Volunteers save state’s landscape one pot at a time

Cranbrook Garden’s native plant rescue digs deep to save at-risk blooms

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published July 9, 2013

 Each year, the volunteer cultivators at Cranbrook pot, grow and sell more than 2,000 plants during the annual spring plant sale.

Each year, the volunteer cultivators at Cranbrook pot, grow and sell more than 2,000 plants during the annual spring plant sale.

BLOOMFIELD HILLS — Each spring, many in Michigan welcome the warm weather by taking layers of clothes off. But a certain few pull some more clothes on. That’s because, for 25 volunteers with Cranbrook’s native plant rescue, spring means it’s time to get dirty.

“Everyone knows they have to wear digging clothes. They bring tools, like a small shovel and sleds to (transport) plants. We usually only dig for about an hour,” said Rhonda Thede.

Thede is a volunteer with the plant rescue, which, since 1975, has worked to dig up, cultivate, propagate and sell plants that are native to Michigan’s unique ecosystems. The rescue works with construction companies and developers to quickly take away as many native plants as they can before building begins and the plants are destroyed. 

“We go out to construction sites and we survey the area to see if there’s anything there. Then we contact the owner and get permission to go there,” said Thede. “We’re a really slick organization. We arrive about 9 a.m. and we leave (for the site) at 9:30 a.m.  We usually only dig for about an hour.”

Thede explained that organization and know-how are key tools to the nonprofit’s success. The volunteers are trained to recognize plants native to the mitten state, such as trillium and jack-in-the- pulpit. It’s important for the diggers to know what certain at-risk plants look like before they reach their season’s maturity, since the rescue digs five days a week for just one month each year.

“We usually start the second week in April, before the mosquitos and the poison ivy. We don’t work then,” she said. “Then, we pot.”

The rest of the year, the volunteers tend to the gardens at Cranbrook, care for the plants in the estate’s greenhouse and repot the blooms rescued from construction sites. Once they’re ready, the plants are added to the inventory at Cranbrook House and Garden’s annual spring plant sale. The proceeds from the sale go to support the year-round rescue and growing efforts.

“We pot everything, keep everything watered, and then at the plant sale, we usually have 2,000 pots of plants. In our gardens, we have seven types of trillium, 15 ferns,” she said.

According to Stephen Pagnani, head of communications for Cranbrook, the native plant rescue group makes it possible to maintain the beautiful landscape that the Cranbrook community is known for.

“They’re really important to the house and gardens. It’s a completely volunteer organization that maintains 40 acres, so it’s indispensable what they do,” said Pagnani. “We’ve got something like 10,000 begonia plants. That’s countless, countless hours (of care). Things like the plant sale from the plant rescue keeps Cranbrook gardens looking the way they do.”

Thede said the plant rescue doesn’t just benefit Cranbrook, but home gardeners and wildlife around the state, as well.

“Native plants always do better because they’re from here. And the animals evolved with the plants. The birds or the animals use the plants for certain things. If you bring an invasive garlic mustard or Japanese honeysuckle to your garden, the (local) birds can’t use these plants because they don’t know how to use them for nesting or food,” she said, adding that even humans might depend on the very plants being destroyed.

“Goldenseal gets about 12 inches tall, and it has a green leaf and red raspberry-like berry on it. If you go to health food stores, you’ll see bottles of goldenseal. Southeast Michigan was covered in goldenseal, and now it’s threatened. The health benefits were discovered when it was near extinction,” she said. “By keeping the strain going, who knows what they’ll find later on in the medical side of things? Coneflower, echinacea — you don’t know what animals depend on it in the wild. We may end up depending on it.”

Cranbrook House and Gardens and the native plant rescue are always looking for donations of time, pots and more. In addition, the rescue is always looking for tips on new construction sites that might have native plants to save. To learn how you can help, call (248) 645-3149.

Cranbrook House and Gardens is located at 380 Lone Pine Road in Bloomfield Hills.