Conserving plants by investing in people

Stacy Kinsell
Sarah checks on seedlings of Astragalus sinuatus, Whited’s milk-vetch

It’s an early winter morning at the Center for Urban Horticulture greenhouse. While the sun considers rising, Sarah Shank greets her seedlings. Fueled by a passion for growing plants and her first cup of coffee, she describes her quiet mornings watering rare native plants as the perfect way to begin her workday. The current plants she tends to, Astragalus sinuatus (Whited’s milk-vetch) and Eriogonum codium (Umtanum buckwheat), she grew from seed and each day begins with observing them. She checks their health, soil moisture, and signs of possible pest or disease. Giving this type of individual attention is unique in horticulture where mass production is the norm. But for a rare plant propagator like Sarah it’s essential.

Sarah moved from Virginia to pursue her Master’s at the University of Washington studying the effects of wildfires on E. codium seeds. She began volunteering with Rare Care recalling her need “to do something to help myself feel more grounded outside of coursework.” Her past work in horticulture made her a natural fit to help with germination testing for the Miller Seed Vault. Still, Sarah wanted more, so trained as a rare plant monitor and volunteered her time doing fieldwork. She found her life busy and her heart full as her fuzzy idea of a career trajectory began to clarify.

Maya Kahn-Abrams
Maya monitoring Lomatium tuberosum, Hoover’s desert-parsley

Over the years, Rare Care internship and volunteer positions have been a way for early career botanists to get their feet wet studying our state’s flora. We’ve sent interns and volunteers into the far-flung corners of Washington and they’ve developed foundational skills upon which to grow. Offering such opportunities lines up with part of our mission to “conserve native rare plants through education” but it’s been more than simply meeting a mission statement. They have enriched our work and some have become permanent fixtures, as is this case with Sarah, now on staff as Research and Propagation Assistant.

Also new to our team is former 2019 intern Maya Kahn-Abrams. An L.A. native with a “burning desire to learn more,” she moved to Washington to complete a dual BS/BA at Evergreen State College studying a myriad of fields including microbiology, botany, and ecology. Post-graduation, searching for jobs she read about the Rare Care internship and thought “oh my god this is my dream job!” Maya’s contributions as an intern helped kick-start our work in the National Parks and like Sarah, she also trained as a rare plant monitor. This summer Maya will assist with fieldwork, and this fall embarks on a Master’s studying what factors impact the declining population of E. codium.

Through experiences like these we’ve learned that investment in people has outsized rewards for conservation. Not only is important research and preservation work done, but the next generation of conservationists is fostered.

Wendy Gibble
Sarah (left) and Maya (second to left) work with Bureau of Land Management staff to reduce weeds near a population of rare plants.