Of Dreaded Roses, Desired Ferns and Making a Difference
Deborah Dormady Letham, PhD

Of Dreaded Roses, Desired Ferns and Making a Difference

Friday was just One Day – but a great day, a fabulous day to give back to the community

The Bowman Hill Wildflower Preserve is beautifully situated across from the Delaware River and Canal in Lower Bucks County, Pa. I know the place well. When my kids were younger, I used to bring them to see the butterflies and birds in wildflower meadows. I was always reminded of my beloved home in upstate NY, where the greens and woods and waterways converge.

My Charles River One Day volunteers.

So imagine my delight to learn that my company had organized a fabulous one-day volunteer activity there, a way for us to give back to the community. I happily signed up to join my colleagues in PA Biologics, which I am part of, and our other Charles River facility in Horsham, PA.

I was late to arrive, of course. It was a quiet morning and we were in a scenic spot with the fall colors and gentle breeze. The mental downtime was a blessing to everyone and so was the chit chat. What were we going to do to save the Mother Earth?

Picking weeds out of overgrown pots of ferns. Oh… The preserve planned to sell these ferns at a big fundraiser. Ferns, I thought. Before I could see the smallness of my task I remembered that this was a great parallel to my life as a scientist at Charles River, which helped to develop 85% of the drugs approved by the FDA last year. Every day by the seeming smallness of tasks we get the chance to impact the health of even just one person. Collectively, we have a huge footprint.

So my lesson, as I settled in to pick through some ferns, was that we don’t have to save the whole world in a day. But we do have an opportunity to impact one person, or one plant.

That helped put my fern-plucking in a different light. This may have been considered a tedious job for just anybody, but we were not “just anybody”. Fittingly we were patient people (yes medical “patient’s” people too) who understood the attention to detail that was required to meticulously and thoroughly take down the multiple species of plants invading the fern roots.

But what were we throwing away? Liverworts? And mosses? How botanically rich our “weeds” were!!! Before Charles River, I was a plant biologist. I ground up the plants to extract DNA, RNA and protein, using the same molecular skillset I use now to perform PCR for invading viruses and DNA sequencing of production cell lines. I also taught Botany and Plant Physiology to undergraduates. So I knew these weeds were a goldmine of botanicals, probably the best liverworts I had ever seen!


There were luscious green areas and non-vascular root-like structures called rhizoids, growing out of the leafy-like thalloid. Perfect specimens. I explained to my neighbors about the haploid nature of these water-loving forest plants, the intricate umbrella-like antheroids and archegonia and spectacular microscopic gemna cups. My co-workers, mindful of my nerdiness, kept digging. I was in botanical heaven. I even told them about the mosses reproduction as a bonus lesson. I got it out of my system and then kept digging…

When we finished weeding, the staff at Bowman’s said we could take a pot of the lady fern home with us as a thank you. Not me, I was the trash to treasures picker. I happily scooped up a pile of LIVERWORTS for my office!

A Rose by Any Other Name? Not!

Saving the world in the afternoon began with a hunt to rid the forest from an invasive and rugged plant: the dreaded “Multiflora Rose”. Though it looks like a non-threatening pleasant baby rose, Multiflora Rose is a NUISANCE and even BANNED in some states, including PA and NJ. This wasn’t always so. The plant was brought over from Asia in the late 1800’s for rootstock for ornamental roses. It was also planted to conserve certain types of land and curb soil erosion. But like English Ivy on college campuses, its invasive nature took over and now dots the landscape. These Multiflora Roses are a painful pervasive plant to eliminate.

Multiflora rose

Our job was to help reclaim this forest as native. Clip clip clip, chat chat chat… I worked with my co-worker Lauri, who was non-native to forest life. She and I talked about the chance to be away from a city environment and the stacks of paper in her archive room! We walked into some deep woods, venturing further and further, until we saw huge haystack-sized growths of Multiflora Rose. It took me a whole hour to trim back just one outcropping – OUCH. Sadly, I knew that my work would do little to keep the plant from coming back in the spring, especially if we have a mild winter (if you are one to subscribe to the folklore prediction by the wide brown stripe in our woolly bear brown and black caterpillar, our adopted pet for the day). But we kept cutting: clip clip clip.

Yes, if we didn’t try to remove what invaders we could, eventually native plants and animals in this forest could be squeezed out. One whole hour spent on one bush, our hands pricked by painful thorns, didn’t feel impactful at the time but as a group we were told that we did make some headway! Were we saving the whole world? Nah. But it was a small but important step for this wildflower preserve.

We may not see it today – but ONE DAY a person walking through this forest will see the impact, not even knowing that we were here. It’s the same way at work. We produce and test medications for patients we don’t ever know. It is nice to make a difference, one small clip at a time.