Teaming Up at the Roots of Park Conservation

Guest blogger Tim Fox tagged along with our team for a morning of tree planting in Kennedy Forest. Photographs by Jerry Naunheim.

The Power of Forest Park Forever Staff, Volunteers and Partners Coming Together for the Good of the Park

Nature Reserve Technician Theo Smith and Nature Reserve Steward Catherine Hu direct volunteers in planting trees

Nature Reserve Technician Theo Smith and Nature Reserve Steward Catherine Hu direct volunteers in planting trees


On a sunny late-February morning, three Forest Park Forever team members and six volunteers trekked to a four-acre plot near the Saint Louis Zoo’s north parking lot. Their mission: to restore the tract to its native oak-hickory woodland condition by planting 130 more oak, persimmon, buckeye and spice bush saplings.

“Eventually, we’ll be planting about 860 trees here, but not all of them will survive,” said Forest Park Forever Nature Reserve Steward Catherine Hu, who worked alongside the volunteers with FPF Park Ecologist Amy Witt and FPF Nature Reserve Technician Theo Smith. “When the remaining trees have matured, this will be a healthy area more indicative of the region — what St. Louis used to be.”

AmeriCorps St. Louis members had previously thinned the area. They removed a heavy infestation of invasive species, like bush honeysuckle, that had taken over the canopy and understory, blocking sunlight to the forest floor.

“Baby oaks are shade intolerant — they need sunlight to grow,” Hu explained. “This forest should have canopy gaps to allow sunlight to nourish the trees and other native plants we’ll be planting, like trillium and wild geranium, that help feed the animals who also live here.”

Preserving Forest Park’s natural state and conserving the plants and animals that make it home are key to Forest Park Forever’s mission of stewardship. The organization relies heavily on its volunteers, and members of organizations like AmeriCorps St. Louis, to get the job done.

“We are so grateful for our volunteers, who work very hard,” Witt said. “The City of St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry is wonderful, too, and Forest Park Forever adds the additional strength of being able to incorporate volunteers into the stewardship of the Park. In 2017, we logged over 4,300 volunteer hours throughout the Park’s Nature Reserve.”

At the work site, Smith gave quick instructions to the volunteers before they selected their first trees. The instructions were mainly reminders — this group plants trees and does other work at the Park every Tuesday.

“Dig your hole twice as wide and just as deep as the root ball,” Smith explained. “Be sure to watch for Park infrastructure, like that sewer lid. Once you’ve dug your hole, loosen the root ball and look for where the tree changes color near the roots. That part should be above ground. Don’t worry about planting the adventitious roots, they don’t need to be under ground. Once it’s planted, give it a little tweak with two fingers to make sure it’s secure.” The volunteers nodded in understanding. “Oh, and of course you can give it a hug if you want,” Smith quipped.

Instructions given, the group headed off into the forest, trees in hand. As volunteer Tom DeBenedetti started digging, he pointed out two stone bridges crossing the creek that runs through the site.

“Before AmeriCorps took out the invasive species, you couldn’t have seen those bridges for all the honeysuckle,” he said. “I like finding hidden things in the Park. A few weeks ago, we were working near the golf course and I found 53 balls!” DeBenedetti has been volunteering for Forest Park Forever for about three years, though he has been running in the Park for 40. “I remember what the Park used to look like and how much it has improved,” DeBenedetti said. “Forest Park Forever has done a fantastic job, and it’s a great organization to work for. They are very appreciative of what we do.”

Friends Ann Ruger and Barb Dressel agree. “Forest Park Forever team members are fantastically generous in teaching us about the Park and the plants that live here,” Ruger said. Both have been Forest Park Forever volunteers for about 10 years.

“We could plant three times as many trees then as now!” Ruger joked. “This area used to be awful from March to October because nothing underneath could grow. You couldn’t even see the leaves on the trees. We’re making it a beautiful, wild forest — the way it should be.”

“I fell in love with the wild places while walking my dog near Steinberg Skating Rink,” Dressel added. “We’ve worked with three different ecologists since we started volunteering, and each had his or her own approach. The money Forest Park Forever has raised makes our work possible, and management gives the ecologists the freedom to manage natural areas as they see fit.”

Current ecologist Witt’s vision for the area includes white, tulip-like colonies of trout lilies at the forest edge. The colonies can live for about 100 years, providing beauty for decades to come. Trillium and wild geranium will be planted elsewhere on the site. Both provide an important food source for animals during late winter into early spring, when other resources have been depleted.

“With any alteration to the plant population, you alter all the species who use it,” she said. “While trees make up only about five percent of the species in a typical oak-hickory woodland, they are very important for wildlife.”

The wetland and trees will be home to forest frogs that can’t live near Forest Park’s lakes because fish will eat their eggs. Countless insects and other critters will live in the rotting logs strategically left behind by AmeriCorps. In turn, tiny but critical life living below ground will support the trees.

“Mycorrhizal fungi can accumulate on the new trees’ roots in long layers up to one cell thick,” explained Witt, who earned her degree in biology from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. “That increases the roots’ surface area, allowing them to better absorb water and nutrients. We plant trees in winter because they are dormant and have more time to become associated with the mycorrhizi — and establish roots before summer’s heat and drought.”

As the tree-planting session wound down, first-year volunteer Steve Rosen surveyed the group’s progress.

“I just love Forest Park, and working here makes me feel good, like gardening,” he said. “When you plant a tree that will long outlive you, it’s humbling. We’re just mortal people, after all, but we are having a lasting impact.”