The Native Plant Rescue Squad saves endangered flora to preserve East Tennessee’s ecosystem

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Gerry Moll trudges uphill over uneven ground, leaning forward to drag a large wagon behind him. He’s on a rescue mission. He needs to save small, stranded lives. But he’s not in a hurry.

His patients aren’t going anywhere. They are both literally and figuratively rooted in this place, a farm gone to seed in the Appalachian foothills.

Moll and his friend Joy Grissom are salvaging plants. Not just any plants—these are special, even though they are neither rare nor exotic. Many of them have names that end in “wort,” “weed,” or “bane.” But these are native plants that evolved right here in East Tennessee, along with the insects and birds that rely on them. East Tennessee has an incredibly diverse ecosystem, supporting many rare plant and animal populations—but it’s a package deal.

Moll and Grissom are the founders of the nonprofit Native Plant Rescue Squad, one of the only organizations of its kind in the Southeast: It preserves plants that would otherwise be destroyed by construction, development, or logging projects, then sells them at modest prices to home gardeners, educating folks in the process about the value of these “locals” for wildlife.

By their own calculations, the rescue squad—which consists of Moll, Grissom, and a handful of reliable volunteers—has saved more than 10,500 plants in the last two years, spreading them through the suburban landscape.

“All habitat can’t be bought and preserved,” Moll says. “This is a different model for conservation: a call for gardeners to be part of the movement.”

Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll (above) rescue young perennials and trees from a Mascot farm gone to seed.

In Search of a Doll’s Eye

On this hot spring evening, Grissom and Moll are rescuing plants at Brian Melton’s 11-acre farm in Mascot. Melton met Moll at a plant swap and invited the rescue squad to dig up perennials and small trees before Melton bush-hogs the old fields. The Bearden High School English teacher bought the farm recently and is slowly trying to convert the overgrown, dense young trees and vines back to farmland or more natural habitat. He’s already planted 300 feet of muscadine vines.

When Moll and Grissom pull up, Melton emerges from the house flashing a blinding smile circled by close-cropped red hair and beard. Practically bouncing with enthusiasm, he shows off his many projects—the plywood for making bat houses is hanging from his truck bed and he is shaping a giant bowl from a tree burl.

Grissom asks if he likes mushrooms, telling him she has spotted some morels on his property.

He almost jumps forward. “Where?” he asks.

“I’ll show you sometime, up that way,” Grissom points.

“Take me there now!” he demands, and starts walking.

“It’s really great having a land owner like him who’s really into it,” Moll says.

They agree to drive—Moll and Grissom in a truck, Melton on an ATV—closer to the mushroom spot, off an ATV trail where Moll wants to rescue some plants that are bound to get run over. Grissom climbs in the back of the pickup and holds on for dear life as Moll drives it over the bumpy, grassy hills behind Melton’s house. He gets stuck and the tires spin.

“This happened before,” Moll says, backing up and trying again several times. Grissom hollers from behind, but Moll assumes it’s commentary on the rough ride.

Finally he hears her yell clearly, “Go really fast!”

He backs up and revs it, and they make the hump, Grissom banging into the cart and shovels.

When they reach the base of the ATV trail, they stop and Grissom leads the land owner off to look for mushrooms while Moll carefully digs up about 15 mayapples, their single big leaves like hands with rounded fingers.

“Are there any split ones?” Grissom asks when she returns. “People ask for those.” She explains that only those with split stems produce fruit, although it’s more of big lemon-shaped berry than an apple. “You can eat it,” she says. “It’s real sweet.” She and Moll admit they haven’t tried it, but its jelly-like interior reportedly has a tropical taste.

From here the mountains are visible through the trees’ sparse leaves. Little green sprouts poke up around the toes of the trees, seemingly too small to identify, but Moll and Grissom can name most.

Moll asks Grissom to identify one he can’t. “That’s bugbane, or doll’s eye,” she says, two names that are hard to imagine as alternates for each other. The names of native plants often reflect their folk uses—like spleenwort—but also often frank descriptions of their appearance-, like leafy elephant’s foot, turtlehead, hairy skull cap, and hearts-a-bustin’. Here you find none of the garden center monikers invoking fairies or island sunsets.

How do they choose which plants to save? Do they prefer flowering perennials, or those that host special insects, or unusual native grasses?

“The goal is just to get as much variety into people’s landscape as possible,” Moll says. They have more than 80 kinds of shrubs, trees and plants awaiting sale, usually at the Saturday farmer’s market in Market Square, where Moll and Grissom often talk to 100 visitors a day.

Moll’s favorite native plant?

“I’ve always had a thing for bloodroot,” he says wistfully.

Joy Grissom (above) and Gerry Moll rescue young perennials and trees from a Mascot farm gone to seed.

Your Own Little National Park

Grissom and Moll became hiking buddies about a decade ago, mourning together when they saw swaths of beautiful mountain forests destroyed by development.

Grissom has a master’s in public health and nutrition, “but I wasn’t fit for an office job,” she says. It’s tough to imagine her at a desk: She has a relaxed, tanned, grubby-at-the-knees-and-elbows look most of the time, her sun-bleached hair pulled into a loose knot with a few wisps trailing around her face. She always did horticulture and landscaping on the side, and eventually plants became her vocation. She worked at Stanley’s Greenhouse before taking her current job at the Knoxville Botanical Garden.

Moll, a sculptor from Oregon whose work is dominated by nature themes, also looks most comfortable outdoors. He pads around barefoot on hot asphalt when he emerges from his truck, his slightly kinky long hair pulled into a graying ponytail. Although he’s been involved in landscaping for three decades, he also has a master’s degree in fine art and lives on his commissions.

Moll uses his art to convey a warning about how fast-spreading exotic plants often crowd out natives. Visitors to his invasive species sculpture workshops, held at places like the botanical garden and the Knoxville Museum of Art, have helped him shape invasive privet, honeysuckle, and other pest plants into animal forms.

Grissom admits the two friends started their native preservation adventure with a few unauthorized “guerrilla rescues,” like planting some river birches that had been left with roots exposed to the cold by government landscapers. Then a friend allowed them to rescue plants in the path of trucks and bulldozers when he conducted selective logging.

In 2015, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture certified them as wild plant collectors and they officially created the rescue squad.

They want to start partnering with developers directly, removing plants from development sites and later landscaping the finished sites with natives, if desired.

Grissom says their best example of this kind of partnership so far was in Fountain City, where Grissom noticed a billboard labeled “Coming Soon: Planet Fitness” over a prairie lot full of milkweed, ironweed, and goldenrod. She called the developer, David Fiser, offering to save some plants and consult on the landscaping. Fiser says his child’s class happened to be studying monarch butterflies right then, and has been glad to let the rescue squad remove plants. The field hasn’t been developed because the business moved into an existing building on the parcel, but the rescue squad goes there periodically to save plants before mowing.

Grissom says she has sent a hundred letters to other developers across East Tennessee offering the group’s services, with almost no response. The rescue squad has created a model contract to let land owners set parameters like when and where rescues happen and what can be removed.

The rescue squad has also saved plants from at least 18 smaller building and residential sites as well as large logging sites in Kodak and Hartford. They have coordinated with the Appalachian Mountain Bike Club to retrieve plants before bike trails are built, and Moll is talking with officials in Pigeon Forge about rescuing plants in the path of the planned Jake Thomas Extension there. Moll and Leo Lubke, president of the Smoky Mountain Chapter of the native plant advocacy group Wild Ones, say they haven’t heard of any other organization in the Southeast doing what the rescue squad does.

Grissom and Moll sell their harvests at farmer’s markets, festivals, neighborhood plant swaps, and Stanley’s Greenhouse, which gives them pots. The botanical garden has provided them space to pot and store plants. A handful of volunteers gather there on Tuesday nights, flitting among waist-high wooden frame beds.

Grissom instructs two new volunteers, Sam Kernan and Becca Novello, in making labels for pots of yellow trillium. The spring ephemeral flowers have gone dormant, so they look like pots of dirt.

Kernan, who works at Stanley’s Greenhouse, and Novello, who works on ecological modeling at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, had attended a rescue squad workshop about native plants at the botanical garden the previous weekend.

Kernan says he felt drawn to help because “I love the mission and vision of taking your own yard, and saving work and saving time by using native plants to make it into your own little national park. Good habitat doesn’t have to be off in the mountains.”

Moll is securing netting over half the plant boxes to create denser shade, with the help of 7-year-old “G” Lozano. “I found a yellow plant I have a little time to save,” he says. He learned from Moll and Grissom that if he scratches the bark and it’s green underneath, the plant is healthy, but if it’s yellow, there’s only a short time remaining to intervene. “And I found two worms in a pot today!”

Longtime volunteer Connie Schwaz (left, background) and others help pot rescued plants every Tuesday evening at the Knoxville Botanical Garden.

Why Natives, Why Now?

Incorporating native plants is a growing trend in landscaping and home gardening. As climate change leads to more frequent droughts and weather extremes, homeowners have become more interested in choosing plants with fewer watering needs, and many natives fit the bill. But what else makes native plants so great?

The answer lies in the larger ecosystem that depends on them. As bee colonies collapse, monarch butterfly populations wane and other pollinators become more scarce, there is a growing body of evidence that the deliberate exclusion of native plants has played a role.

This also affects song birds, like warblers, that rely on insects as a source of protein and feed larvae to their fledglings, explains Lubke. The Native Plant Rescue Squad and a nursery in Vonore planned to provide plants for Wild Ones to sell at Wilderness Wildlife Week and the Sevier County Fair, says Lubke, who has seen interest in native plants balloon since he became a master gardener 20 years ago.

The mission of the Native Plant Rescue Squad shifted after Moll and Grissom attended a Wild Ones meeting where they heard a presentation by University of Delaware entomologist Doug Tallamy, author of Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife With Native Plants.

Tallamy explains that native insects have adapted to digest the chemicals in their host’s leaves; in many cases, plants from other continents are inedible to them.

Monarchs evolved to tolerate the chemicals in milkweed, their chief larval food. Those chemicals in turn help them survive by making the caterpillars bitter and toxic to predators. Sometimes multiple specific species are required to get a butterfly through its life cycle.

Galvanized by Tallamy’s approach, Grissom and Moll began to focus half the rescue squad’s energy on educating homeowners about the role of native plants in the food web, rather than just plant collections. (It’s now licensed by the agriculture department as an educational organization.)

“We almost have to change the culture of gardening,” Moll says. “Think of it as a habitat instead of a garden.”

Garry Menendez, a professor of plant sciences at the University of Tennessee and local landscape architect, says his approach to landscaping has changed since he began teaching a class on native plant communities. “Sometimes it’s not all about what you go buy and put in but what you preserve, what you don’t touch,” he says. “We don’t always have to conform.”

His students helped Moll and Grissom with a rescue last year at the meadow Fiser was marketing in Fountain City. “It instills in them an appreciation for this natural native vegetation right under their nose that everyone else wants to bushwhack or poison because it’s unsightly,” Menendez says.

He sees the rise of natives as part of a larger movement: “I think the pendulum is kind of swinging to the side of appreciating what’s local,” Menendez says. “We have such a homogenization of everything in our country, but it’s kind of the terrain and landscape and vegetation that sets you apart. I think people are starting to realize Tennessee has some pretty cool stuff.”

He complains that local road departments are still digging up roadside meadows to plant flower beds. But some government agencies are sowing seeds of change. Knox County Stormwater, which is responsible for regulating development and industry to reduce pollution in stormwater runoff, is exploring ways to work with the Native Plant Rescue Squad. The stormwater department is surveying public properties next to streams and lakes to determine if the stream banks are eroding, overrun with invasive plants, or have other problems. The rescue squad might help improve water quality by planting native plants in restored stream buffers, says stormwater project manager Natalie Landry.

Landry says the stormwater department provides the group’s brochures to developers with their land disturbance permits.

“We love their ideas of bringing not only plant diversity into people’s yards, but supporting native wildlife in these subdivisions where all these plants have been stripped,” Landry says.

Becca Novello and Sam Kernan label plants to be sold at the Native Plant Rescue Squad booth at the Market Square Farmers’ Market.

A Sense of Place

Back at Melton’s farm, Grissom carefully works a trowel around a comfrey plant. “It’s tricky,” Grissom says. “We didn’t know enough at the beginning… You have to learn how deep or wide the root system is, what conditions they grow in.”

But there are still moments when Grissom just grits her teeth and hangs onto a young tree with both hands, heaving backward until the roots break free with a pop. Dense young trees are interwoven with poison ivy, an occupational hazard. Grissom steps out and sprays herself with a combination of water and alcohol.

“It’s a labor of love,” Moll says. “But we love being out in the woods.”

Melton zips up with his wife on the ATV to point out trees. Moll reminds him that they’ll bring him plants to swap.

“I like things you can eat,” Melton says.

“You’ll enjoy those elderberries I brought, then,” Moll says.

“Oh, man,” says Melton, licking his lips in anticipation. “My grandfather knew every plant around, every tree. That’s why I want to know what things are.”

“Yeah, just to know what you see when you walk around—it helps you be connected to a place.” Moll looks up from his efforts to dig up a small hickory. His eyes flash out of a face half-hidden in the shadow of his enormous straw hat, the kind that looks like it might be at home in a rice paddy.

“That’s a big part of what we do. We want people to feel that.”

Jason Scott/Knoxville CAC AmeriCorps

Gerry Grissom sculpts animal forms, like this deer made at Earthfest, out of invasive plants like privet and Japanese honeysuckle.

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S. Heather Duncan

S. Heather Duncan has won numerous awards for her feature writing and coverage of the environment, government, education, business and local history during her 15-year reporting career. Originally from Western North Carolina, Heather has worked for Radio Free Europe, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in London, and several daily newspapers. Heather spent almost a dozen years at The Telegraph in Macon, Ga., where she spent most of her time covering the environment or writing project-investigations that provoked changes such as new laws related to day care and the protection of environmentally-sensitive lands. You can reach Heather at heather@knoxmercury.com

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