Profile | Hope Leeson

Hope Leeson




Hope Leeson is a field botanist with 30 years of experience, observing plant communities and their context in surrounding landscapes. In her professional work, conducting plant surveys and assisting land managers with habitat restoration strategies, Hope has drawn on her fascination with the inter-relatedness of all life within a natural system.  With each new assignment, she challenges herself to think like the ecosystem, and to see change on the geologic time scale rather than human. In 2010 she founded the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s Rhody Native™ initiative, incorporating the propagation of RI’s native plants from wild collected seed into habitat restorations. Hope is a member of the Rhode Island School of Design’s adjunct faculty community, and since 2013, has been one of the Liberal Arts faculty involved in Science for Art and Design Education. Her most recent course, Botany in the Kitchen, combines the disciplines of plant science, ecology and agriculture, and provides a basis for students to explore the topics of plant-based diets, food origins, climate change, and food security, all from a botanical perspective.





Botany in the Kitchen

RISD Course


This course examines the plants we eat, and the context in which they exist among the hundreds of thousands of plants on this planet. By eating our way through the phylogenetic tree, students gain an understanding for the evolutionary relationships between plant-foods and families. They discover, from the botanical perspective, how edible parts of plants (flowers, seeds, roots, stems, and leaves) contribute not only to our nutritional well being, but also play essential roles in the life cycles of the plants. The class is organized around the culinary and cultural uses of plants, and examines food origins and food security in the context of climate change.


Introduction to the Botanical World

RISD Course 2013 – 2017

Organized as part field botany part plant systematics, the course makes use of technical equipment available in RISD’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab to facilitate detailed examination of plant morphology and design, as a way of building fluency in the botanical language. Students are taken through the evolutionary history of plants on earth, and through examining living specimens gain an ability to identify and appreciate plants in their natural contexts.


Native Plant Propagation


Since 2010 Hope has lead the way in Rhode Island for the propagation of genetically diverse, native plant material for ecological restoration. Her plants, which include over 100 different species, are grown from seed, which Hope collects from wild populations around the state. Seeds are stored for later use in a short-term seed bank, and when needed are propagated in a combination of heated and outdoor locales, based on the individual species’ needs. Rhody Native™, is an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, a not for profit organization whose mission includes promoting the biological diversity of the state of Rhode Island. Rhody Native plants are grown with a focus on producing a diversity of species for diverse native plant assemblages to be placed into wild plant communities. Recent projects have included increasing the biodiversity of sand dune habitat, involvement in salt marsh elevation efforts, and regeneration of native forest species. Decisions made for plant selection is based on the potential of the individual species to become incorporated into the existing habitat and plant community, and to contribute over time to the long-term successional process.


Carbon Farming and Promotion of Fungal Communities


Hope’s propagation work has lead to an increasing interest in the microbial communities of soil as a means of understanding plant community health. Hope has been experimenting with native plant production methods that provide the foundation for fungal communities. By supporting fungal relationships required by most plant species to gain access to nutrients and for the production of secondary metabolites (chemicals which protect plants from predators and which can be either toxic or medicinal to other organisms), Hope has achieved high survival rates of plants used in her restorations. Future projects will explore methods of increasing soil carbon in depleted forest soils. She sees methods used in regenerative agriculture as equally applicable to forest habitat management, particularly where past agricultural practices have left soils compacted and with little organic topsoil, and remain a negative factor in the formation of healthy forest communities.



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