Metro’s Natural Resource Scientist Marsha Holt-Kingsley is retiring after 15 years of growing the Native Plant Center.
Holt-Kingsley first got involved with Metro as a volunteer naturalist back in 2001. She then spent a couple years collecting plant data at Smith and Bybee Wetlands as an intern studying environmental science. Through the Northwest Service Academy and AmeriCorps, Metro recruited Holt-Kingsley in 2005 to start a native plant center from scratch to increase seed availability that was lacking in the commercial market.
“When I got to [the future Native Plant Center], it was basically a horse pasture,” she said. “Along with the help of Chris Hagel and Adam Stellmacher, we transformed it into a field and away it went. The whole project really took root that first year.”
2016 was a big year for the conservation program, receiving and shipping out 750,000 commercially grown bare roots from the storage cooler to restoration projects. On average, they move about 300,000 bare root plants per year.
Over the last five years, Holt-Kingsley brought in 18,500 pounds of seed to distribute to restoration projects. At Metro parks and natural areas, many of the native wildflowers growing at a restored site came from seeds and plants she grew or purchased.
Holt-Kingsley answered several questions reflecting on her time at the Native Plant Center.
What sparked your interest in native plants?
I’ve always been a plant geek since childhood — growing them, being able to identify seedlings. I loved to collect and press wildflowers. I owned a native plant nursery for almost 20 years before I moved to Portland, and I transitioned from pretty plants in your garden to native plants.
Growing up, we spent a lot of time camping and just being out in the woods. I love going to our local park on the Mary’s River. I’ve had farm property in the Coast Range since the mid-70s. I’ve just always been a nature girl.
Why are native plants so important to the overall health of the landscape and restoration?
In winter 2021, Metro will distribute 144,000 plants to 17 parks and natural areas across greater Portland, including Killin Wetlands Nature Park and North Abbey Natural Area.
The plant community is like the base of the pyramid that supports all life. Without a diverse habitat, we lose our insects — the butterflies, the bees — and everything that builds on top of that. The native plant community and the different habitats provide home for all the animals we have here, like the birds and amphibians.
A diverse plant community creates a diverse fauna community as well. Blackberries [a widespread, non-native, invasive plant] are great but a diverse community is better than a mono-population. It’s the base of the food web and if certain plants are missing, we lose certain animals.
Our properties are pretty special. There are rare populations of plants (like white rock larkspur) on our properties that are some of the last remaining populations in this part of the valley. Not letting those populations wink out is what our program does — collecting seeds for the future or using them for our restoration work.
What achievements are you most proud of?
There is still a Metro Native Plant Center. That, in and of itself is a huge achievement. Looking back, there were hurdles to overcome. Knowing that it has evolved and continues to evolve with the ever-changing evolution of Metro as an agency is really great.
When the plant center started, there was no levy or operating fund. I reached out to many communities to help disadvantaged youth and folks on the fringe develop work skills and prepare themselves for employment. As an AmeriCorps member, I turned to them to provide them with service opportunities. In the end, I met the need for the plant center while they were building skills and meeting service requirements.
Metro reached out to the Indigenous community to increase the diversity of our habitat restoration contracts. We worked with a lot of Latino contractors and then Native American contractor — Wisdom of the Workforce, also known as Wisdom of the Elders. That program has really grown over the past decade.
What are the biggest challenges in working with native plants?
A big challenge for me is making sure I know where the seed came from so that they’re appropriate for planting in our area.
Now what’s facing us is climate change and assisted migration [when a person or animal transports a plant or seed] and figuring out what native plants we should be working with now to prepare for a resilient habitat that can face climate change in 10 to 15 to 50 years from now. Programmatically wide, it’s knowing what you need far in advance to be able to have the plants ready when you need them because it takes 18 months to two years to grow a plant from seed. Looking ahead supports our native nurseries so they have the time to grow the species we need to plant diverse projects.
What’s going to happen with the Native Plant Center after you leave?
The [plant center's] strategic action plan will be a guiding document. During the pandemic, our volunteer program has been on pause which helped us figure out how to get the work done without volunteers. Looking ahead, that program will be much reduced and more education-focused. Staff and contractors will do maintenance work.
Another goal is to hire an assistant scientist with a focus on racial equity, diversity and inclusion goals within the science team’s program along with an internship program.
I’m supporting the continued development of our understory species where we’re producing seed from plants that grow in the shade. This aspect of seed production is not readily commercially available.
We see ourselves as botanical experts, and there will be more monitoring and research that will come from the Native Plant Center and looking at climate change. This aspect is newer and that’s where I see a lot of the work happening.
What is your favorite native plant?
There are so many, and it depends on the time of the year, as well. There’s one that I’m especially fond of and it’s only in a few special little places. It’s called Calochortus tolmiei, also known as cat’s ears. This flower looks like the inside of a cat’s ear — really fuzzy.
They love rocky outcrops and shallow soil. They don’t like a lot of competition with grass. They’re a nice oak woodland prairie plant. What I really like is their seedpods too.
What do you look forward to as you enter the next chapter in your life?
I’m looking forward to being on Marsha’s time rather than work time. And I’m really looking forward that I’m going to have more time to be out and about again. When I took on this role as plant material scientist, I found myself more behind a desk and not out in the field doing botanical work — the things that drew me to this position in the first place. I look forward to volunteering with other organizations that work with native plants and seed conservation. I’m moving to our farm property in Corvallis. I’ll become a country kitty again.