Working as Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) is “a dream assignment” for Lee Marlowe, the biologist who serves as plant guardian of the landmark San Antonio River restoration project. The MacArthur High School graduate was living and working in Minneapolis when she noticed the job listing during a visit home for Christmas in 2007.
By February of 2008, she had relocated back to San Antonio to immerse herself in the initiative touted by local leadership as the most important public works project of our time.
Known around SARA as “the plant lady,” Marlowe works with a team of nine to restore and maintain the 13 miles of river frontage that stretch from the formal plantings of the Museum Reach north of downtown to the native wildscapes of the Mission Reach that forge south. Marlowe is passionate and approachable about the complex project, which entails planning, engineering, construction, landscaping and luck–with weather as the biggest wildcard.
“People relate to her,” said Suzanne Scott, General Manager of SARA. “She is able to communicate in such a way that the complex nuances of the project can be understood in layman’s terms.”
Marlowe refereed a recent online kerfuffle on the nature of the milkweed planted at the Monarch butterfly Milkweed Patch just south of the Pearl Brewery on the Museum Reach recently. Was the Monarch butterfly magnet a native plant or not?
She confirmed that the species is, indeed, the NONnative Asclepias curassavica, also known as Tropical milkweed.
“I would rather not have it there,” she said matter-of-factly. “That area was to be a formal garden and had to look good year-round,” she said.
That won’t be the case south of downtown on the Mission Reach. Marlowe and her team have relocated 3.5 million cubic yards of soil (the equivalent amount of concrete could build another Hoover Dam) to accommodate 23,000 native trees scheduled for installation by 2014. So far, 3,000 saplings and more than 10,000 pounds of wildflower seed have been planted.
Marlowe noted that while dozens of wildflower species were planted on the Mission Reach, many more ”volunteers”–gardening talk for plants that grow of their own volition, unplanned and unannounced–have sprouted. Perhaps three times as many. She cited the common sunflower Helianthus annuus as the most active volunteer.
“It did so well we had to thin it out in some locations where it was compromising other plantings,” she said. Marlowe attributed the wildflower windfall to active land management (read: pulling weeds) even moreso than the restoration of native conditions.
Interestingly, the same problem plants that plague home gardeners also invade the meticulously planned and managed Mission Reach. Marlowe won’t single out a “most” troublesome plant, as it depends on the season and the day. But Bermuda grass ranks near the top.
“It’s so well adapted it’s almost impossible to control,” she said.
Here’s Marlowe’s Top Ten Most Troublesome Plants (in no particular order)
- Leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala)
- Castorbean (Ricinus communis)
- Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus)
- Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
- Giant cane (Arundo donax)
- King Ranch “KR” Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum)
- Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
- Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
- Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)
- Malta starthistle (Centaurea solstitialis/melitensis
While the SARA restoration project has won numerous local awards, Steven Schauer, SARA’s External Communications Manager, said later this spring SARA will nominate the Mission Reach for the Riverprize, the world’s most prestigious environmental award. A win would shine international attention on the Mission Reach. The prize, awarded by Australia-based International River Foundation, gives recognition, reward and support to those who have developed and implemented outstanding, visionary and sustainable programs in river management.
In 2011, the Riverprize and its $330,000 purse went to the Charles River in Boston. We’re betting in 2012 San Antonio’s Mission Reach has a credible shot and we’re keeping fingers crossed. The award is announced in October.