Local Commercial Property Blooms as Pollinator Pathway Project


Pollinator Pathway Project

Guest blog by Kate Gavaghan, Sci In The Tri writer and member of North Carolina Wildlife Federation’s Neuse River Hawks Community Wildlife Chapter.

You might not expect to see butterflies, hummingbirds, swimming turtles and nesting bluebirds at a busy commercial property. But at one expanding shopping area in Wake Forest, N.C., that’s exactly what you’ll find.

The Pollinator Project at 1021 Forestville Road is a joint effort between property owner Optimal Equity Corporation and the Neuse River Hawks (NRH), a local chapter of the North Carolina Wildlife Federation (NCWF).

“Neuse River Hawks have been designing and creating pollinator gardens in local public parks for several years now,” said NRH member and project co-manager Laura Robinson. These parks draw attention both for their beauty and their conservation benefits. They’re examples in a growing movement that goes by several names: pollinator gardening, conservation landscaping, backyard ecology, re-wilding. All share the goal of supporting wildlife and replacing habitat lost to development.

NRH Pollinator Project Co-managers Jeannette Mobley and Laura Robinson, pictured here with Wake Forest Parks Director Ruben Wall.

Robinson and fellow NRH member Jeannette Mobley wondered if private developers might be interested in this mission as well, so they reached out to a few local companies. Angelique Harris, Operations Manager for Optimal Equity, was intrigued. “I’m all about teachable moments,” she said.

Harris met to discuss options with the NRH team and was impressed by Robinson and Mobley’s knowledge and passion. “They knew every single plant and flower,” she said. “That education alone was enough for me.”

With a “thumbs up” from company owner Robert Shaar, they signed on to be the Pollinator Project’s first commercial demonstration site.

Choosing Native Plants that Support Wildlife

Together with their parent organization, N.C. Wildlife Federation, the NRH team determined which native plants would work for the Forestville Road setting. “Basically, we put in the ground floor of a whole food web,” explained Mobley. “The native plants attract the beneficial insects that pollinate lots of crops and wild plants. Those same insects are then food sources for the next animals up the food chain, like local songbirds and tree frogs.”

Working over two mornings, NRH volunteers planted more than 140 plants from 14 different species. Certain shrubs, like inkberry, will provide fruit for birds. Coral honeysuckle and sweetspire provide nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. Pink muhly grasses provide over-wintering habitat for native bees, while milkweed and black-eyed Susan are butterfly larval hosts.

Clockwise from upper left: Blue Wild Indigo, volunteer William Mobley and NCWF Conservation Coordinator Madison Ohmen, White oak, Coral Honeysuckle, volunteers Herb Amyx, Jeannette Mobley, Pat Amyx, Virginia sweetspire

“Some butterfly caterpillars are very finicky eaters!” said Robinson. “Many species eat a few select plants when they’re in the caterpillar state before they spin a chrysalis.” These host plants are key to supporting the whole lifecycle of a butterfly. (Monarch butterflies are probably the best-known example of this, laying their eggs exclusively on milkweed plants.)

Native plants have other perks, too. They’ve adapted to our local conditions, so they’re just easier to care for. Deep roots make them more drought-resistant and better able to absorb stormwater. And our acidic, clay soil? Natives thrive with little to no fertilizer.

Private Efforts Help Restore Lost Habitat

“These efforts on private property can really have an impact,” said Madison Ohmen, conservation coordinator for NCWF and advisor on the project. About 86% of North Carolina land is privately owned, and as development increases, finding ways to enhance conservation on private land is imperative.

Wake Forest is a prime location for private habitat restoration. According to the town’s recently-approved Community Plan, the population grew 725% between 1990 and 2020. That means lots of forests and farm fields turning into housing and commercial development.

“Planting natives helps restore habitat that has been lost due to this rapid development,” said Ohmen. “It supports our pollinators and wildlife and helps link wildlife to the remaining natural spaces in our area.”

Besides installing a bevy of native plants, the NRH team looked for opportunities on-site to provide water, shade and nesting and over-wintering habitat. They found a great resource via the property’s stormwater retention pond.

“With the right plants and stormwater management, retention ponds can be dynamic habitat,” said Robinson.

One side of the pond was largely undisturbed, with oaks, loblolly pines, dogwoods, and sweetgums. These native trees host many species, and the team added maples and hop-hornbeams to the mix.

The area near the parking lot, though, was full of blown trash and invasive plants like lespedeza, kudzu and Brazilian verbena. NRH volunteers cleared 125 pounds of trash, removed invasives, and sowed native wildflower seed, focusing on late summer sunflowers, asters and milkweed. They installed No Spray/No Mow signage around the pond to protect new vegetation and the insects, frogs, turtles and ducks living in this little sanctuary.

Trash and invasive plant cleanup crew, left to right: Kenille Baumgardner, Herb Amyx, Pat Amyx, Alden Hanson, Laura Robinson, Brenda Pate, Alan Adams. Seated in front: Mary Jo De Laere.

The Optimal Equity property now serves as a demonstration site for similar projects the NRH team is launching with other local developers. “We wanted to create a model that could be replicated at other sites,” said Mobley. “So we’re happy to talk with other developers as they choose native plantings for their community and commercial properties.”

If you’d like to learn more about the Pollinator Project and other local Neuse River Hawks projects, check out the group’s Facebook page. To become a member of the Neuse River Hawks, or to support their efforts, visit the Community Wildlife Chapter page of the NCWF website. Throughout the coming year, we’ll be sharing more stories about pollinator gardening, habitat restoration, and conservation in Wake Forest and other Triangle towns. We’ll look at how public and private groups are working to preserve green habitats (for humans and other species) in the midst of a development boom.

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