Mieko Aoki, Our Behind-the-Scenes Master of Native Species

by Edward McNally 

Native Plant Nursery Manager Mieko Aoki

“If you are a plant, there is only so much energy you can spend to ensure that your children survive. You could make thousands of tiny seeds that float through the air or you could produce one seed in a delicious fruit or a beautiful flower. It may be true that the chances of any single tiny seed landing in a beneficial spot might be better if that seed is one among thousands rather than the only seed you produce. But, as a unique organism, if that one seed you produce is planted and tended by someone who really wants it to grow its chances of survival go way up.” --- Mieko Aoki, Friends of Buford Park & Mt. Pisgah, Native Plant Nursery

 

As Manager of the Native Plant Nursery, Mieko Aoki is definitely someone who wants to help living things grow. Just ask anyone who has ever worked alongside her and they will tell you this about Mieko. Her innate desire and curiosity also make her a highly creative coordinator of people and projects. Mieko has been coordinating volunteers in outdoor settings for several years, first at Hendricks Park for the City of Eugene and then for the Friends. 

“Mieko loves working side-by-side with others outdoors,” says her assistant April Dawne Christen. “She really enjoys watching friendships kindle between people working toward a common goal.” 

When she was volunteer coordinator, Mieko served as the central liaison between staff and scores of nursery volunteers. She always had a special knack for matching each volunteer’s interests and talents with the dozens of daily, weekly, and seasonal tasks essential to the nursery’s success.

After a few years in that role, Mieko applied to become the Friends Native Plant Nursery Manager and was hired immediately. Former Nursery Manager Hal Hushbeck retired a few years ago to become a full-time volunteer in the nursery and remains an essential resource.

“I have to admit, I was a little scared to follow in Hal’s footsteps, since he was so incredibly knowledgeable and experienced with growing so many species under so many different growing conditions," Mieko says. "Even though I knew a lot about most of our native plants and the habitats of this region, there were so many questions I didn’t have answers to.”  

I asked Mieko about her personal approach to nurturing the scores of different plants in the nursery. She thought a few moments before sharing this memory. “Richard Merrill was one of my favorite horticulture teachers. I remember him telling me ‘There are two main biological drivers: conservation of energy and survival of offspring. There are millions of different ways to accomplish these goals and each one of them is called a species.’” 

Mieko explained, “This means that for me, April Dawne and the Friends’ volunteers to successfully support the 120 native plant species that we grow here, we always need to be studying and learning more about their 120 different life strategies. There are so many questions to consider!” 

“Which seeds have a dormancy that needs to be overcome by cold, wet, acid (to mimic passing through a digestive system), abrasion and/or time? When is the best time to start a seed so it will be a plant of desirable size for the plant sale, or to repopulate a planting bed? Which plants are susceptible to predation and by whom? How do we prevent plant loss and how much loss is acceptable? How do you determine when a seed is ripe? How does it disperse itself? How do we most efficiently capture most of those ripe seeds?” 

Luckily, Mieko’s predecessors and those at other native plant facilities have faced many of these questions. Hal, in particular, has spent many hours refining techniques and building ingenious contraptions to harvest and clean seed. 

“There is a wealth of information housed in Hal’s head,” declares Mieko with sincere admiration, “and in the collective brains of all our volunteer community. My learning journey this past year as nursery manager has been to glean these techniques, become familiar with the equipment, and ruminate on my own yet-to-be-realized ingenious inventions.”

“This year we are adding one-third of an acre to the nursery’s current footprint," she adds. "We’re currently in the process of clearing that plot and making it suitable as a growing space.”

The primary purpose of the Native Plant Nursery is to provide genetically local plant materials for our work to restore native habitat in the Mt. Pisgah area. Typically, soils may need to be restored after ecological burning, removing patches of invasive plants or recontouring floodplains. 

“We source the original seed from the greater Mt. Pisgah area so that we maintain the biodiversity of the area and give the plants the best chance of survival in the field,” says Mieko.

The vast majority of the 120 species grown in the nursery belong to Willamette Valley Prairie and Oak Savanna, two incredibly imperiled natural habitats. They are all collected or salvaged from within or near the Park. One of the benefits of sowing seed is that a seed mix can be dispersed over large areas much more efficiently than planting the same number of individual plants. 

Native seed that is not used on our own projects is made available to restoration partners within the Willamette Valley such as The Nature Conservancy and various watershed councils. For example, this past September, the Friends were able to provide hundreds of pounds of grass seed for erosion control in areas affected by the Holiday Farm fire. 

“The nursery generally looks its best in early May,” says Mieko, “when spring showers keep things green and a majority of the beds are in full bloom. It is sunny and warm, but not too hot. Pollinators are busy buzzing and bird song fills the air.” 

“We tend to think that humans have been selecting plants based on traits we like, such as bigger, sweeter fruit or more colorful flowers,” Mieko explained. “But I love the idea Michael Pollan put forth in his book The Botany of Desire. That it is actually the plants that are using us to get themselves propagated and dispersed.”

Those who know her best have witnessed Mieko’s dry impish wit and her quick, self-deprecating humor. Yet Mieko Aoki, whose father is a respected linguist with an international reputation, has a wealth of knowledge in the fields of biology, landscape architecture, horticulture, habitat restoration and wildlife rehabilitation. She was awarded a Bachelor’s degree in Biology from University of California Santa Cruz and earned her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Landscape Architecture from the University of Oregon. 

“While the nursery is primarily a source of seed for restoration,” Mieko reflected, “it is also a gathering space and a home for a community of staff, volunteers and interns of whom I have become very fond.”  She added, “While this first year as manager has been challenging in many ways, I feel incredibly grateful for all the support, encouragement, friendship and camaraderie shown to me by all of the volunteers. I am very happy to be a part of this nursery family.”

Needless to say, everyone affiliated with the Friends of Buford Park and Mt. Pisgah, especially our scores of dedicated volunteers and each and every one of our botanical family, are deeply grateful that Mieko is with us in such a vital role.

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Volunteers are key to our success at the nursery. Join us year-round on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and the 1st and 3rd Saturdays of the month for some experiential learning about cultivating native plants and to share your knowledge. 

We work 9am to 12 noon except for the summer months, when we start at 8am to beat the heat. No experience necessary. We provide tools, gloves, snacks, and instruction. Call (541) 344-8350 or email volunteer@bufordpark.org for more information. Groups welcome within COVID-19 guidelines!

The Native Plant Nursery is located at 34639 Frank Parrish Rd, Eugene OR, 97405 in the North Bottomlands area of Buford Park.

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