Natural 911: Knoxville Native Plant Rescue Squad whisks threatened plants to safety

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IMG 0996Joy Grissom (left) and Gerry Moll pose for a photograph with their collection of rescued native plants at Knoxville Botanical Gardens.  Photos by Anna Lawrence/Hellbender Press  

Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll: Preserving East Tennessee's natural heritage with shovels and wheelbarrows

If there’s a massive ecological disturbance in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

The Knoxville Native Plant Rescue Squad, of course. 

Joy Grissom and Gerry Moll spent the past six years identifying, digging, hauling and muscling native East Tennessee plants to salvation from construction, grading and logging sites.

The duo has saved thousands of plants and their communities from certain demise. They have plucked plants to safety from areas ranging from a 170-acre logging operation in Cocke County to relatively small commercial developments in Knox County.

“We both love and appreciate the natural world, a lot,” Moll said. “We would see that where there is development, a lot of these native plants are just bulldozed under,” he said during an interview earlier this spring at the Knoxville Botanical Garden. Thus the genesis of the Native Plant Rescue Squad, which was organized 2015 and received its own official nonprofit status in 2018.

Most of the plants and trees are harvested in a “shovel and wheelbarrow operation” after an initial canvass of the property. Then they get organized by species in neat rows at the botanical garden: White pine saplings. Black-eyed susans. Blackberries. Elderberries. Pawpaw. Persimmon. The plants are fragile but safe. They are for sale on the cheap. They need homes.

Grissom and Moll secure advance permission before they and their volunteers descend on a threatened site.

“We are really ethical about it. The last thing we want is to do something similar to poaching,” said Moll, who grows increasingly animated and passionate when he talks about his work to preserve the native plants of Tennessee.

They try to work cooperatively with developers and land owners, who increasingly alert them to land-clearing plans and invite them to perform preemptive native plant salvage.

The two are bonded, and licensed by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture to salvage native plants.

David Fiser, owner of Fiser Inc., a general contractor based in Knoxville, regularly refers the squad to properties slated for development. 

“They asked, and I like what they are doing,” Fiser said via email of the squad’s initial overture. 

“I have young children and I want the environment to be sustained for them and generations to come. Native Plant Rescue plays a role in that and every little bit helps,” Fiser said.

“I think there is a fine balance to growth and development, and preserving what we have.”

Moll and Grisson emphasize the need for many eyes to meet their mission, and encourage leads and tips from anyone who sees or suspects a large tract replete with native plants is about to go under the blade. 

Many of those wild plants can get whisked to safety ahead of time and find their forever homes.

“These plants go home with people. They have to find a location to plant, and they have to tend it and have a relationship with it. It’s all about people forming relationships with these plants and the natural world. And it’s such a solid way to do it,” Moll said

Native Plant Rescue squad sells some of its individual rescue plants at area famers markets and festivals to cover basic operating expenses, and also provides plants on a greater scale for developers or those who want to establish certified wildlife habitats on their property. 

The squad suggests some property owners perform "naturescaping," described in their publicity materials as "a landscaping method that uses native plants to conserve and create natural habitats. 

"Even a small plot of land provides a unique opportunity to curtail the loss of habitat by creating a wildlife sanctuary, with the ultimate goal of restoring the landscape to the level of sustainability of its natural state."

In addition to the squad's offerings at farmers market and festivals, some of the rescues are available for sale at a handful of nurseries. 

This especially dynamic duo is busy: In addition to its rescue work, the squad is working with Knox County Schools to establish native landscapes at schools throughout the system, and has worked with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to help salvage plants from an aging nursery.

There’s a huge educational outreach component to their work, taking the native plant gospel to garden clubs and government meetings and planting demonstration gardens.

“We talk ourselves crazy about native plants and getting people to plant them for local ecology,” Grissom said. “There’s not many people we haven’t talked to.”

Squad members are oriented toward rescuing perennial flowering plants and species beneficial to insects, but have salvaged thousands of plants from at least 100 sites over the past five years with a focus on diversity: grasses and sedges (from little bluestem to river cane); sun-dependent species (from black raspberry to white leaf cup); shade species (from black cohosh to yellow trillium); ferns; and trees and shrubs (from alder to yellow pine). The squad is also partial to native fruiting species, such as blackberry, persimmon and elderberries.

Occasionally, an immediately unknown species will make it to safety, and “we put it in our mystery zone and watch it,” Moll said. 

A lot of the Native Plant Rescue Squad’s work wouldn’t be possible without the conscientious cooperation of property owners and developers.

Fiser said he incorporates native species into his developments when possible, sometimes with the assistance of the Native Plant Rescue Squad.

“A lot of developers get a bad rap. Some, rightfully so,” he said.

“We have tried to incorporate native plants in our developments when it makes sense. Either way, we try to put back as much as we took out. It’s not always possible, but we think adding native trees and plants only enhance our developments,” Fiser said.

And the squad thinks preserving native trees and plants enhances the whole world, so they await their next clarion call. Or just a simple email.

Connect with the Knoxville Native Plant Rescue Squad at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. You can reach squad members via phone at 480-239-0506 or 731-610-6984.

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