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Rejuvenated Wildflower Garden is awash in native blooms

Rejuvenated Wildflower Garden is awash in native blooms

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Spring has sprung, and the hard work of the Mill Mountain Garden Club is paying off with an explosion of brilliant colors lining the pathways of the newly restored Wildflower Garden atop Mill Mountain.

On a recent Tuesday morning, over a background of a trickling pond and chirping birds, came the sounds of shovels in dirt and eight women laughing. “The visionaries,” as they call themselves, were immersed in the never-ending job of removing invasive species from the newly restored garden.

These women, members of the Mill Mountain Garden Club and the driving force behind the revitalized garden, were surrounded by trillium, bluebells and columbine as they kept up the work before the ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for noon Thursday.

The Wildflower Garden, which is on city land, was started in 1971 through a partnership between the garden club and Roanoke Parks and Recreation.

“Anything 50, even a woman, needs refreshing,” laughed Forrest Moore, past president and member of the club.

The new infusion of native wildflowers, trees and shrubs did not come without a lot of hard work and planning. The preliminary work started four years ago with a restoration campaign launched by the garden club that raised $200,000.

The transformation includes more than just wildflowers to be enjoyed while walking through the 2½-acre garden, located between the Mill Mountain Discovery Center and Mill Mountain Zoo.

“We had to focus on what was really important in the garden and how we could re-imagine it so it was more relevant for today and how people enjoy the outdoors,” Moore said.

The new features include a restored cascading tiered pond, which was transformed into a frog pond in partnership with Mill Mountain Zoo and conservation biology students from Virginia Tech. It’s now home to scores of wood frog tadpoles, who this spring found the pond on their own after some major efforts by the Mill Mountain Garden Club members and their partners.

To help establish the pond, the goldfish that had been living there were removed and given a new permanent home at the zoo.

“The goldfish are non-native, likely suffer when dumped, and are predators of the native wood frogs,” Sarah Karpanty, a professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech, said in an email.

Karpanty’s students advised the garden club and the city to leave the leaf litter in the pond, as it is great cover for frogs and salamanders and shields them from predators. She says her students hope the pond will become a FrogWatch site through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ citizen science program.

The garden club worked with landscape architect Art Garst, who thought to include features for children to enjoy. Garst created an area with about 20 stumps for kids to jump on, and along with his brother John Garst built wooden stars that hang among the trees for children to find.

A new ADA-compliant walkway now leads through the heart of the garden, where before walls of invasive honeysuckle bush blocked vast vistas of the surrounding mountains and downtown Roanoke.

Removing such invasive species has required constant vigilance from Mill Mountain Garden Club members, who believe it’s critical for the garden to feature only native species.

“They are the plants that grow naturally here, so over the test of time they are low-maintenance because they don’t require additional fertilizer and water and they are adaptable to a change in climate,” Moore said. Native species provide food and shelter for wildlife, which sometimes won’t eat the non-native flowers, plants and berries that might not be recognizable to them, she said.

“Our whole purpose is creating a beautiful showcase where people can enjoy the garden but maybe take conservation information back into the way they garden,” Moore said.

The Mill Mountain Wildflower Garden is also part of Roanoke’s Historic Garden Week tour on Saturday. Tickets can be purchased to tour the eight gardens at www.vagardenweek.org.

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Heather Rousseau is a staff photographer with The Roanoke Times. She moved to Roanoke in 2015 and has worked around the country as a visual journalist for over 15 years. She loves to share stories through photography and video.

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