seedlings in Clark’s greenhouse.

The Native Plant Center is a Clark program that replaced the horticulture program, designed to offer environmental and biology students hands-on work fostering native plant growth, an introduction to fieldwork with professionals in agriculture agencies and an appreciation for ecological restoration.

Biology student and environmental sciences major Rachelle Allee said that “Bringing students out there was honestly shocking,” and that she was excited to visit a national park, get some dirt on her hands and tour the sites while learning which species were native versus invasive.

“It was nice to have that connection with the start of the growth and then being able to actually put it out in nature and let it do its own thing,” Allee said. Since the outplanting project at St. Cloud, an old homestead property nestled in the Columbia river gorge, she said she’s gone back to check up on her plants’ progress.

Allee said she’s developed a respect for native plants’ importance to the ecosystem and individual habitats because she’s experienced what they do. “They have value to humans also and not just to other animals,” Allee said. “That benefits the preservation of that area.”

She said her desire to engage in a career of conservation comes from observing dilapidated habitats and ecosystems. “I see that the human race has kind of done a lot of damage and I want to fix that,” Allee said. “It coincides with my passion because I get so excited about nature.”

Allee’s biology professor, Kathleen Perillo, also a co-director of the Native Plant Center, said natives promote ecological biodiversity and enable a natural cycle in the same way certain animals hold together the food chain.

Perillo said the goal of the outplanting project is to make headway toward restoring the St. Cloud Park, but also to inspire students to carry parts of the restoration home with them.

“Restoration never ends,” she said. “Nature is in a dynamic system. It’s an ongoing process but I just went out there yesterday and what was planted two years ago is beautiful. The lupines are blooming. Everything’s fabulous.”

Perillo said students may outplant to an additional site next year, the Sams Walker hiking trail in southwest Washington. The United States Forest Service is currently removing invasive plant species from Sams Walker in preparation of Clark students planting natives.

“It used to be blackberries, so just always think of that,” Perillo said, referring to the headway students have made in previous St. Cloud outplantings, such as the recent addition of shrubs that will block any future resprouting of the invasive himalayan blackberry.

Perillo said caring for the environment is similar to caring for your immune system when you catch a cold and that it has the same value. “The land will tell a story and we just have to interpret that,” she said.

Erin Harwood, biology instructor and co-director of the Native Plant Center said they hope St. Cloud will eventually become a wildlife corridor of native plants and “untouched patches,” making the area near the highway a safer, more accessible habitat for the indigenous wildlife.

Harwood said the Native Plant Center holds contracts with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the United States Forest Service and a partnership with the Center for Ecodynamic Restoration. Harwood said students grow plants for those organizations’ restoration projects on both sides of the Cascades because they don’t have the infrastructure to do it themselves.

She said this benefits students because they get to meet people in the agency and emerge into the environmental field no matter their major.

Perillo said this opportunity is valuable because most Clark students are “still in the exploratory stage” of their career paths.

“I think exposure is really key because our goal isn’t to make everybody a scientist, but it is to show the students all the different ways that you can employ science,” she said.

Colin Smith, an environmental biology student who participated in the St. Cloud outplanting last quarter, said he felt fulfilled after the trip.

“It’s definitive progress,” he said.

During the trip, Smith took the role of digging holes for the plants to be set into. He said it gave him the same feeling as “when you’re mowing a field and you can look back at it and see, physically, the progress and know and understand your part in making that progress.”

He said he plans on adapting his own backyard to harbor native species so it will attract local wildlife, just like the changes he created during the outplanting project.  

Plants are like any other life form, Smith said, remembering back to the outplanting and painting a mental image of how his efforts will look upon the changed landscape years from now. “Life needs to be supported and nurtured.”


Native Plant Center

Just a year after Clark’s horticulture program shut down in 2011, two biology instructors plopped a lone table in front of the greenhouse with potted strawberries, cacti and other stray plants lining its front, with miniature sale tags on each.  

“I put a table out one day and had a little plant sale,” Native Plant Center co-director Kathleen Perillo said, giggling and commenting on the inspiration she felt, “we were like, ‘we could really do this!’”

Perillo and her colleague, co-director Erin Harwood, knew in Fall 2012 it was their chance to reinvent the program and the greenhouse so that they would revolve specifically around aboriginal plants.  

Elizabeth Jans, a part-time faculty member recently hired to organize the annual plant sale, said there were “tons of plants wasting away” in the greenhouse due to overgrowth and that most faculty and students don’t know the greenhouse exists.

Her position, she said, has turned into that of a promotional and redesigning tool. She has built an official website, email, logo and some informational handouts for the center.

Jans said she’s also working across departments because “it’s super important to recognize everyone’s skill sets.” She said she’s reaching out to students with art degrees or architecture interests to spice up the greenhouse.

“The siding on the greenhouse, I think that hasn’t been replaced since ever,” Jans said. “I don’t think it’s ever been replaced so our plants are crawling for light.”

She said it’s hard to restore something genetic to an environment once it’s already gone, which is why it’s important to keep activity in the greenhouse.

Harwood said she hopes to create an option for the campus community to volunteer in the greenhouse during finals week as stress relief.  “Our students always say how relaxing it is,” Harwood said. Once, she said, a student reported feeling “zenned out” while giving grasses a haircut.

Perillo said people go to their gardens “for respite and relaxation” and she hopes the Native Plant Center can share those benefits with the whole campus.


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