Gardens at University of Montana serve as example habitat

It seems a bit odd to be talking about seeds and blooms in November, doesn’t it? While that might be true, it also gives us something to hope and plan for, which is what winter is for most gardeners. 

Missoula, the Garden City, is blessed with bounty—clear waters, prestigious mountains, forests and grasslands and wide open skies. But due to population growth and other factors, both within and outside the state of Montana, extraction of natural resources places pressure on some of these pristine places of admiration. The Montana Native Plant Society is one of many groups who work to protect these priceless areas for our continued enjoyment.

The Society’s mission statement, from its inception over thirty years ago right up to today, is to “…preserve, conserve, and study Montana’s native plants and plant communities.” To this end, State President, Gretchen Rupp, explained that the overarching goals of local chapters throughout the state, and the state society as a whole, are to focus on the many areas of land use throughout the state. That means bringing education, attention, and specific knowledge to various land-use bills and land-use proposals. Individual chapters contribute essential and critical knowledge to local endangered land and native plant protection. In addition, each chapter has many plant-related activities, including hikes, local garden and education projects, and even plant trivia nights.

The Missoula chapter is deeply involved in local education of regional native plants. The group is an interesting mix of folks with various backgrounds, including scientists, foresters, educators, medical personnel among others. The common bond they all share is their concern for and love of native plants and protecting critical plant habitat. One of their main projects is the native plant gardens on the University of Montana campus. Located directly south of the University Commons building, the gardens were donated by the university and are funded partially by the Plant Society and the university. 

The gardens are a unique and condensed vista of Montana’s entire native plant habitat, including alpine, sub-alpine, grassland, desert, shrub land, and others. Dedicated volunteers are assigned a shared garden and work to keep a variety of native plants that represent what people encounter when they hike or visit those specific plant habitats.

Kelly Chadwick, the University horticulturist, is a stalwart of the Plant Society and explained the importance of the gardens to both the University and the community at large. 

“We strive to make the gardens accessible to everyone, both as an educational tool and as a concrete way to visualize these habitats in our state. They are especially important to older people who no longer hike in rough terrain. They can visit the gardens on campus and see the plants they love, but are no longer able to visit in their natural environment,” said Kelly.

Each person from the Missoula Native Plant Society brings distinct knowledge of different aspects of native plant preservation. Some are botanists who explain intricate plant biology. Others, like Mary Lawrence, a retired clinical laboratory scientist, enjoy the challenges of propagating plants from seeds and getting plants that would typically grow in different environments, such as alpine meadows, to grow in the garden.

Volunteer Linda Pillsworth said, “Being here focused me to learn more about the plants in my garden and what plants can grow in a prairie ecology.” Linda gives plant tours on campus and hopes they encourage people to plant more natives.

Janet Simms is a retired nurse from Los Angeles. She was a native plant volunteer in California and she said it was interesting to learn all new plants when she moved to Missoula and joined the Native Plant Society. She said the camaraderie of the volunteers is one of the most important things to her. She loves seeing plants in all their various stages and said, “Plants feels like family to me.”

The gardens aren’t the only project and activity of the Missoula chapter. They plan hikes and camping trips to various habitats throughout the state as educational opportunities. They do outreach to different groups in order to continue to build interest in native plants. The group also encourages people of any age and background to volunteer. The group involved in the gardens include university students, currently employed professionals who come on their lunch breaks or day off, and retired professionals, all of them caring for the native plants of Montana and the preservation of the habitat on which they live.