Wildtending: Refugia and the Seed Arc Garden

A safe space for all life

Over the course of the last six months, I’ve been discussing in various ways philosophies and insights about helping to directly and physically heal our lands as a spiritual practice, weaving in principles of druidry, permaculture, organic farming, herbalism, and more. Specifically, I’ve suggested that we can have direct, meaningful, and impact benefits on our lands and through the work of our “healing hands” we can help heal the extensive damage caused by humanity. The reason is simple: we have lost so much biodiversity in so much of our landscapes; even our forests are in many cases, pale representations of what they once were in terms of biological diversity. This is true of tree species, plant species, animal species, insect life, soil biology, mycology, water-based life, and so on.  While nature has the ability to heal herself, with the help of humans, she can do it much more effectively–and that’s where we come in.

Fall foliage rising above...
Fall foliage rising above…

In my last post, I discussed the importance of physically healing the land and building biodiversity through scattering roots, nuts, and seeds–this gives nature the building blocks she needs to do some of her healing. I also discussed balancing wildtending with wildcrafting and seeing both as a spiritual practice. In this post, we are going to explore another angle, take this stream of thought a bit further, and explore the concept of refugia.


Refugia is a concept discussed by E. C Pielou in After the Ice Age: The Return of Life to Glaciated North America among other places. In a nutshell, refugia (also called “fuges”) are small pockets of life that were sheltered from broader happenings on the earth that destroyed a lot of other places.  In terms of Pielou’s work, refugia were small pockets of life that were for various reasons from the worst of the effects of the last ice age when the rest of the lands were barren and covered in ice. These isolated pockets survived as a sheltered spot, a microclimate, a high point, and so on. When the glaciers receded and left a bare landscape devoid of topsoil or life, it was these refugia that allowed life to spread outward again, repopulating areas in North America covered by glaciers. Of course, Refugia aren’t limited to North America–they are a worldwide phenomenon, and even our human ancestors, at various points in our history, have used them to survive challenging environmental conditions.

In the Anthropocene, that is, the time of human-dominated ecological change we are currently

A rare woodland lady's slipper--the only one I've ever seen in PA
A rare woodland lady’s slipper–the only one I’ve ever seen in PA

all experiencing, things are a bit different than in glacial North America.  But things are not as different as you might think. For one, the loss of biodiversity and essentially inhospitable landscape can pretty much sum up the 40,000,000 acres of lawns currently in cultivation (in the US alone), the 914,527,657 acres of conventional farmland (in the US), and the amount of concrete and houses taking up land (statistics for which I cannot find). We also have wild areas that, as I’ve described in my last post, have been subject to pillaging and resource mining–these areas are a lot less diverse than they once were. The spaces that aren’t being actively pillaged likely are recovering from pillaging (at least where I live out here) or are subject to other duress–and the few spaces that are supposedly “safe” and “protected” are constantly under threat from new bills or legislation, logging, mining, etc.. And so, we have a situation where a biological life, generally, has a lot less space to grow and thrive unhindered.  As my post described earlier, we have evidence of the loss of biodiversity in a wide range of ways.

Given this, I believe that the concept of refugia is a useful one to consider–and even enact–given the circumstances that we have going on here now. A lot of us don’t have control over what is happening in the land around us, but we can work to help cultivate small spaces of intense biodiversity, spaces that preserve important plant species, then we can put more of the building blocks back into nature’s hands for the long-term healing of our lands.

Creating Refugia: Goals

We can cultivate refugia in cultivated/human-dominated spaces (like lawns, etc), or we can create them in wild spaces (forests, wild fields) that we know will be safe for some time. Today I’ll mainly be talking about cultivating refugia on a small piece of property, and at a later point, will return to cultivating refugia in wild spaces.

In the permaculture and organic gardening communities, people have been long creating spaces that are intensely planted, that may be perennial or annual in nature, but they might be doing them with different goals. Most often in permaculture practice, the goals are intensely focused on the site–the goal of bringing a degraded piece of land back into healthy production, with a range of yields, some of which are beneficial to humans, and some of which are beneficial to other life. In other words, permaculture designers often use a kind of sanctuary model. For organic farmers, they may have many of the same goals, but different (more annual) means; both may be interested in some economic benefits as well.

Working to actively create refugia can add and complement these existing goals in the sense that we are creating a protected place (physically and magically) that is richly biodiverse with the idea that this biodiversity can spread if given the opportunity (or if we spread it ourselves–you might be able to see where I’m going with this!).

I would like to suggest that each of us, as we are able, create biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “weather the storm” and a place where we can grow seeds, nuts, and roots to scatter far and wide. Or if we are already cultivating biologically diverse gardens, homesteads, sacred gardens, and the like, we add the goal of becoming refugia to our plans–and plant accordingly.  I would like to suggest that we can see this not only as a physical act but as a sacred and spiritual practice.

I’ve been working through this idea quite a bit since I moved back to my home state over the summer. In the process of developing my own refugia site using permaculture principles and sacred gardening practices, I have started with a number of goals. Your goals might be different depending on your situation, but I thought I’d share mine as a good place to start.

The refugia garden will contain plants that:

  1. Native or naturalized to this region.
  2. Currently rare or non-existent in the surrounding ecosystem.
  3. Slow growing or hard to establish.
  4. Offer some key benefits to the ecosystem (nectary, a nitrogen fixer, dynamic accumulator, wildlife food, etc)
  5. Offer some key benefits to humans (medicine, dye, fiber, food, beauty, spiritual significance).
  6. Are able to grow without human influence or cultivation long-term (perennial focus or self-seeding annuals).
  7. Can be spread by nut, root, rhizome, or seed (to think about how to repopulate these species outward).
  8. Are well positioned in terms of how my climate will be changing in the upcoming century.

The refugia will be:

  1. A teaching and demonstration site for others
  2. A site of peace and beauty
  3. A sacred place  for humans to commune, reconnect and grow
  4. A site of ecological diversity and healing for all life

Refugia: Functions and Outcomes

The Refugia garden is, of course, sacred garden, a magical place where we can spend time and simply enjoy getting to know these plants, many of which are hard to find or impossible to find in our surrounding landscape.

Cultivating biodiverse spaces
Cultivating biodiverse spaces

The other way we might think about these refugia gardens is that they are seed arks, that is, little places where biodiversity and life can spring forth once again.  I’ve been taking to calling the garden I’m designing the “seed ark” for that reason!  We can use this site to grow and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots far and wide. As an herbalist and wild food forager, this is nothing new–taking seeds from wild plants this year and spreading them just a bit further or into new areas.  Ramp seeds, for example, can be gathered in the fall and spread easily enough in wet woodland areas, hickory nuts can be planted, and so on.  The refugia garden makes it easier to do that–you will have an abundance of seeds, nuts, roots, and so on in a few short years or less that can be scattered to bring biodiversity back.  Otherwise, you are buying seeds or maybe finding them in the wild when possible (but where I’m at, a lot of what I’m hoping to spread and add to this garden simply doesn’t exist in the wild any longer).

Third, the space itself will be biodiverse and welcoming. It’s amazing what a tended space with perennial plants can become in a few short years! Make it a place where people want to go–and add some signage talking about what you are doing!

Fourth, when I lived on my homestead in Michigan, one of my favorite things to do was to give away plants–plants are abundant and multiply, and you can easily split most perennials after only a few years.  There are more than enough to go around.  This means that others, too, can be blessed with these rare plants–the more sites like these, the better.

Fifth, and most importantly, is the idea of making a difference.  You have no idea what the long-term implications will be of introducing these plants back into the landscape–but the important thing is doing something, we put one’s feet on the path, and seeing where the journey takes us.

Refugia Garden Plants

You will want to think carefully about what kind of ecosystem you are designing your refugia garden for–is it full sun? dry? part shade? moist? A woodland?  The good news is that many different needs exist, so you can design a garden for almost any condition.

Since we are thinking long-term with this principle, I think it’s a wise idea to look 10, 20, 50, 100 or more years down the road in terms of climate change.  How will your immediate climate change in the upcoming century?  Will it get hotter, wetter, drier?  Are there species that are rare/at risk, but well adapted to these changing circumstances? A few good resources exist for this online, including NASA’s predictions and information from the US EPA.  I was able to find a specific guide for Pennsylvania (in PDF), which provided exactly the information I wanted to know (about temperature, weather, snow cover, and more–as well as about different emissions scenarios)–you should be able to find something similar!

Here are some design lists to get you started for a temperate climate (nearly all of these come from the United Plant Savers At-risk and To Watch Lists):

  1. Perennials and self-seeding annuals in full sun: Swamp Milkweed, Milkweed, Echinacea, gentian (wet), blue vervain, New England aster
  2. Edge Plants: Part shade, on the edges of forests (bloodroot, black cohosh (damp, part shade), Spikenard (some moisture), Lobelia Inflata
  3. Swampy Plants with Light: Calamus, Horsetail, Cattails (growing rare in some areas, like in MI, due to phragmites)
  4. Swampy Plants in Forests: Ramps, Woodland Nettle, Skullcap, Stoneroot
  5. Dark forest plants: Wild Yam, Goldenseal, Blue Cohosh, Ginseng, Partridge Berry, Mayapple, Lady Slipper Orchid, Trillium
  6. Trees: Slippery Elm, Chestnuts, Butternuts, Paw Paw, Hazels, others unique to your bioregion.  For this, I like to think about the species that are slow to return or that need a leg up!

Of course, you’ll also want to think about sacred gardening techniques as part of your refugia garden–as above, so below, as within, so without.  I have a few good articles on these topics to help you along. We’ll continue this discussion in next week’s post when we look at the beginnings of the refugia garden I’ve been working on for the last six months :).

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. My husband and I have been counting the Lady slippers in our woods for the past 10 years. This past year we had 30, which was surprising after all the rain we’d had. Thanks for this article and the ideas on how to move forward with such a project. It will be interesting to see what the weather will do this year.

    1. Keewee,

      That’s a great thing to do–do you find the population of Lady’s Slippers is growing?

  2. I like this concept very much! and gives me (along with Wildtending) ideas for how to remember two men who did this (without knowing there was a name for what they did). One, my husband George, had a “weed museum” alternative to lawn strip in front of house, to educate the neighbors – plantain, goldenrod, and small white aster spontaneously grew up; the other, Dan, would go to waste places and plant them with wildflowers. But now I can think of/tend these places as refugia!

    1. I would be proud to be married to any man who kept a “weed museum” LOL!

      Refugia sounds like such a great, important term. That’s part of the fun of using it 🙂

  3. Reblogged this on ravenhawks' magazine and commented:
    Great Info Thank You, my yard is mostly shady so I am always looking for wild flowers and plants that do well in the shade. There are several beautiful Lady Slipper’s growing wild in the woods behind my house,Trilium grows in my garden and wild here in the woods too.

    1. Thank you, Ravenhawks! 🙂

  4. Great post! I’m really excited to see more from this series. I’m living in a condo at the moment, and we have some very intense plantings in the small area- now I’m inspired to start converting the area into a refugium! I grew some stinging nettle from seed, and (in reference to your previous post) I’ve already had the idea of planting offshoots in some nearby riparian wooded areas. Same thing with the calamus that I have growing in a planter/bowl (idea from Jim McDonald)- there are some man-made ponds in my subdivision that might do…

    Now I have a name for the practice: wildtending! With a carefully-tended refugium (or several refugia) as the “nursery” source. 🙂 My only concern was upsetting the balance of an already recovering area- how might one go about deciding when to plant and scatter seeds, nuts, and roots, and when to leave an area be? I’m sure it depends on the region- I’m in Southern Indiana, so probably not too different than SE Michigan or parts of PE.

    Thanks again for all your great posts! I’m mostly a silent reader. 🙂 I love your synthesis of permaculture, druidry, herbalism, etc. Keep up the great work!


    1. Thanks for your comment, Anthony! The calamus in a pot does work great. Jim McDonald taught me that as well, lol. Jim is like, everywhere, all the time, seeding radical ideas about plants :P.

      Yes, the key is not upsetting the balance in a recovering area. Careful observation is useful here–look at areas that are undisturbed and the plant ecologies. Also, look at the natural history of your region to understand what was growing there and may not be. That’s how I’ve figured it out here in PA!

  5. This is off topic, Dana, but thought immediately of you – link: https://twitter.com/LondonDreamtime/status/683929357828669440

    1. LOL, thanks for sharing! I had a post on Wassail a few years ago–its a lovely tradition!

      Here’s the post!

  6. Reblogged this on Laura Bruno's Blog and commented:
    More wisdom and ideas from Dana at the Druid’s Garden! I particularly love the whole concept of “refugia,” both in Nature and in human nature. I continue to receive panicked emails and texts from people suddenly noticing their world becoming unhinged. Meanwhile, I know many people around the world for whom the world is “spiraling into control” or if not control, at least into a sense of Divine rightness and order. We have influence. The pressing question remains: how will use that influence? Dana offers some excellent ideas here.

    1. Thanks, Laura. For me, this work is a way of bringing meaningful work back and working to better this world!

  7. Reblogged this on shedarcy9 and commented:
    This seems like a timely post

    1. Thank you for the reblog 🙂

  8. Hi.

    I saw this article on the return of the American Chestnut tree today as well from a website I enjoy about hiking in Ohio.


    Thanks for your engaging blog!

    1. Thanks for sending along the link! This is great info :).

      (I do totally love how the article glosses over the fact that the trees weren’t naturally wiped out. In PA, at least, the Department of Forestry decided to cut them all down to avoid the Chestnut blight –maybe trying to stop the spread of it? I bet some of them would have built up resistance had they not all been cut. I still can’t figure out that logic. Anyways, this is an inspiring article!)

      1. Cutting the chestnuts may have been a simple timber grab, but I would give them the benefit of the doubt. There was far less understanding of immunity and resistance in those days and they may have actually hoped they could stop the spread of the fungus by removing its hosts. There is still a chance of resistance developing too, however slender, because there are still surviving American Chestnuts and new trees and shoots still coming up. Incidentally, I’ve found plantings of hybrid chestnuts on the gamelands–Game Commission must be doing it.
        We have pink ladyslippers here in Northeast PA, not common but I know them in several locations. It’s the yellow ones that are really rare here. There’s a world-class orchid bog near Hazleton, which I haven’t visited yet. Diversity is here!

        1. The way it was described in the forestry manual I found from that time period seemed to suggest that cutting them all would stop the spread. I mean, yeah, its awful logic. Of course the real reasons, those not in print, probably are timber grabs or whatever!

          I would love to see that orchid bog! 🙂

  9. I discovered your post over at the Archdruid’s Report and was so excited. In conjunction with a food growing and sharing collective, I am working on a 12 acre piece of land in NYS that had been clear cut for farming then allowed to grow back as mainly white pine forest over the last 50+ years. We’re using about 2 of the acres for a pasture/garden area that will support a small number of meat and dairy animals, perennial trees and bushes, and annual garden crops. The swale and berm system for the hillside pasture area has been set up and planted, the lasagna beds for the garden area have been built in the flat spot beneath them, but I was really puzzling over what to do, if anything, with the rest of the acreage. There are wetlands with encroaching Japanese knotweed and mile a minute weed, as well as an almost complete lack of native forbes in the forested areas. I love your idea of refugia and and your spiritual approach to land healing. You’ve inspired me to work with the spirits of the land to restore biodiversity to the forests and wetlands as well.

    1. Hi Karunateresa, thanks for your comment! It sounds like you have a wonderful site going on! Japanese Knotweed is a tough beast to deal with. A good friend of mine who is the garden manager up at an Ecovillage in Massachusetts has been using hugels that they literally dig out, put a barrier down, and address with the knotweed. (Do know that Knotweed is edible, as well as a great herbal remedy for lymes disease!) I’m very excited to hear what you end up doing to help heal your wild areas! 🙂

      1. I did know about knotweed’s medicinal uses, being a big fan of Stephen Buhner’s work. The amount we have would probably treat all the Lyme disease in my county! I will try eating it next spring.

        I like the sound of your friend’s hugel solution though I’m not exactly sure how it would work…Did you mean she dug out the knotweed, put down a barrier and then put it back in a hugel mound? Would she be willing to talk to me about how she went about it?

        I am also trying to learn more about invasive species and the niches they fill, most recently from a book called “Beyond the War on Invasive Speices” by Tao Orion. It encourages a whole systems approach. As always in permaculture the first step is observation, really getting to know your ecosystem….

        Thanks again for a wonderful blog. I’ve enjoyed reading your back posts!

      2. And I believe it makes great flutes.. i wouldn’t ever plant it here.. It’s one serious weed that we don’t have here in my part of subtropical NSW, Australia, but if you have knotweed, find a flutemaker.. 😀

    1. Thank you for the reblog!

  10. Refugia!! I love that term.. First I’ve heard of it and my appreciation was instant. I have been doing that for over 2 decades on over-grazed land that once was woodland, wet scleorphyll and dry rainforest dominated. When we moved here it was essentially 30 acres of African grass that grows 7′ tall, and a number of trees mostly of the one species. We planted in the coolest, dampest places as a West facing bare block in this heat couldn’t have sustained life for any but the hardiest species.. which we used, in the less cool and damp places. 🙂 Now we have second generation rainforest babies popping up everywhere, so thickly that I can share some with neighbouring properties and transplant others as microclimates become available.

    We found out very early which are the hardiest species, and start with those for each new patch, excpet where something else has already found its way.. and I am planting intentionally for fire retardant species, appropraite in other ways, too, to do what I can to keep this place safe.. Fires were wayyyy too close in the Spring-Summer of 2020.

    I am also a ‘weed’ and medicinal herb collector, and plant Mullein, Nettle, Plantain, Dandelion, Sida, Horseradish (still in pots, as it becomes a beast here) .. so many medicinal and otherwise useful plants, into places where they won’t be damaged, and I am collecting out of area rare plants that need safe places.. Some species are pushed too far with the climate zones, even if plants with care, but the vast majority of them are surviving and thriving, even despite a 45C day we had here not so long ago.. I am concerned about weeds, but we are constantly battling vigorous weeds (beware the giant devil’s fig 😱) which I’ve not yet found any purpose for, except perhaps basketry, so i’m cautious about what does get planted, but if it hasn’t presented as a weed locally then it can be included in my plantings..

    Biodiversity is an issue on grazed land within my local area (which happily is listed as a Biodiversity hot spot within the Heritage listed National Parks), but species do eventually find their way here once microclimates exist, and birds are arriving in greater variety due to more endemic fruiting species now growing.

    A gardening specialist 3 hours away has suggested that we all start growing species that are endemic to a hotter climate, so I am buying from his area, as it supports things that tolerate more heat.. That makes sense to me.. and then those heat tolerant species can survive to maintain shadier microclimates for greater species.

    Refugia.. yes, that term is wonderful.. This place is my refuge, and is becoming refuge to more and more wildlife and plant species, too. Thank you for a wonderfil post, Dana. 🙏

    1. Hello Shewhoflutesincaves,
      Thanks so much for sharing about your 30 acres and how you are regenerating that land and creating a refugia. I love hearing of your work! Blessings to you!

      1. Thank you, Dana. I enjoy your blogs very much. You inspire! 😀

  11. […] biologically diverse refugia–small spaces, rich in diversity and life, that can help our lands “weather the storm”https://thedruidsgarden.com/2016/01/08/wildtending-refugia-and-the-seed-arc-garden/ […]

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