FLORENCE — Plants used for research at Clemson’s Pee Dee Research and Education Center are retiring to new gardens and lawns now that their research days are over.

Local gardeners, natural resource professionals and botanical garden staff participated in a native plant rescue during a workshop at the Clemson Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

Local gardeners, natural resource professionals and botanical garden staff participated in a native plant rescue during a workshop at the Clemson Pee Dee Research and Education Center.
Image Credit: Denise Attaway / Clemson University

Local gardeners, natural resource professionals and botanical garden staff removed the plants during a native plant rescue following a workshop at the Pee Dee REC.

The workshop, hosted by the Clemson Cooperative Extension Service, was designed to teach participants the benefits of ground cover plants that are associated with the longleaf pine ecosystem. Longleaf pines once were dominant in South Carolina and work is being done to bring them back. Plants rescued from the Pee Dee REC were located in areas that will soon be used for other studies.

“These plants have been here at the Pee Dee REC for about four to five years,” said T.J. Savereno, Clemson Extension senior associate agent and wildlife biologist in Lee County. “We’ve been collecting data on how these plants perform in a common garden environment. This project is about to end and rather than just turn the plants under, we decided it would be a good idea to give them new homes.”

Clemson experts teamed with those from the U.S. Forest Service and others to cover topics ranging from the role of fire in maintaining the longleaf pine ecosystem to the benefits of longleaf ground cover plants to native pollinators.

Workshop participants also heard about plant rescue success stories and were even able to rescue some plants themselves.

Leila Nyikos came from Columbia to join in the plant rescue and learn about South Carolina’s native plants.

“I grew up in Australia where native plants are most often used in landscapes, gardens and such,” Nyikos said. “I’ve been a gardener forever. I like to use as many native plants as I can in my gardens. I get upset when I see foreign plants growing in areas where native plants belong because foreign plants destroy the local environment.”

Keeping the local environment intact is an important part of ground covers, said Sudie Thomas of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Bees play an important role in this and are aided by sufficient ground covers.

“Native bees are the most effective pollinators,” Thomas said. “Habitats with many plant species that bloom at different times ensure that pollen and nectar resources are always present. A high-quality ground cover is a great source for pollinators.”

There have been several successful plant rescues. Jeff Jackson, past president of the Lowcountry chapter of the South Carolina Native Plant Society, told of one at the Boeing Company construction site in Charleston.

“Southern sugar maples and other important plants were found on the construction site,” Jackson said. “We were able to go in, pull a lot of the plants, re-pot and move them. We moved some to Magnolia Gardens and we used some for educational purposes. Instead of these plants being destroyed, we were able to rescue them and continue to enjoy them.”

The Great Sea Oat Rescue is another one Jackson has been involved in. It involved removing about 1,000 plants from the nature trail on Sullivan’s Island and transplanting them to Folly Beach County Park. Sea oats are highly drought-, salt- and heat-tolerant. Its clumping nature collects, traps and holds sand blown by the wind, which results in dune formation and erosion control.

“This was a very successful plant rescue,” Jackson said. “We were able to repurpose the plants and help nourish the beach at the same time.”

The Pee Dee workshop is just one of several Savereno has held since 2011 when he began working with Joan Walker, a U.S. Forest Service research ecologist, on a project called “The South Carolina Longleaf Pine Ground-Layer Common Garden Study.” This project, now in its final stages, focuses on a variety of native plants commonly found in the understories of longleaf pine forests. One of the main points of the study is to compare how well plant species from relatively wide-ranging geographical regions grew and flowered in a common location.

“Our study focuses on three main plant groups associated with longleaf ground cover,” Savereno said. “We looked at legumes, which improve soil fertility and produce seeds that are high in protein and consumed by many species of wildlife. We also looked at native grasses, such as wire grass and the bluestems, which offer shelter and nesting habitat for wildlife and fuel for fire. And we looked at plants in the aster family, which are blooming plants that attract native pollinators and also produce seeds eaten by songbirds and small mammals.”

Restoration of longleaf pine trees is an important task. At one time longleaf pine forests covered as many as 93 million acres, according to Savereno.

“Now we’re down to about 3 million acres and very little of that is old-growth longleaf pine,” he said. “But steps have been taken to bring back the longleaf pine. State and federal agencies, private landowners and nonprofits have been working to bring back the longleaf pine and its associated ecosystem.”

Ground cover, or understory, is as important a part of the longleaf pine ecosystem as the longleaf trees themselves. Lucy Rummler, a Clemson University research specialist, provided information about the plants that the workshop participants could take home with them. Among the plants she talked about were Tephrosia virginiana, or goat’s rue, Coreopsis major, or greater tickseed, and Schizachyrium scoparium, or little bluestem.

“All of these plants are important in the longleaf pine ecosystem and can enhance wildflower gardens,” Rummler said. “For example, goat’s rue attracts ground birds and butterflies, while the greater tickseed attracts birds and pollinators. Most are drought-tolerant once established and non-invasive.”

Tom Pantos is a member of the Clemson Extension Florence County Master Gardener Association who participated in the plant rescue. Pantos rescued a bluestem grass plant from the site, as well as specimens of other species.

“I’m going to bring this home and plant it in my yard,” Pantos said. “It’s a beautiful plant and it will add beauty to my backyard.”

The Common Garden Study and other programs produce information needed for conserving, managing and restoring South Carolina’s natural resources.

“We are pleased that our research plants will be used to beautify personal gardens and put on display in public gardens where they will be used to teach others about the longleaf pine ecosystem and the values of these amazing native plants,” said Joan Walker, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service.

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Funding for this workshop was provided by the USDA U.S. Forest Service Francis Marion and Sumter National forests and Southern Research Station through cooperative and cost-sharing agreements with Clemson University. The research gardens were developed with the help of state, federal, academic and private sector partners. This work supports Forest Service and Clemson Extension’s goals of promoting the use of native plant materials for revegetation, restoration and rehabilitation of native plant communities to maintain healthy ecosystems.