Botanist Sows Seeds of Hope for Plant Conservation
November 27, 2020
Thanks to lessons taught by her grandparents, Hope Leeson has always been drawn to plants. Some of her oldest memories are of trees, especially their different shapes.
“I’ve always had this haunting sense of awareness of their forms,” said Leeson, a botanist, plant conservationist, and botanical educator from South Kingstown who has walked much of Rhode Island in search of wetlands and rare plants. “I was always interested by their shapes, and by other little things on the ground that also attracted my attention, like the incredible structure of inch-high plants, sedges and flowers. There are so many different unbelievable shapes and forms that plants take.”
Through more than 30 years of field experience, Leeson has developed an intimate knowledge of the Ocean State’s plant communities, and she has applied that knowledge to the protection of rare species, the sustainable collection of plant seeds, and the propagation of native plants for habitat restoration efforts. This work has given her unique insights into the changes taking place in the state’s natural areas and their impacts on native species.
“There’s a lot happening in the ground that we don’t see,” she said. “And there’s certainly a lot happening because of deer eating much of what’s on the ground. Both of those are influencing the next generation of plant communities.”
She noted that Rhode Island’s abundant deer primarily eat native plants, and they are so voracious that in many places few young plants have a chance to mature before they are eaten. And since deer avoid most invasive species, they are providing inroads for invasives to gain a foothold and spread widely.
“I also worry that we’re not really aware of the far-reaching impact of earthworms,” Leeson said of the eight species found in southern New England, all of which originated in Europe or Asia. “The plant communities we have are adapted to a slow cycling of nutrients, and earthworms really speed that up. They also take a lot of leaf litter and pull it down into the soil, which changes the whole nutrient cycle, in terms of what’s available to plants.
“So like deer, earthworms are opening up areas for nonnative species to come in, because those nonnatives come from areas that have earthworms and can take advantage of the opening that’s been created. We can’t control where earthworms go, and they’re really changing the chemistry of the soil.”
It’s not just soil chemistry that’s changing, Leeson said, but it’s also soil temperature. And that may be affecting the mycorrhizal relationship between plants and fungi that enables plants to acquire nutrients through their roots. If that relationship is disrupted, many plant communities could be impacted.
“I just see so many places where it appears like the forest is dying, particularly areas that are more urban,” she said. “It smells different, it looks different, it’s a big change, and how that comes out in the end, we don’t know. It may all be fine, but on our human scale it seems like a loss of something — or maybe there will be a gain in another hundred years.”
Leeson grew up in Providence and South Kingstown and earned an art degree at Brown University while also taking as many environmental courses as she could. After graduating, she spent a few years painting murals in people’s homes and creating decorative stenciling, before taking jobs as a naturalist on Prudence Island and at Goddard Memorial State Park in Warwick. That work led to jobs at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management and several environmental consulting firms.
During one project, when the Narragansett Electric Co. proposed a new power line corridor from East Greenwich to Burrillville, she walked the entire 44 miles to locate any wetlands the route would cross.
In more recent years, she consulted with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Save The Bay, The Nature Conservancy, and other agencies to document rare plant communities and invasive species. She also worked for more than 10 years as the botanist for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey.
“Not only does Hope like to dig into the academic understanding of plants, she values the study of native plants because they connect to so many of her other interests and areas of accomplishment, including gastronomy, environmental conservation, art, gardening, teaching, and social networking,” said David Gregg, director of the Natural History Survey. “Her multi-level connection to native plants is readily apparent when you spend time with her, and is an important reason, besides the interest inherent in the projects themselves, that volunteers have been so attracted to working with her on the Survey’s various Rhody Native activities.”
Leeson’s establishment of the Rhody Native program to propagate up to 100 species of native plants helped diversify habitats at wildlife refuges, salt marshes, and private and public gardens. Eventually, the program became so successful that she was receiving orders for thousands of plants, which was more than she could produce on her own. Without a commercial nursery willing to take it over, the program was discontinued.
She is now completing a project to grow a rare wildflower called salt-marsh pink, which is limited to two sites in Rhode Island and one in Connecticut. The plants she is growing will be used to bolster the Connecticut population following a restoration of the marsh.
“We thought we might cross-pollinate plants from Connecticut with the Rhode Island populations to reduce the genetic bottleneck,” Leeson said. “But the Rhode Island populations are really small, and rabbits ate all of the seedpods before they were ripe, so I was unable to collect any seedpods. But the Connecticut seeds are sown, and they’re just resting for the winter.”
When she’s not working, Leeson enjoys riding horses, which she said can “eat up a couple hours every other day.” But she’s never far from plants, whether in her garden or in nearby forests.
“I’m drawn to places that are rocky, because that geography and geology is interesting to me,” she said. “And the coastal plain pond shores are endlessly fascinating to me because their geological life cycle is so interesting. When water levels are down, they have this explosion of plant species, many of them rare, and then there will be a decade when everything is underwater and you wait for 10 years before they all reveal themselves again.”
Leeson also enjoys foraging for food, including the tubers of evening primrose, which she roasts with carrots. She even occasionally cooks with invasive species — she makes pie from Japanese knotweed, pesto from garlic mustard, and enjoys the berries from autumn olive.
As she approaches retirement age, Leeson is teaching botany and plant ecology at the Rhode Island School of Design. She is especially looking forward to teaching a five-week course in January called “Winter Treewatching” and a spring semester class on the “Weeds of Providence.”
“That one will look at all of the areas around Providence that are vegetated by things that come in on their own,” Leeson said. “It’s getting people to think about how we don’t even notice these things, and yet they’re performing pretty important functions, from carbon sequestration and air filtration to providing food for insects and birds.”
Although she said that teaching online during the pandemic has been “weird,” she has been pleased to see so many people walking at Rhode Island’s parks and nature preserves.
“It’s really helping people to slow down and look around them more, at least I hope it is,” she said. “They seem to be noticing things they never noticed before, and I think that’s a really good thing.
“We’ve gotten so distanced from the natural world around us that there’s not an impetus to steward it or take care of it. There’s a sense that it will always be there and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s what sustains us all. We won’t exist without it.”
Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.