Where the Orostachys iwarenge grow
Crevice Garden offers a new outdoor classroom and quiet space on FLC’s campus.
Have you ever wondered how a single flower can thrive in a sidewalk crack? This mysterious natural phenomenon is demonstrated through Fort Lewis College’s newly constructed Crevice Garden adjacent to the Herbert E. Owen Native Plants Garden on the south side of campus. From visiting families to SkySteppers and all the students in-between, this unique learning space is helping to answer our biggest questions about tiny species in a world where water is increasingly scarce.
“Crevice gardens are the future gardens in a climate that’s stricken by drought,” said Julie Korb, professor of Biology. “We’re creating habitat for plants growing on the edge of life. The space mimics the mountains, so we can talk about extreme environments without actually going to elevations above 12,000 feet.”
Each piece of the project mimics the type of growing conditions found in the rugged terrain at the top of the San Juan Mountains. In the summer of 2022, mounds of dirt were sculpted to host native stones sourced from locations within an hour’s drive of campus. During construction, these lichen-kissed Baker’s Bridge Granite, Twilight Gneiss, and Irving Gneiss slabs were tilted vertically and spaced inches apart in the nutrient-poor soil.
Between the rocks and into the earth, hundreds of small, bare-root local and global native montane and alpine species were planted, including mat-growing plants such as Silene acaulis “moss campion (native to the Rocky Mountains, Alaska, Iceland, and Europe); Paronychia kapela “creeping nailwort” (native to the Pyrenees and southern Europe) and Sedum pachyclados “gray stonecrop” (native to Pakistan and Afghanistan); grasses such as Deschampsia caespitosa “tufted hair grass” and succulents like Agave parryi “Parry’s agave” and Orostachys iwarenge “Dunce cap”; sunflowers; Zinnia grandiflora “prairie zinnia”; and dwarf pine trees such as Pinus mugo and Pinus nigra and much more.
The plants were carefully chosen by project consultants and designers Ryan Keating, Erik Lewis, and Lisa Bourey, who will manage the site until the seedlings have had time to adapt to their new home.
In the fall of 2024, students in the SEEDS Ecology Club will take over maintaining the space. As a national program through the Ecological Society of America, SEEDS focuses on diversifying the field of ecology by welcoming people from diverse backgrounds and underrepresented groups. The club started at FLC more than a decade ago and currently has nine students on the roster.
“Having students take over maintenance of the Garden will be important to help them build plant handling and gardening skills,” said Matt Young, a junior majoring in Environmental & Organismal Biology and president of FLC’s SEEDS chapter. “Being able to work with plants hands-on and help them grow and thrive is a really worthwhile experience. It’s not just rote memorization; it gets students in the field, looking at plants.”
“I wanted to get involved with SEEDS as an Indigenous woman in science,” said Gina Bodnar, a senior majoring in Biology and a citizen of the Curyung Tribe in Dillingham, Alaska. “My goal has been to see more people like myself and build that community on campus.”
"Being able to work with plants hands-on and help them grow and thrive is a really worthwhile experience. It’s not just rote memorization; it gets students in the field, looking at plants."
— Matt Young (junior, Environmental & Organismal Biology)
Bodnar and Young worked with Korb in the 416 Fire burn area last summer, investigating post-fire vegetation responses and how native shrubs were recovering four years after the 50,000-acre fire.
“Some of the shrubs are difficult to identify but there were lots of examples in the Native Plants Garden, so it was super helpful to reference what the different species looked like,” Bodnar said. “It’s like having a living textbook. These spaces are directly applicable to our work.”
Besides functioning as an outdoor classroom and herbarium for students to gain field experiences right on campus, the Crevice Garden will serve as a germplasm bank to conserve, propagate, and cultivate alpine plants that are on the edge of climate extinction. Nestled a hundred yards from the top of the SkySteps, it’s also an extension of the community and an educational opportunity for anyone who wants to learn more about these fragile life forms and crevice gardens in general.
“Since FLC is so focused on using Southwest Colorado as an outdoor learning space, having these examples is good for helping students and the community develop a better sense of place,” Young said.
“Maybe, more importantly, it’ll be a refuge,” Bodnar added.