Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Plant rescuers save native Williamsburg’s natural history from development

The Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue works with a team of volunteers to preserve and save plants that are native to the area and valuable to the Williamsburg ecosystem. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Will)
Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue works with volunteers to preserve and save plants that are native to the area and valuable to the ecosystem. (Photo courtesy of Cortney Will)

Ferns and orchids in Williamsburg are being saved from development and preserved, thanks to a group of plant rescuers.

“What we are doing is taking these plants from a place where they’re going to be destroyed and now they have a second life,” said Cortney Will, co-chair of Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue. “It’s a public value, we are preserving a natural history.” 

When a new Williamsburg development is planned, Will and her volunteers go in and salvage plants that would otherwise be destroyed, such as Trillium wildflower species and Elliott’s goldenrod perennial.

“These things have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem,” Will said. “You pull one thread in nature and the entire thing unravels.”

Some of the rescued plants have been moved to the Heritage Humane Society or Freedom Park, where they add to the scenery and enhance the area’s ecosystem, according to Will. Plants such as native ferns are known to have deep roots that keep soil in place, which in turn prevents erosion.

Members of the Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue come together to donate plants to the historic and public gardens in the area. These plants range from orchids to ferns and help to prevent erosion in the local area. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Will)
Members of Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue come together to donate plants to historic and public gardens. (Photo courtesy of Cortney Will) 

There are about six core members of the rescue team, according to Will.

Before volunteers go in and and start digging, Will sends in a team of botanists to investigate the native species. Then she puts out a call on social media for volunteers who want to come out for a preservation dig.

Rescue projects vary in length and typically involve a variety of volunteers, ranging from children to adults. 

“It is a fun time to work with the group, but then it becomes really comfortable solitary work,” Will said. “Sometimes, you’re so engrossed that you don’t even realize how far into the woods you’ve gotten until it’s time to drag all of the plants back out.”

The plant-rescue team has contributed roughly 90 percent of the plants in the Williamsburg Botanical Garden, according to Will. The team has also saved more than 100 plants, from 30 varieties, that are now used in historic displays at the Jamestown Settlement and throughout the Historic Triangle.

The Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue gives volunteers the opportunity to immerse themselves in the native nature of Williamsburg. (Photo courtesy of Courtney Will)
Williamsburg Native Plant Rescue allows volunteers to immerse themselves in nature. (Photo courtesy of Cortney Will)

Bain Schultz, the landscaper for the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, has worked with Native Plant Rescue to create historically accurate gardens in Williamsburg, Yorktown and Jamestown.

This means interpreters can show visitors plants that were used by Native Americans and early settlers.

Rescued plants also add perspectives that otherwise would be lost.   

“The best thing about working with the plant rescue is that I can get plants that you can’t find in the store,” Schultz said. “You can’t really put a financial value on that because it is saving a Virginia treasure.”

Alexa Doiron
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at

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