Volunteer Spotlight: Houston Zoo Collegiate Conservation Program

Mercer Botanic Gardens strives to match volunteers with their interests. When the Houston Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program contacted Mercer for a project this summer, they were tasked with removing several types of invasive plant species encroaching on the park’s conservation nursery border.

Since 2011, the group has partnered with organizations across the Houston area on conservation projects from restoring habitats to clearing fields. “During our summers, we strive to expose interns to a variety of conservation projects and organizations around the Houston area,” said Joanna Baptista, Houston Zoo adult programs coordinator. “We spend many of our days in the field working with different organizations removing invasive plant species, planting marsh grasses, and learning about the conservation work they do onsite.”

On average, students complete 20 to 25 one-day projects over the summer and spend 200 hours in the field. Over the past six years, the students cleared Chinese privet and Chinese tallow from Mercer’s natural Hickory Bog, removed spiny, exotic trifoliate orange plants from west side paths, and cleared new trails.

During their most recent project, students helped protect Mercer’s historical tree and rare plant conservation nursery from encroaching invasive plants. Mercer staff estimate the students saved them more than a week’s worth of time and helped protect the rare and endangered plant nursery from contamination. Students worked with Botanical Collections Curator Suzzanne Chapman to clear a 3- to 4-foot swath along a 100-yard fence, removing invasive trees, such as Chinese tallow and Chinese privet, and other plants nearing the nursery.

The conservation nursery houses rare native Texas plants, including the Neches River rose-mallow. Many of those plants are part of the National Collection of Endangered Plants. “Invasive species, along with vines and small trees, were crowding the fenced area that houses Mercer’s endangered plant stock, as well as the historic tree seedlings and plants for the Spring Creek Greenway,” said Chapman. “Clearing the area will prevent weeds in the nursery and allow better air circulation around potted specimens. Native plant populations can be crowded out by exotic invasive plants.”

While organizations across the region benefit from the work of students, Baptista is quick to point out how students benefit, too. “Many students join the program to figure out what they want to do for their future careers. Some learn they are more drawn to the conservation side. Several of our employees at the zoo started as interns. Many of our other interns go on to work for the organizations we partner with.” To volunteer for projects like this, contact Mercer’s volunteer coordinator at 713-274-4160.