Reflections of a Rare Care Intern: Learning from agency partners and watching plant babies grow

Cecila Henderson spent the summer as an intern for the Rare Plant Care and Conservation Program (Rare Care). She completed her Bachelor of Science at the UW School of Environmental And Forest Sciences in June 2017.

Wendy Gibble
Ceci Henderson at Hanford Reach National Monument

This summer I was lucky enough to work with Wendy Gibble as an intern for Rare Care, and I can hardly express my gratitude for what has been an incredibly rewarding experience. I have been able not just to learn about rare plant monitoring and seed collection, but participate in many related fields which are integral to rare plant conservation, including weed surveys, burn site evaluations, and rare seed testing and propagation.

One of the most memorable and educational aspects for me has been our plant monitoring assignments, an experience which may be familiar to many Rare Care volunteers but was an exciting new adventure for my co-intern Myesa and me. We discovered a certain thrill in heading out to the beautiful middle of nowhere on a quest for a rare species, and discovering a multitude of plants and animals along the way. One of my favorite monitoring assignments was an early August search for an elusive fern species, Brewer’s cliffbrake (Pellaea breweri), near Cle Elum. This population had not been observed since 1937. Imbued with a sense of purpose and wary of the sizzling temperatures forecasted that day, we woke up at 4:30 a.m. to head to the site in hopes of avoiding direct sun on the exposed rocks around which P. breweri grows. We clambered up steep talus fields into cliff ravines and across loose scree slopes, encountering dozens of plant species we had never seen before on a backdrop of panoramic valley views. Although we never actually found the P. breweri population, we gained a very good sense of where it is not located, and even stumbled across a Thompson’s chaenactis (Chaenactis thompsonii) population in the same area to monitor. On our hike back we were ensnared by the siren song of huckleberry bushes loaded with ripe fruit, and finally arrived back at the car with hands stained purple and a great feeling of accomplishment that we gave our best for the rare plants that day.

It’s no secret that Rare Care carries out critically important work for ecological conservation, but I was also able to observe throughout the summer the importance it holds in the lives of its staff, volunteers, and agency partners. My favorite volunteer event in which I truly grasped this impact was a July volunteer event to monitor Wenatchee Mountains checker-mallow (Sidalcea oregana var. calva) and celebrate the retirement of Washington Natural Heritage Program Botanist Joe Arnett. Long-term volunteers, partners from several agencies, and Rare Care staff all gathered for two sunny days monitoring the rare plant and rejoined for a celebratory barbeque in the evening. Amidst the food, conversation, and song (accompanied by Joe’s excellent guitar skills), I heard similar stories from all the volunteers regarding the years of fun and satisfaction from their adventures, and praises of their invaluable work from land managers. I realized Rare Care truly is an organization with a win-win mission for all involved, combining a human benefit with a critically important environmental mission.

Ceci Henderson
A bee pollinates the Wenatchee Mountain checker-mallow, a federally-listed endangered plant

In reflection of my wonderful time with the program, I have to thank all the outstanding federal partners we had the honor to work with and learn from this summer. Brigitte Ranne with the Forest Service and Molly Boyter with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) went above and beyond to share their time, knowledge, and personal experiences with us, which was invaluable for new grads such as ourselves entering the workforce. Chris from the BLM office deserves a special mention for taking Myesa and me on one of his patented “death marches” (so-called by his office coworkers) where we spent a long day hiking up and down steep hillsides doing site burn evaluations in sweltering temperatures. Despite the challenge, at the end of the day I found myself grinning through the soot and sweat, thoroughly satisfied with all we had accomplished and honored by the company of one of BLM’s finest. Finally, the interns working with BLM through the Chicago Botanic Gardens program—Katherine S., Katherine L., and Gabe—graciously spent many days with us sharing their skills and knowledge with us, and unknowingly accompanied us on our most grueling day of seed collection. As these things often go, seed collection on a population of Thompson’s clover (Trifolium thompsonii) took longer than anticipated and we all ended up hiking up endless hills in the middle of oppressive July heat. Needless to say, the BLM interns all beat Myesa and me up the slopes and still agreed to collect seeds from a yellow white larkspur (Delphinium xantholeucum) population along the road on the way back, proving themselves to be some of the nicest and toughest people we’ve had the privilege of working with.

Ceci Henderson
The endemic Thompson’s clover is found on Entiat Ridge near Wenatchee, WA.

As I write we are in the midst of propagating Whited’s milk-vetch (Astragalus sinuatus) seeds for outplanting with the BLM, a priceless experience not just to see our plant babies grow up (something which I find embarrassingly exciting), but to participate in every step of the process from seed collection and seed cleaning to germination and potting. With this project and others around the Center for Urban Horticulture, we have been able to learn about the incredibly wide range of tasks and processes related to managing rare plant collections handled by Rare Care staff and volunteers, and can just begin to grasp the scope of work they accomplish.

I am beyond grateful for the contributions of everyone who helped shape Myesa’s and my summer into one which was educational and enjoyable beyond my wildest expectations. I must finally attempt to express my boundless appreciation and admiration for Wendy Gibble, the plant expert and adventurer who holds all of Rare Care together. Wendy ensured Myesa and I had the opportunity to learn as much as possible from a multitude of people in a range of knowledge areas, going above and beyond for the sake of our education and experience. At the end of this internship I can only hope in the future that more students and recent grads have the opportunity to work with this invaluable organization and with the wonderful people involved.

Read Myesa Legendre-Fixx’s blog about her internship experience.