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.

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

Lee Marlowe, Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority

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?

Tropical milkweed on San ANtonio River Walk

Yes, that’s Tropical milkweed on the San Antonio River Museum Reach

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.

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk: 3,000 trees planted in recent weeks

On the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River: 3,000 native trees planted recently

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.


The Common Sunflower, Helianthus annuus, was an active “volunteer” on the Mission Reach

“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)

  1. Leadtree (Leucaena leucocephala)
  2. Castorbean (Ricinus communis)
  3. Chastetree (Vitex agnus-castus)
  4. Chinaberry (Melia azedarach)
  5. Giant cane (Arundo donax)
  6. King Ranch “KR” Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum)
  7. Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon)
  8. Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana)
  9. Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense)
  10. 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.

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  1. Mary Kennedy January 21, 2012 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    I visited the SA River Monarch/Milkweed garden today and found 7 adults, 4 fifth instars, 2 fourth instars, and observed 1 adult female laying eggs. The temperature was 65*F between 12 and 12:45, Jan. 21. The closest entrance to this garden is at the corner of Schiller and Quincy.
    I will give a Monarch Larval Training Mini-Workshop there from 10am – noon on February 4. Volunteer monitors are welcome! Master Naturalists, come on out….advanced credit pending approval by the Alamo Master Naturalist Committee.

  2. Monika Maeckle January 21, 2012 at 1:54 pm - Reply

    Excellent, Mary! So glad you made it over there. We must’ve just missed each other. I was there at the Farmer’s Market with Cocoa, my canine assistant, and checked on things, too. Please keep us posted, and I’ll do the same.

  3. Robert Rivard January 21, 2012 at 2:45 pm - Reply

    Great post on a great project and a great public servant working to restore this city’s native habitat.

    • Monika Maeckle January 23, 2012 at 8:30 pm - Reply


  4. Dr. Danny January 21, 2012 at 7:26 pm - Reply

    Great work Lee Marlowe and MM! I hope other cities adopt the same philosophy!
    Any others piggybacking with the idea? What I mean by this is that once the vegetation comes back, the other organisms (insects, reptiles, etc) will come back. I think many people have negative knee jerk reactions to that side of things. I would assume there has to be an effective way to make positive reactions instead.

    • Monika Maeckle January 23, 2012 at 8:30 pm - Reply

      You are right about the other organisms coming back, Danny. Greater Blue Heron, Snowy egrets, Cormorants and ducks and hawks…they’re all over the Mission Reach. Very much looking forward to the spring blooms and the butterflies. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Frank Turrentine January 22, 2012 at 8:25 am - Reply

    When you’re done down there, come visit us on the Brazos!

    • Monika Maeckle January 22, 2012 at 11:33 am - Reply


  6. Bob Richmond January 22, 2012 at 9:13 am - Reply

    So glad you’re doing this! I look forward to seeing it. I’m a Texas wildflower nut who unfortunately lives in east Tennessee. In San Antonio I studied Texas wild flowers with legendary teacher Lorene Rees, in the 6th grade at Mirabeau B. Lamar elementary school in the spring of 1950, and actually once took a handful of bedraggled wild flowers to the nearby Witte Museum and met Ellen Schulz Quillin, who I remember identified the tiny straggler daisy (Calyptrocarpus) that grew all over the Lamar schoolyard.
    Bob Richmond

    • Monika Maeckle January 22, 2012 at 11:32 am - Reply

      It’s an incredible project, Bob. I walk my dog down here every day and it’s treat to see the progress. This spring should be amazing. You should time your next visit to wildflower blooms. THanks for stopping by.

  7. Jody and Ken January 23, 2012 at 12:08 pm - Reply

    Good post. What a great job! Ken

    • Monika Maeckle January 23, 2012 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      Thanks for the kind words, Ken.

  8. […] 24, 2012, Update: Want to add this link to another blogger’s recent post about plantings along the Mission Reach. Advertisement […]

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