Propagating Rare Plant Populations on a Shoestring

October 2001

Phil Sheridan gave up a career in banking to devote his life to bogs and the rare plants that inhabit them. Development has destroyed many of these unique habitats in Virginiaand Maryland, and ignorance has hastened the demise of the brilliant mosaic of plants that once thrived in one of nature’s least appreciated and most fascinating environments. Sheridan tells the story in his own words.

I am a native son to Virginia. I bought my first Venus fly trap when I was 12. I thought these were amazing plants. It was absolutely fascinating that a plant could actually eat insects. We don’t have a problem eating vegetation, but when vegetation demands similar treatment, now that really caught my interest. I wanted to see plants like these in the wild, in Virginia. When I got my driver’s license, I started going down to southern Virginia to look for these things. There were old references to them in botanical texts, but all the sites were gone— wipedout. And that’s really upsetting to somebody who wants to see something fascinating that occurs naturally.

These plants that we have here are the charismatic carniflora. These are beautiful plants, but their habitat has been destroyed or degraded. We have had 400 years of European settlement so the land has been ditched, drained, turned into loblolly pine forests, and fire has been prevented. There is a cumulative effect, and after 400 years of these kind of insults, you lose biodiversity. We’re just a microcosm of what is happening worldwide, and we’re working to address this problem locally.

I was in banking for about 10 years and during that time, I was doing a lot of botanical field work in Virginia and Maryland, looking for these plants on my vacations or on weekends. We found some populations of yellow and purple pitcher plants, but none of them were protected. Now I am a persistent fellow and I don’t quit. I left my banking career and went back to school to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and set up Meadowview Biological Research Station as an organization to preserve and restore these rare plant populations.

Meadowview is a small organization. We have three directors including me. I am a board member, president, chief executive officer, treasurer, and everything else. Our volunteers are a huge help. We have home school students, master gardeners, others who just want to help.

We look for new populations of rare plants and we have made some landmark discoveries. The most surprising is probably the Piney Branch Bog in southern Maryland. We were hiking down a power line, very, very gravelly soil, not a place where I would typically expect to find a bog when lo and behold—the motherlode. Now, the power company is building a billion dollar plant, and they are going to put up some money for management of the site. I am sure there are other sites out there we have not found, and those lights are going off all the time.

Once you find a site, there is no guarantee that it is going to be protected. So we get seed from the rare elements and begin propagation. That is the insurance policy. If the site is destroyed, we still have the genetic material for restoration. Some things we can’t propagate, and for some plants, we have come up with new, more efficient techniques.

These plants can now be put back in the wild within their historic ranges in appropriate habitat. We do not usually plant on someone’s land without a conservation easement or strong assurances that the site will be maintained. We have some landowners who want to sell us 100 acres for a bioreserve. They gave us a four-year lease for $12 a year until we raise the money, so we are having a fund drive. We have done a lot of work with our Virginia Department of Transportation. They are allowing the reintroduction of native rare plants on highway right of ways. Now that is totally new. This is the first program that I am aware of where a state agency is reversing historic losses of rare plant populations.

At first they weren’t willing to pay us, so it cost us a lot of money. We’re talking raising these plants, transporting them down there, planting them, flagging them. We’re just a small nonprofit, but now we are getting some compensation to help cover the costs.

We also involved elementary school students. They raised pitcher plants and long leaf pines. They did research on them, explored different fertilizer treatments on them, measured the results. And then, after doing all of that, they returned their plants back to the wild and they did it on guess what—Virginia Department of Transportation right of way. Here are these workers and a bunch of 8-year-olds, planting things back in the wild that are rare. And that has got to be an uplifting experience to a state employee. I can tell you, I saw it.

Our educational objectives here are very important. We are informing them about these plants and how rare they are. If we are failing to educate our citizens about what organisms live and grow around them, how can they make informed decisions voting about these resources?

We are a shoestring operation and most of our money comes from plant sales. Our gross last year was $17,000 and that was a big year. The year before we brought in $7,000, but we have a lot of value for a small investment. A membership is $25, and the attraction is you can get the plants at half price. We have built up to about 150 members.

For the first few years all the funds came out of my pocket. Now I was not a rich banker. I would take money from my teaching assistantship at school or my mowing and put it into this. You think money will just drop out of the sky and it doesn’t.

I’ve worked very hard to be an academic and a scientist here and I don’t want to be pegged as some citizen scientist going out saving the world. To really tackle problems, you have to deal with them on an organizational level because one person can only accomplish so much. There are all these Horatio Alger stories, but that is kind of a myth. It really requires motivating people to be a team to accomplish something.

We have passion for what we are doing. I guess that is typical of small organizations. This is not a 9 to 5 job, it is a 9 to midnight job—well fine, we love what we are doing. It takes some passion in your life to get something done, and if you care about something, then other people care too.

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