Nurture Natives: 4-Hers Take a Stand to Protect Maryland’s Ecosystems, Economy, and Agriculture

This is a guest post by Esther Bonney, a student in Charles County, Maryland, and a member of the University of Maryland Extension 4-H Program.

Invasive plants are detrimental to Maryland’s well-being, and their damaging effects are becoming more evident each year as we witness declines in crop productivity, reductions in pollinators critical to maintaining stable ecosystems, and widespread displacement of native habitats. Between 2008 and 2013, wild bees declined by 23 percent across the U.S.—a serious concern to farmers and consumers alike. Through educational programs, guides, and native giveaways, Nurture Natives is taking a stand against invasive species to protect native plants and pollinators, restore natural habitats, and support farmers. Nurture Natives is led by University of Maryland 4-Hers Esther Bonney and Samantha Rutherford and Extension 4-H Educator Amy Lang and UME Charles County Master Gardener Marlene Smith. 

people line up for native trees at Maryland Day
Visitors line up for native trees at Maryland Day, stretching down the courtyard and around the sidewalk, sometimes longer than the line for free ice cream!

In March 2022, our team was selected to attend the National 4-H Youth Summit on Agriscience. There, we developed our project, Nurture Natives, to address a prevalent agricultural issue in our community: invasive plant species. Invasive plants choke out native species and are a major cause of crop loss and food insecurity. Invasive trees such as the Tree of Heaven rapidly overtake farmlands and attract invasive pests such as the Spotted Lanternfly, which is a serious threat to grape crops. In the U.S. alone, invasive species cause $40 billion worth of production losses to crops and forests per year. 

Nurture Natives is dedicated to increasing biodiversity through the planting of native trees and the eradication of invasive plants. In the past year, Nurture Natives has been featured on the National 4-H and University of Maryland Extension websites, won a Lead to Change Grant, and was selected by the National 4-H Council as one of two projects nationwide to receive the highly-competitive Scale for Success Award. Nurture Natives was also recently featured in the Southern Maryland Independent: Nurturing natives and the next generation of environmental scientists

Our team began our work by educating and raising awareness about invasive species in our community of Charles County. We hosted educational programs at schools and camps and, in October 2022, partnered with eight local organizations to host the first annual Nurture Natives Giveaway. We hosted games, crafts, presentations, and a honey-tasting to showcase the importance of native species and pollinators. In just two hours, we distributed 150 native trees and shrubs and reached over 70 families. 

Our team recently published Nurture Natives, a guide to the native alternatives of 12 invasive yet highly-popular ornamental plants, including the Bradford pear and burning bush. Take a look at the online version of our guide here: Nurture Natives (PDF). We are currently distributing hundreds of our guides to nurseries across Maryland. Through our guide, we hope to educate homeowners on the harmful impacts of invasive species and encourage more native purchases. We are also working on publishing an expanded version of the Nurture Natives guide by August 2023. 

The Nurture Natives display at Maryland Day
The Nurture Natives booth at Maryland Day showcased a variety of outreach and education materials, including tri-folds, flyers, and guides.

On Saturday, April 29, our team made a splash at the University of Maryland’s Maryland Day! We ran games, crafts, activities, and an information table, in addition to distributing 400 free native trees and shrubs in just 2 ½ hours! The line for the trees stretched down the courtyard and around the sidewalk, at times even longer than the line for free ice cream! Our team had the incredible opportunity to share our journey and mission with hundreds of Marylanders and the University of Maryland faculty, including Dr. Craig Beyrouty, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. We were thrilled to see so many people getting excited about native species and taking action to support them. 

Esther and Marlene speaking with the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources
Esther Bonney and Marlene Smith speak with Dr. Craig Beyrouty, Dean of the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland, about the Nurture Natives journey.

Our Nurture Natives team is passionately working to protect Maryland’s native species. Our recent success at Maryland Day is only the beginning. We are working with legislators to pass a law prohibiting the propagation, importation, selling, and purchasing of the Callery pear in Maryland. The Callery pear tree (Pyrus calleryana), a non-native species from Asia, was one of the most popular ornamental trees in the U.S., with various cultivars, including Bradford pear, Aristocrat, and Cleveland Select. However, the MD Department of Agriculture now recognizes the Callery pear tree as an invasive species in Maryland due to its rapid growth, prolific seeding, and ability to outcompete native plants, wreaking havoc on our state’s biodiversity, agriculture, and economy (MDA). The tree’s invasive traits and probability of causing environmental and economic harm have led three U.S. states to prohibit its cultivation (Morning Ag Clips). 

Esther with the Governor and Lt. Governor
Esther Bonney speaks with Governor Wes Moore and Lt. Governor Aruna Miller about the Nurture Natives journey.

Follow Nurture Natives on Facebook to stay updated on our journey and future events (including free tree giveaways)!

Esther Bonney, a sophomore in high school and dual enrollment student at the College of Southern Maryland, is actively working toward a brighter and greener future for Maryland. Recognizing the urgent need to address the decline of local biodiversity, Esther founded Nurture Natives as a platform to engage youth in environmental initiatives, with a specific focus on planting native trees and eradicating invasive plants. Esther was recently selected as a 4-H Youth in Action 2023 Finalist for her work within 4-H and with Nurture Natives. Esther plans to pursue a career in environmental law, where she can continue her advocacy and drive transformative change on a larger scale. Alongside Nurture Natives, Esther enjoys playing the violin and caring for her five goats.

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