A knot of about eight people is slowly progressing through dense forest, making their way through blackberry and greenbrier vines, over mossy logs, and under loblolly pines and sweetgum trees.
Suddenly there’s a shout.
“Guess what we found?” yells John Clarke, who’s in charge of today’s group. “Aristolochia!”
There’s a sharp intake of breaths, and people gather around a tiny plant with long, narrow leaves rising from the forest floor. It’s Aristolochia serpentaria, or Virginia snakeroot, a tenacious plant beloved by swallowtail butterflies, whose larvae will decimate its foliage but not kill it.
And it’s native to this area, which makes it valuable today. Someone procures a shovel, quickly digs it up, and deposits it into a bag.
This is what’s known as a plant rescue. The participants are combing a plot of land slated for development, identifying the native plants they deem worthy, and digging them up for their own gardens and other uses.
“We’re just trying to save native plants,” says Tom Harville, a leader of the Triangle’s plant rescue movement. “We’re racing the bulldozersthe cutters and the graders.”
He and his colleagues have organized plant rescues all over the area: prior to new construction in Research Triangle Park, before the development of the toll road that connects N.C. 147 to I-540, and during the creation of greenways in Cary. They spent months clearing out a site that was flooded to create Randleman Lake near Greensboro.
Most of the people who do this are members of the N.C. Native Plant Society, a group of about seven hundred around the state whose goal is to preserve plants native to this region. Rather than a xenophobic impulse, it’s an effort to aid the underdog: many of the area’s invasive plants, like Japanese stiltgrass and Russian olive, are aggressive and can quickly take over, throwing the fragile ecosystem out of balance.
The philosophy isn’t new; plant rescues have been occurring in the state since the 1960s. The fruits of many of those early efforts populated the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, which opened its doors in 1966, as well as Duke Gardens and botanical gardens in Greensboro and Charlotte. And the best specimens of the current rescues wind up in some of those collections, too.
TodayJune 9the group is working a sixty-six-acre plot off Eubanks Road near Pittsboro that’s part of the giant Chatham Park. Though the development has largely faded from the headlines, its construction is continuing; Preston Development, the company building Chatham Park, now owns over eight thousand acres just east of Pittsboro.
Not every developer is comfortable allowing plant rescues on its land.
“They think, You’re just trying to find something rare to stop my development,” explains Harville, a former Native Plant Society president who lives in Cary.
He contacted the Chatham Park people via email several years ago and didn’t get much of a response. But he had a stroke of luck one night after dining in downtown Pittsboro. Spying Julian “Bubba” Rawl and Tim Smith, the owners of Preston Development, on the town’s main drag, he introduced himself and told them about the plant rescues.
“And Tim Smith said, ‘Oh, that’s a marvelous idea,’” remembers Harville.
That was in early 2016. Since then, the native plant people have been spending months at each parcelthere are manybefore it’s declared off-limits and the construction vehicles move in. Last summer, they explored an area about a half mile to the west of this one and found quite a few notable plants, including the lily-leaved Twayblade orchid and hundreds of ferns. A year later, the property is a giant, treeless red-clay gash in the earth.
During today’s rescue, Clarke and the others muse about how the land will be used in the futurethis section is slated to become a power substationbut there’s no resentment in their voices; they’re plant nerds, not activists. Still, the difference between this site and the flattened parcel is almost unfathomable. This one is teeming with life so dense that one can barely see a hundred feet ahead; it’s a few orders of magnitude beyond walking in Duke Forest or Umstead Park.
And yet the native plantssmall, shade-loving flora with subtle characteristicsare almost impossible to spot. Which is why this group of mostly self-trained aficionados is helpful.
“Oh look, black snakeroot,” says Clarke, the plant society’s vice president and a Chatham County resident.
“No, that’s not black snakeroot,” says Judy West, a retired teacher who lives near High Point and seems to be the resident expert on this outing. Like everyone else, she wears a hat, long sleeves, and long pants tucked into socks to keep the ticks at bay.
In the end, the plant rescuers find partridgeberry, Jack-in-the-pulpit, lobelia, and wild ginger, but none of those plants is particularly notable.
Some sites are more fruitful, though. The land that became Randleman Lake, for example, had thousands of trillium, a delicate plant that flowers in the spring. But they couldn’t be rescued.
“They’re all underwater now,” says Harville.