"Although Project Native’s mission is about plants and ecosystems, our ultimate goal is to connect people with nature and inspire stewardship."
Raina Weber, Executive Director of Project Native
By Sarah Volkman
Twisting, knotting, Asiatic bittersweet vines strangle and uproot native trees. Japanese barberry bushes cluster and crowd out native forest cover. Dense patches of purple loosestrife choke waterways and wetlands. Wildlife is forced to leave its habitat.
New England’s forests and wetlands — and the animals that call them home — are under assault by plants imported here from across the world.
As the spring garden planting season begins, make a difference in your own backyard: Plant native species, remove invasive plants and help restore your local ecosystem.
To help you do that, The Nature Conservancy has partnered with Project Native for almost nine years to restore the native wetlands and forests in the Berkshires.
Project Native began as a single greenhouse on less than an acre of land and has blossomed into a thriving 54-acre native plant sanctuary with a seed bank, offering plants and seeds for sale, landscape restoration services and various educational programs.
Executive Director, Raina Weber, herself a Berkshires native, was inspired to create a native plant nursery after studying permaculture in Hawai’i. “I was hiking and identifying wildflowers in the Berkshires, but I couldn’t find these same plants at local nurseries,” says Weber. “Nature is the best landscaper, and I wanted to mimic it in my landscape designs.”
Early on in Weber’s journey, she was introduced to Frank Lowenstein, who was director of the Conservancy’s Berkshire Taconic Landscape Program at the time, and she credits him with providing vital help in the beginning.
With the Conservancy’s influence, Raina realized that the value of native plants was not just about aesthetics, but also ecology. Native plants help maintain a healthy, diverse ecosystem where animals thrive, and make the entire landscape more resilient to impacts of climate change.
Without a background in environmental science, Weber states, “The Nature Conservancy was crucial to my access to resources, contacts and education in this field, as well as the empowerment that came from knowing the project was valuable ecologically.”
Nearly a decade later, Project Native is, in turn, providing an important resource for The Nature Conservancy’s work — offering local homeowners access to native species for their gardens and yards, and restoring floodplain forests and wetlands.
Making the Connection
Project Native is influential in raising awareness in the community about the dangers of invasive species. “Although Project Native’s mission is about plants and ecosystems, our ultimate goal is to connect people with nature and inspire stewardship,” says Weber. Through community gardens, public school curriculum, volunteer days and various on-site education programs, Project Native connects with a broad spectrum of the public.
Behind the scenes, The Nature Conservancy and Project Native are frequent partners on invasive species restoration projects, working together to preserve the Berkshire region. Currently, two Conservancy staff members sit on Project Native’s Board of Directors, and this spring the two organizations will be working together to restore floodplain forests along the Housatonic River.
“Because we have a shared mission, I see our organizations in constant collaboration to restore and protect critical habitat,” says Weber. “I have great admiration for The Nature Conservancy, and I’m grateful for their role in stewardship and their role in Project Native.”
Sarah Volkman is a program administrator for The Nature Conservancy's Forest Health Program.