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CCU Atheneum: Mitchell Wimberley and Ben Flo spent the fall semester saving rare plants from being destroyed by bulldozers along International Drive.
Mitchell Wimberley and Ben Flo spent the fall semester saving rare plants from being destroyed by bulldozers along International Drive.

Biology students save rare plants from bulldozers

by Mona Prufer
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Barely keeping ahead of the bulldozers, two biology students spent the fall semester digging up rare plants in the area near the Carolina Bays Preserve as the on-again, off-again construction battle over International Drive continues.

Benjamin Flo and Mitchell Wimberley, both senior biology majors at Coastal Carolina University, are doing their part to save plants like pitcher plants and sundews in Horry County. Guided by biology professor Jim Luken, they have been working on an independent study project involving the rescue and relocation of carnivorous plants to the new Botanic Bank at the Horry County Solid Waste Authority (HCSWA).

The purpose of the project is to save those rare plants that would otherwise be destroyed by development and relocate them to a safe site where they can flourish. The bank, a two-acre tract of land provided by the HCSWA, is located near the proposed path for the new International Drive.

Since the spring of 2015, Luken had been searching for undeveloped land that could lend itself to student research and projects.

“[Coastal Carolina’s] Waties Island is beautiful and unspoiled, but with its deed restrictions, you are somewhat limited in terms of scientific research possibilities,” said Luken, who is widely known as an authority on Venus flytraps. “We needed some land for students to be able to do plant ecology.”

“It was for reasons such as this that the SWA Botanic Bank Internship (BIOL 499) was started by Dr. Luken where students would go and locate, extract and redistribute some of these rare plants that are found in the line of paving to begin a rare plant rescue project,” wrote Wimberley in his research paper as part of the internship.

After talks with Danny Knight, director of the HCSWA, it was determined that two acres at the recycle facility on Environmental Way off S.C. 90 would be a good spot as the acreage is composed of former wetlands that are home to many endangered plants.

“These are very important wetland areas found in South Carolina that are home to some rare species of plants. Sarracenia oreophila (Green Pitcher Plant), Drosera (Sundew), Dionaea muscipula (Venus Flytrap) and Orchidaceae (Wild Orchid) are some of the rare plants that may be destroyed in the paving project of International Drive,” according to Wimberley.

Construction of the 5.6-mile four-lane highway has been on hold pending the outcome of a court battle between environmentalists and developers.

The students successfully moved plants over three days: Oct. 31, when they moved 41 pitcher plants, Nov. 14, when they moved 21 pitcher plants, and Nov. 21, when 37 pitcher plants were moved. In total, 99 pitcher plants were relocated into the Lewis Ocean Bay Heritage Preserve. A mere week later, the 30-ft.-wide working area had been mulched over by bulldozers, and work had to cease.

The biology student said the internship taught him a wide variety of things, such as how to identify these rare plants, where to find them, and how best to extract and relocate these plants. All carnivorous plants tend to be relatively rare due to the unique type of habitats where they grow: wet, open, nutrient poor and subject to frequent fire, said professor Luken.

The relocated plants, which were carefully dug up with a flathead shovel and hand trowel were replanted to the Botanic Bank or to safe sites in Lewis Ocean Bay. Some were planted in shade and others in the shade, but all are doing well, the students report.

“After seeing all of the construction take place and having a firsthand look at how much destruction takes place during these projects, it makes you realize how much people care only for convenience instead of the world around them,” Wimberley wrote in his paper.

Flo, who is from Conway, says he learned that “every moment counts when it comes to working in the wake of development. The pavement of International Drive was going to happen and at the time of the project, it was unclear when it was going to happen. It was possible to save more plants but the only thing [working] against Mitchell, Dr. Luken and I was time. We saved dozens of rare plants that would have otherwise been killed, and I consider that a success.”

The Botanic Bank is an area that has been set aside by the Horry County Solid Waste Authority permanently for the continued relocation of rare plants by CCU. Luken says the area provides needed research space for science students interested in plant ecology and botany. The eventual plan is to build a boardwalk for the public to walk through and observe the plants for educational purposes.

After he graduates, Wimberley plans to pursue a career in environmental consulting, conducting wetland delineations, plant inventory and other environmental tasks.

Flo, also a May graduate, plans to apply for a Master's of Art in Teaching here at CCU, hoping to teach high school biology. “I eventually want to be a professor, but teaching high school is a good start,” he says.

The internship program will continue, Luken says, as long as there are students interested in doing the field work.


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