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Plant passion: Kyle Lybarger enjoys educating others about native species

 

Photos by Rachel Howard

Kyle Lybarger makes his living as a private forester, spending a lot of his time outdoors. The Hartselle native locates tracts of timber and acts as a middle man between landowners and mills that want to harvest the timber.

Lybarger graduated from Hartselle High School and Alabama A&M in 2017.

He said the passion for native plants – especially the rare plants he has found in Hartselle and Morgan County – he has cultivated through his job as a forester drives him to educate others on the job and online.

“I walked around on a lot of properties, and I would take a picture of something I hadn’t seen before and try to figure out what it was when I got home,” Lybarger said, describing how he first became interested in native plants and species. “As a forester, I was used to knocking on doors to get permission to take pictures and talking to landowners.”

“While doing that, I’ve gotten grasslands around here – large tracts of land that are usually 3-or-4 acres – prairie remnants a landowner will let me burn and manage. I usually offer to do that because there are rare plants there, and I know without fire and proper management, eventually they will be overtaken and lost forever.

“No one wants to spend money to manage a grassland ecosystem because there’s really no way they’re going to make money off of it,” he said. “It has to be out of goodwill.”

“A lot of what I do with my forestry job is around Athens and southern Tennessee – the other side of the river – so that’s how I learned a lot of the plants in the area,” Lybarger added.

One of his most recent unique finds was Porter’s Goldenrod. Lybarger found a plant inside the city limits of Hartselle – one of three populations in the world, with another being in Morgan County and the third in Tennessee.

“I’ll never see anything that rare again,” he said. “It’s labeled a S1G1, which is the highest of a rarity.”

Light poppymallow and purple milkweed are two other species Lybarger has identified this year – the latter setting a state record. Lybarger found a population of the rare plant in Etowah County.

Lybarger said he enjoys sharing his passion with others and seeing it take root in their lives.

“I like educating people. I find it interesting to walk around with a landowner and introduce them to rare plants on their property that they didn’t know existed,” he said. “Oftentimes the land has been in their family for generations or maybe they grew up there, and they gain a new appreciation for it. You can’t have an appreciation for something you didn’t even know was there.”

Lybarger uses a smartphone app called iNaturalist when he finds a new, rare species he cannot identify. He said the app makes it easy for beginners to learn more about the plants and ecosystems that surround them.

“You can learn about any plant just by taking a photo of it; you can even see a map where other people have seen it and recorded it,” he added.

He has now begun to share his passion with others on a popular social media platform. Lybarger joined TikTok this past spring and started sharing his videos on native plants a few times a week.

His account boasts more than 170,000 followers and 1.9 million likes on the platform. A few of his videos have even gone viral, garnering more than 1 million views.

“It’s nice to put something on there that’s educational,” he said. “I get a ton of comments – so many that I can’t even respond to all of them anymore.”

Lybarger can be found on TikTok, @nativeplanttok.

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