“Without native plants, on which native fauna depends, you can’t have functioning ecosystems,” says Debbi Edelstein, MCP ’97, executive director of Native Plant Trust. Plants native to a region have a mutually sustaining relationship with wildlife, and especially pollinating insects. “That relationship is stressed by many factors, from pesticides to invasive species, and now by a climate that is changing really fast,” she says. “People tend to think that all things green are equal, and they’re not. If we lose the genetic diversity of native plants, we’re impoverishing our landscapes and making them less resilient.”
When Edelstein, a former writer and editor, decided to switch careers at age 40, she did it with the health of the planet in mind. She earned a master’s at MIT in city planning with a focus on environmental policy and then took positions in just about every area of conservation—water, land, air, animals, and finally plants. In 2009, she began her role at Native Plant Trust, which was founded 120 years ago as the nation’s first plant conservation organization and continues to be the only one solely focused on New England’s native flora.
Edelstein’s communications background prepared her to lead the organization—known, when she joined, as New England Wild Flower Society—in
a rebranding that reflects both its conservation and horticulture work. For example, it deploys hundreds of volunteers—professional botanists, as well as amateurs it trains—to monitor the populations of rare and endangered plants in every county in New England and, with federal and state permits, to collect seeds for a seed bank. It also undertakes land restoration projects, manages a botanical garden (Garden in the Woods in Framingham, Massachusetts) and nursery, and publishes research on such topics as controlling invasive plants and adapting to climate change. A recent joint publication with the Nature Conservancy offers crucial strategies for saving plant diversity in New England. “All of New England’s core habitats face multiple threats and are in decline,” Edelstein says.
Last year, when covid-19 canceled the organization’s in-person educational opportunities, public interest in its established and newly adapted online programs increased. “People around the world saw mountains surrounding them for the first time, because the air quality had improved. As things got quieter, they noticed the birds in their yard. They saw nature in a way that they hadn’t, because they hadn’t had the time to pay attention to it,” she says. “It’s up to those of us who care about nature to find creative ways to make that stick.”
This article also appears in the May/June 2021 issue of MIT News magazine, published by MIT Technology Review.