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The Defender of Plants

by Matt Candeias

The first time I saw lupine blooming in the wild, a blanket of purplish blue flowers swaying softly, covering an Indiana dune, I had to sit down. We had just come through a clearing in the trees, following a trail down to the lake front that allowed us to hike through 10,000 years of dune succession in a single afternoon. I saw the blue spikes off in the distance, but until I came to them I didn’t realize what I had been seeing. The view was stunning.

Wild lupine and I have a past. Lupines were the in-between step that led me from being an excited science-loving undergrad without a real plan to a botany graduate student today, and helped inspire my development of In Defense of Plants, a blog, podcast, and social media presence spreading plant love.

In college, I chose to major in biology because I loved biology, not because I was following a “career plan”. But as my four years were coming to a close, I realized I needed a plan. I had to put my degree to work - in order to start paying for it!

My final semester of college I took a restoration ecology course where everything began to fall into place. I caught a glimpse of what grad school in the sciences looked like. I realized that people can actually get jobs repairing ecosystems. That realization, and a friend in need changed my trajectory to become the botany lover (and defender) that I am today.

My friend was trying was to replace their position at a global mining company – one tasked with designing reclamation projects in former sand and gravel pit mines in western New York. I went on the interview and was surprised as I was brought into active mines, going down through tunnels and then back to a concrete room to discuss the goals of the project. In a typical mine reclamation, a retired strip mine is covered with topsoil and grass seed. But this project was special. The company wanted to do better – they had decided to focus on butterfly restoration through trying to restore the butterfly’s host plant, wild lupine. I knew lupine! I was familiar with the photo they showed me - what I had been convinced my grandmother grew at Easter (which I later learned were hyacinths) and was excited to jump in.

The project itself was small potatoes to the company, but at over 100 acres seemed huge in scale and budget to me. We started planting lupine seedlings into the ground that was dotted with grasses sprouting up from seeds It went as well as you may think it did… Most of the lupines we planted did not establish, but some did!

While we were expected to keep the project moving forward, we were also trying to figure out how to get more lupines to thrive. In a leap of faith, I reached out to a scientist who studied plants – I had never interacted with a scientist like that before – just to ask about the lupines. This was my hands-on introduction to plant science as a practice. Dr. Potts from SUNY Buffalo State was so incredibly helpful, walking through how to collect data, how to make things replicable, and how to write about science. Using data we collected, we figured out that some of the existing grasses were helping the lupines by creating microclimates that support their growth. We came up with a plan to test and evaluate our strategy. We finally had the missing pieces of the puzzle to move forward on making this a successful restoration project.

Years later, in a totally different habitat, I saw them again. In the Indiana Dunes wild lupine has been part of a major conservation effort for years. In the Great Lakes region, lupine restoration and conservation is linked to the federally listed Karner Blue butterfly. But as I have discovered, over-and-over again, no matter what aspect of the community we are trying to conserve, it can always be traced back to the plants.

Matt Candeias is a graduate student studying how herbaceous communities are structured in the southern Appalachian Mountains. He started In Defense of Plants back in 2012 to share his love of the botanical world! Check out the amazing site, podcast, videos, instagram, and twitter.

Matt's Plant Love Story was told to Rebecca Tonietto, 2015 Smith Fellow, Plant Love Stories co-founder and Assistant Professor at University of Michigan - Flint, and written collaboratively.


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