Most Wildflower Center visitors come to see features such as wildflowers, native landscapes and wildlife. But tucked away in a secluded back corner of the Center, there are more than 70,000 native tree seedlings waiting to be planted in areas of Central Texas affected by last fall’s wildfires.
After more than one year of planning and nurturing by a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin, there are thousands of Loblolly pine, Montezuma cypress and other saplings growing in the tennis court-sized tree yard.
These 3- to 8- inch trees will be given in time for the mid-October planting season to homeowners, churches and community facilities in Bastrop and surrounding areas. Thousands of acres were lost last year during Texas wildfires that destroyed 1,600 homes in Bastrop County alone.
Molecular biology student Vlad Codrea created this project with $54,000 from a university grant that rewards students for environmental service-related projects on campus. The Wildflower Center contributed to the Green Fee Committee funds with $22,000 in proceeds from the Balcones Burner Bash, an art contest that Balcones Recycling held for the Center.
“I’m passionate about trees,” he said. “I like seeing land that is green. I wanted to plant trees and see them grow.”
Before tree seeds could be grown, Codrea needed to buy planting materials, obtain seeds and find a nurturing environment for the seedlings. Codrea reached out to the Wildflower Center for a facility.
“We are more than just a home for this project,” said Damon Waitt, senior director and botanist at the Wildflower Center. “We have provided experience, guidance and knowledge about native plant propagation.”
Experts and volunteers at the Wildflower Center, including Nursery Manager Sean Watson, expanded the tree nursery. It now includes automated irrigation to water the seedlings three times per day and a sunshade for protection from the harsh Texas weather.
“The Wildflower Center took a great worry off our backs because they are so skilled,” Codrea said. “The nursery simply wouldn’t have been possible without the center.”
But before he could plant, Codrea needed some seeds.
With the help of a friend, Matthew Sibley, Codrea learned from the Texas Forest Service's regional department head, Jim Rooni, that Dr. Thomas Byram, a geneticist with the service, was holding Loblolly pine seeds on reserve from 1995. Three days after Codrea obtained the seeds, wildfires broke out in Bastrop.
“Foresight is rarely 20-20 but in this case it paid off,” Waitt said. “If Dr. Byram had not collected those loblolly seeds from the Bastrop area in 1997, we would not have the appropriate raw material for today’s loblolly pine recovery efforts.”
Although Codrea didn’t begin the project as a result of the fires, he knew his trees would go towards the recovery as soon as he learned of the fire’s magnitude. He got the help of a few UT students as volunteers to help plant and care for the budding trees.
“Getting volunteers has been the most challenging aspect of the project,” Codrea said on a recent July Saturday. “The work isn’t hard, but being outside in the middle of the day is challenging.”
By mid-March, most of the seeds were planted in plastic and Styrofoam test tube-like containers. Other species that are growing in the yard include Mexican buckeyes, Texas mountain laurels and catclaws.
But when it came to distributing the seeds, help wasn’t hard to come by. Local non-profit TreeFolks was recommended to Codrea to help get the trees to homeowners. Since their founding in 1989, they have planted 250,000 trees in the Austin area.
“After hurricanes Katrina and Ike, we contributed to disaster relief,” Executive Director April Rose said. “So we have a little bit of a model for recovery efforts. When the fires hit, we were already thinking how to help when Vlad emailed us.”
TreeFolks will hold fall distribution events in the Bastrop, Oak Hill and Spicewood areas where their staff, volunteers and local Bastrop experts, such as master gardeners, will give away the test tube-like containers to homeowners with burned properties. Most events will be held at churches or community centers, with those receiving trees receiving an adoption certificate and tree-planting information.
“Planting these trees as a community is a cathartic process,” Rose said. “By helping to place these trees in the ground we are raising awareness about how important tree canopy is to our quality of life. Communities affected by disaster are acutely aware of this when trees are lost.”
After all trees are given away, both Codrea and the Wildflower Center hope to use the tree nursery for similar environmental projects. Codrea hopes that another student with as much passion for tree growth comes along after him to continue the project.
“I want to see fields of trees growing happily and imagine the shade and recreation value they will provide 50 years from now,” Codrea said. “Knowing I helped to make that possible will be the greatest reward.”
Story and photos by Julia Bunch