College of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni sow seeds of compassion

By Max Esterhuizen

virginia tech logoAlicia Nester is a grower at Riverbend Nursery, responsible for raising bright and colorful daisies, hellebores, and pansies that brighten rooms and bring smiles.

One day, she got a text from Sarah Dove, her sister-in-law and a certified nursing assistant at LewisGale in Blacksburg, who was admiring a bouquet of lilies sent to the hospital. They were one of the many flowers that were donated to the hospital in appreciation of the work of nurses, doctors, and hospital staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Nester’s reaction was that those looked like the lilies from Riverbend — because they were.

In all, Riverbend has donated more than 800 lilies to Carilion New River Valley Medical Center and LewisGale Regional Health System.

“It just tickled Sarah to get the flowers,” Nester said, a 2016 graduate of the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. “She works 12-hour shifts in challenging conditions. We appreciate their work and this reminds us of why we got into horticulture and why we do what we do. Plants and flowers can make people happy and maybe take them away from what’s going on for a minute or two.”

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences laid the foundation for Isaac Brantingham, head grower at Riverbend Nursery, to be in the position to help brighten the day for healthcare workers, patients, and their families.

In the best of times, people rely on plants and gardens to add color and brighten up the home.

“We’re lucky that we get to be a part of that all the time, but it means even more when there is so much gray in the world and we’re able to add a little bit of color,” said Brantingham, who graduated from the college in 2006 with a degree in horticulture. “It’s why each of us wanted to get into this field.”

Audrey McReynolds, propagation manager at Riverbend Nursery and a 2005 alumna of the college with a degree in horticulture, said that it made her proud to work for a company that thinks of others during this time.

“It’s nice that we were able to provide a little of joy to some of the people that are assisting with the COVID-19 response or going through a really hard time right now,” McReynolds said.

The idea for the donation to the local hospitals came about from an email via the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Growers Organization, where another member did a similar giveaway.  This inspired Jonathan Cottle, the vice president of sales for Riverbend Nursery, and the sales team to bring the idea to Riverbend. Lilies fit the idea like a glove.

The lilies almost didn’t make it to the hospitals.

In early-April, a series of strong storms with hail, strong winds, and a tornado went through the New River Valley – including Riner, where Riverbend Nursery is located – and caused significant damage in six houses.

“We were able to recover the house with the lilies the next morning, but every single lily was knocked over on its side,” Brantingham said. “It was good that they weren’t ruined in the storm otherwise we wouldn’t have had them to donate.”


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