The Plant Nerd

Interview by Kim Frappier
Photography by Melissa Ponder

A sit-down with the director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

Sarah Reichard, director of the University of Washington Botanic Gardens
Photo by: Melissa Ponder

As a scientist and educator, Sarah Reichard’s passion exists in the nexus between plants and people. She wants to know what makes plants tick. She also wants to empower garden enthusiasts and restoration ecology students alike to understand the complex role of plants.

Reichard grew up in New Orleans and North Carolina. Her mom was a plant geneticist at Wake Forest University; Reichard would count plant chromosomes through her mom’s microscope. Dad had a green thumb—he was an avid gardener. But it wasn’t until freshman year, in her UW botany class, when she learned that plants were “really cool!” The conservation biologist, professor and author has spent more than 30 years studying invasive plants and helping conserve Washington’s endangered flora.

When it comes to endangered species we tend to think of orcas, spotted owls or salmon. Why should we care about plants?

They provide nutrition for us as well as other organisms. They provide habitat. But they’re also important because a lot of our most important medicines come from plant extracts.Tell me more about invasives. They’re very competitive, aggressive and can completely take over a native plant community,especially after a disturbance. Even though they still provide habitat or food for pollinators,they exclude native species and reduce the diversity of forage and habitat types available to other organisms.

What invasive plant is on your Most Wanted list?

Ivy, of course. Scot’s broom. And knotweed,definitely knotweed. Its leaf litter is low in nitrogen and much less nutritious so insects don’t colonize it as much. That means less food for birds, salmon and other organisms.But knotweed has fans: Some people have actually used it to make honey. Purple loosestrife is another invasive species that (some) beekeepers really love. But it impacts wetlands pretty considerably, the way knotweed impacts riparian areas. Both species may make the honey extra tasty…

Like fireweed!

Like fireweed! But there is plenty of extra tasty honey out there that does not cause harm.You founded something called Rare Care to study and monitor the state’s endangered plants. Tell me about one of your favorite projects. Hackelia venusta is Washington’s rarest plant—found in Tumwater Canyon in the Wenatchee National Forest. Propagation by seed is challenging.We tried many different treatments—from growth chambers to nicking the hard seed coat. Then we learned of a study where researchers completely removed the embryo from the seedcoat. We had a graduate student replicate that method. She got 100 percent germination! With this success, Rare Care was able to propagate and outplant 255 plants and we started an experimental population as well.

Speaking of seeds, tell me about the Miller Seed Vault.

The seed vault is a 10 by 20-foot structure with fire walls at the Center for Urban Horticulture. It is temperature and humidity controlled. These are really specialized conditions. Seeds are living organisms—they respire just like you and I do and that gives them a limited lifetime. By lowering the temperature and decreasing the humidity, we slow their metabolism and increase their longevity. Saving seeds of our rare plants is critical for research. The vault now holds the seeds for 113 Washington rare plants.

The Washington Centennial Commission invited Rare Care to contribute native plant seeds to a Centennial Time Capsule. What did you donate?

We donated five species that are endemic to Washington along with information on where they grow and instructions on how to propagate them. The vault will be opened in 500 years, so it will be interesting to see if the seeds will still be viable. It seems unlikely that they’ll be able to germinate but you never know what kind of technology we’ll have. You lead international adventures for fellow plant lovers through the Botanic Gardens. What countries have you visited?Chile, Guatemala, South Africa and Cuba—where I’ve traveled four times. Costa Rica—the birding is incredible, like the resplendent quetzal. Amazing! I’ve always been like, “Why do people like birds? Plants are so much cooler.” But on these trips I’ve turned into a birder although they move too fast and plants, well, they just sit there!

 

THIS INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.

  • Kim Frappier

    Kim Frappier is a natural resources specialist with the City of Mercer Island.

  • Melissa Ponder

    Melissa Ponder specializes in portraiture, event and documentary photography.

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