Story and Photos by Paul Clark
In the not-too-distant future, when fire rakes a portion of federal land in the Southeast, workers will replant native grasses and wildflowers from seeds that were propagated at Warren Wilson.
The College is working with the U.S. Forest Service to grow seeds that are native to forestland in Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and both Carolinas. The College’s Native Plants Crew is nurturing five types of grasses and six types of wildflowers on the one-acre Fortune Field on campus.
“Biology is abstract theory until we come out here and realize this is how it works in this Southern Appalachian ecosystem,” said crew member Emily Ehley, an environmental education major from Eugene, Ore., on a recent walk through the field.
“At most schools, you can sit all morning in a lab,” said fellow crew member Charity Villines of Federal Way, Wash., “and here I go from a genetics class to working in the field. It really gets to what I’m learning. And it gets me out in the sunshine every morning.”
Crew member Nick Ford of Thurston, Ohio, said, “It sounds kind of silly, but the Fortune field is my refuge. That’s where I go to forget about all my academics, though I’ve learned so much up there.”
Warren Wilson’s association with the U.S. Forest Service began in 1999, when the forest service asked the College to grow seed it had collected from federal land in five states. Not much came of that partnership until three years ago when the federal agency asked the College to start harvesting the seed from the plants that had been growing all that time.
But throughout all the years, the campus has benefited from the program. It is much more colorful because of the grasses and wildflowers that have gradually replaced non-native plants. All the native plants on campus were grown from seeds collected within a 50-mile radius of the College.
The steep embankment above an entrance to DeVries Athletic Center used to have turf grass that was dangerous to mow. The hillside had eroded in places. Working with the existing dogwoods, members of the Native Plants Crew designed and planted Indian grass and put in wildflowers, such as Echinacea and Columbine.
Now the area doesn’t have to be mowed, fertilized or watered (indigenous plants are much hardier than non-native plants). The new plantings are holding the hillside together. And because they attract lots of birds, they provide a bit of color to students heading into the gym for a bit of cardio. The College is spending less on fuel and its air is that much cleaner, as there are patches like this one all over campus.
“This will never be a totally native environment because this is a ‘built’ environment,” Ehley said. “But we want to return it, as much as we can, to what it could be so that we’re having less impact on the land.”
The forest service has been stockpiling the seed it gets from Warren Wilson and will soon provide some to a Kentucky seed nursery to grow plants that will create even more seed. Within a few years, the forest service will have enough stock to plant the seeds of native grasses and wildflowers along streams and rivers.
With her degree, Ehley wants to create spaces that support plants, wildlife and humans.
“Being on this crew has totally changed my life,” she said. “I probably wouldn’t have realized how much I love this.”