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Treehouse Club Nurtures Saint Leo’s Ecology, Replacing Invasive Plants With Native Species

Ecology, biology, and other students enjoy practical learning experience while working with faculty and Facilities Management to take care of gardens and lakefront.

Tags: Responsible Stewardship Earth Day Ecology Biology Natural Sciences College of Arts Sciences and Allied Services Facilities Management
22 April 2024 - By University Communications

It all started with a failing garden. When Saint Leo University senior Luisangel Godinez noticed that certain plants in the gardening bed by DeChantal Hall were not fruiting well, he knew he needed to improve pollination. 

Godinez, who is majoring in biology with a concentration in ecology, began manually pollinating the plants with a paintbrush. He quickly realized it was a lot of work, and he needed to go about pollination the way nature intended — with insects. 

He recruited classmates to kick off a project to attract pollinators to the garden. The students planted native milkweed, which attracts monarch butterflies to help with pollination and ultimately improve plant health and fruiting. 


The ecology projects didn’t stop there, and the students soon formed the Treehouse Club. Their goal was to replace the invasive species of plants in their gardens and in the university’s greenhouse with native species. They also began to work closely with the Wetlands Restoration Project. 

Supporting University Wetlands

The Wetlands Restoration Project at Saint Leo University began when the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) insisted that the university mitigate any impacts on Lake Jovita due to construction of the Wellness Center. While there were few to no direct impacts, the university began plans to remove invasive and undesirable species from the shoreline of the lake, and plant native species along the shoreline and upslope from Lake Jovita, said Dr. Chris Miller, professor of biology and ecology. 

Student Efforts Improve Sustainability

Thanks to a grant from the Tampa Bay Estuary Program, Miller along with Dr. Laura Altfeld, chair of the Natural Sciences Department, Facilities Management staff, and additional faculty created opportunities for students to play a critical role in this project. 


Students from various courses and the Treehouse Club joined efforts to plant native species around the shoreline, including many wildflower plants to attract pollinators, all while gaining practical learning experience and knowledge about habitat restoration, lake ecosystems and Florida wetlands.

The area received a boost last summer when the College of Arts, Sciences, and Allied Services partnered with the Diocese of St. Petersburg’s Good Samaritan Program to bring Catholic high school students and volunteers to campus to support the wetland restoration efforts.


This year, Godinez and his partner Ken, owners of KL&N Ranch, donated 35 native pines donated to that project, and the Treehouse Club hopes to create a propagation garden specifically for the Wetlands Restoration Project.

Looking Ahead

While Godinez will graduate this spring, he noted that the club is already considering many new projects. The Treehouse Club plans to educate the community about the university ecosystems, introduce native plants to the Peaceful Reflections Garden, a meditation garden outside of Saint Edward Hall, continue to collaborate with the Wetlands Restoration Program, and work to increase the overall number of native plant species on campus.