Plant Rescues

Plant rescues, which relocate native plants from a site where development is imminent, raise complex issues for the Virginia Native Plant Society. We are committed to conserving Virginia’s native plants in the habitats where they naturally occur. Plant rescues become an option only when those habitats face certain destruction. Seen in this light, rescues do not serve the society’s mission. On the other hand, saving natural habitats depends on public support, and in this perspective rescues offer valuable opportunities for educational outreach that can bolster future conservation efforts .

We neither encourage nor oppose plant rescues across the board, recognizing that each perspective emphasizes valid concerns. Instead we consider them case by case within a framework of policies the VNPS board has established to guide rescues supported in any way by a chapter or the society.

We encourage our members to consider this same policy framework in deciding whether to participate in a rescue under other auspices or to undertake one on their own. In addition, we urge other groups that engage in rescues to endorse these policies as the basis for their own projects.

What Rescues Can and Cannot Do

Plant rescues are spurred by the human desire to save something from a habitat about to be destroyed, but what they save is very limited. A rescue can salvage only a tiny proportion of the plants on a site, and the selection is often based in large part on criteria that have little to do with conservation, such as ease of access and horticultural value. The ecosystem that was there, with all its species diversity, genetic variation, and intricate interrelationships, is still irrevocably lost. Even the plants chosen for relocation may not thrive, or even survive, in their new habitat. Moreover, plant rescues can have adverse effects on natural habitats and on conservation. Most tangibly, they can spread invasive alien species or in other ways alter the ecosystem of the site where they are replanted. They can also weaken support for habitat conservation by fostering the perception that rescuing selected plants compensates for destruction of an entire habitat, or that landscape plantings can substitute for natural areas. Within VNPS, rescues can divert time, energy, and leadership that might otherwise be used in activities directly related to protecting natural habitats. Nonetheless, at every stage, from initial planning through replanting, rescues offer opportunities to strengthen support for conservation through education. They have the advantage of teaching about the natural habitats of native plants in terms of a particular place rather than in the abstract, and this vivid reminder of what we are losing can spur support for conservation. Rescues can also make a long-term contribution to public education by providing native plants for public gardens and nature centers. For VNPS itself, the immediate appeal of a rescue can attract new members, opening the way to engaging them in habitat conservation as well as building the organization. Implicit in this understanding of rescues are the foundations of VNPS policies and actions:

• Avoiding language or actions that call into question our commitment to habitat conservation or weaken public support for it;

• Making education an explicit part of our planning;

• Using rescued plants only in ways that do no harm to their new habitats and that contribute to our goals in education and in conservation.

VNPS Policies

For the major choices a rescue entails – whether to participate, how to use the plants rescued, and how to make it work – the sections below list the policies adopted by the VNPS board and add suggestions to guide further decisions that because of varying circumstances need to be more flexible.

Since rescues are by nature local, the board of a chapter is almost always responsible for decisions about them. Only when a proposed rescue would involve more than one chapter does it come to the state board. Within the policy framework outlined here, each chapter has the authority to determine whether to undertake rescues at all or to participate in a particular rescue, taking into account local needs and circumstances, the chapter’s membership and resources, and the details of a proposed rescue.

Deciding Whether to Participate

A chapter board or the state board is responsible for deciding whether or not to sponsor, endorse, or assist a proposed rescue in the name of VNPS. The board is expected to weigh the rescue’s particular risks and potential benefits, and to ensure that if approved it will comply with these policies: We engage in rescues

• Only as a last resort, when development of the site is imminent and all options that might keep it undeveloped have been decisively closed, and we take pains to make sure rescues are not used as a convenient way for developers to avoid or neutralize opposition.

• A rescue is limited to areas of the site where all plants will be destroyed and where there are plants that suit the planned use. No plants are removed for any purpose from areas that will otherwise be undisturbed.

• We do not support rescues from any site where there is significant risk that well-established invasive alien plants or other pests will be spread by the relocation of native plants.

• Each rescue is governed by a written agreement or letter of understanding with the landowner or developer, or an authorized agent.

• A rescue complies with applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations.

• Educational outreach is an integral part of every rescue.

How the timing and scope of a rescue fit into existing plans is always an immediate consideration. Is there enough time before the rescue must be accomplished to obtain the necessary information about the site and its flora? Given other commitments, will enough volunteers be available to plan and carry out all aspects of the rescue? To what extent will their involvement in the rescue divert attention and energy from other activities, especially those related to habitat conservation? The opportunities for education a rescue offers should also be carefully assessed, considering its relationship to other programs, the species it involves, and how many people educational efforts might reach.

A reliable inventory of the plants found on the rescue site is a key factor in determining whether a rescue is appropriate, and if it is, how plants will be used. In general a rescue should not be pursued if an appropriate use of the native plants on the site is not ready at hand or easily found. What non-natives are present, in what numbers, is equally important. Even where invasive alien species are not present in large enough numbers to rule out any rescue, their very presence may limit the choice of relocation sites.

Broader VNPS policies regarding work with developers and land-use agencies, stated in the VNPS position paper on conservation, should also be considered, in particular in negotiating the agreement with the landowner or developer. It should be worked out cooperatively, reflecting each party’s respect for the other’s priorities, and the landowner’s or developer’s requirements should be consistent with VNPS policy and workable in practice.

Choosing a use for rescued plants VNPS uses plants rescued under our auspices for public benefit, not private gain. On this basis, our policies distinguish acceptable and unacceptable uses for rescued plants.

• Acceptable uses are replanting at an appropriate site; providing stock for propagation; and providing plant material for a scientific project. Each has its own policies, listed below. After all the plants needed for these uses have been collected, participants may dig additional plants for their own use.

• Unacceptable uses are selling rescued plants to VNPS members or to the public or giving them away in return for financial benefit to VNPS; and providing plants for private gardens through plant rescues conducted solely for that purpose.

In general we also discourage the use of plants taken from wild populations in ways that might confuse the public. This concern underlies policies such as those on rescues for scientific purposes and the need in some situations to ensure that rescued plants are identified as such.

Rescuing plants listed as Endangered or Threatened under federal or state law is subject to complicated requirements that cover the collection and use of whole plants, their progeny, and plant parts, including seeds. Often a permit is required. In the event that any listed species are found on a rescue site, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services should be consulted about permissible uses and the particular requirements that must be met.

Replanting at another site, the most common use of rescued plants. In planning for replanting, maintaining the ecological integrity of the relocation site is always a priority concern. An appropriate replanting site is a managed wildflower garden or interpretive nature trail where plants can be relocated in habitat suitable to their species, and where there is good reason to expect sufficient care for the relocated plants to survive and continuing protection of the site from future development.

• We do not relocate rescued plants in undisturbed native habitats or sites being maintained as natural areas, where they falsify the local history of natural dispersal and may compromise the site’s botanical and ecological integrity.

• In replanting we work cooperatively with those responsible for the relocation site and comply with their existing policies.

• In choosing among appropriate sites we carefully weigh the risk that invasive alien species may be moved with the rescued plants, and the potential impact, ecological and financial, of such spread.

• Even at relocation sites that are by no means pristine habitat, the staff should know about invasive plants or other pests present at the rescue site, so that they can monitor the new plants and catch problems promptly.

The choice of a relocation site should take into account its programs and staffing. Preference should be given to recipients that regularly offer programs that help visitors identify and learn about native plants, and that can make it clear that the added plants have been rescued, not wild-collected, especially in the case of species that are not available commercially. What help on-site staff can offer in site preparation and in replanting and maintenance of rescued plants is also important.


• Rescued plants, and seeds and cuttings taken from other plants in areas scheduled for destruction, may be used to provide stock for chapter propagation programs.

• Plants propagated from this stock may be sold to raise money for chapter programs. Cooperative scientific projects

• Rescued plants may be used for a scientific project compatible with the mission and policies of VNPS.

• Collection of plants for such a project is limited to a pre-rescue survey that is not open to the public, or to a rescue conducted exclusively for that project. During a rescue conducted for other purposes, no participant may collect specimens for scientific purposes.

Handling the logistics of a rescue Because the way a rescue is organized depends on factors that vary from one rescue to another, other decisions about it are left to those charged with planning the rescue. These issues should be considered:


. Volunteers’ safety is always a priority. Planners should alert participants to risks inherent in the site’s topography, structures, and plant and animal life, and take other prudent steps to prevent their causing problems. The liability insurance VNPS carries covers accidental injury or property damage during a rescue, and the developer’s insurance may also apply. The written agreement with the developer should clearly state what insurance applies and what waivers of liability are required of VNPS or of individual volunteers.

Who May Participate

. Depending on the circumstances of a rescue, it may be for VNPS members only, or it may be open to non-members, including members of allied organizations,

What Species to Collect

. The list of plants selected from the site inventory for rescue should usually be limited to the species requested by those who will receive the rescued plants. It should also fit the knowledge and skills of the available volunteers and the time limits placed on the rescue. If rare species are considered for rescue, it is especially important that suitable, well protected habitat be found for replanting.


. Some advance orientation and basic instruction can help a rescue go smoothly. Topics to be covered include safety, identifying the species to be relocated, defining the areas where plants may be dug and those that are off limits, and making sure everyone understands what policies must be followed.


. Throughout the rescue, designated volunteers should be available to help participants identify plants to be rescued and in other ways, organized or informal, encourage them to learn more about the plants on the site and the ecosystem of which they are part. These volunteers should also be alert to actions that jeopardize volunteers’ safety or that are not in accord with VNPS policy and the landowner’s requirements.