Biology alumna retires from zoo and pursues longleaf restoration

Nell Allen
Nell Allen surrounded by Piedmont plants.

Biology alumna Nell Allen has been captivated by plants and restoration ecology for a long time, and those interests have shaped her career paths and followed her into retirement. 

Nell’s undergraduate education took a back seat for eight years while she worked as administrator for the Sandhills Area Land Trust, a land conservation nonprofit based in Southern Pines.  As an undergraduate in the Biology Department at UNC Pembroke, she pursued her studies headlong.  She focused on environmental coursework, she researched the effects of fire on vegetation, and she deposited a beautiful collection of pressed plants in the campus herbarium.  This plant collection would help land her a job as herbarium curator at the North Carolina Zoo, many years down the road. 

After earning a Biology degree at UNCP in 2003, Nell joined the graduate program at North Carolina State University, focusing her research on restoration and creation of prairies in North Carolina’s Piedmont.  To this day, she harbors a strong interest in the creation of habitat corridors that allow plants and wildlife to disperse across landscapes fragmented by roads and development (almost everywhere in the state).  Upon completing a master’s degree in Restoration Ecology in 2007, she promptly went to work for the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.  

Having an impressive graduate record and undergraduate plant collection, Nell was hired as Rare Plant Curator in the Zoo’s Horticulture Division. She managed both the Zoo’s herbarium and its educational exhibit of rare plants.  Nell’s expertise and rare plant exhibit (including Venus flytraps) were featured in the article “Our Natural Habitat,” which appeared in a 2012 issue of Our State magazine. Her job reached well beyond education, however.  She had the awesome duties of acquiring and managing natural areas for native plants and wildlife.  This entailed plant surveys (including Natural Heritage Program surveys) in areas surrounding the Zoo, and monitoring and improving habitat for rare and endangered plant populations. 

Nell eventually became Associate Curator of Conservation for the Zoo’s regional programs.  In this position, she coordinated the Zoo’s research and conservation of North Carolina’s native animals. Consequently, she became engaged in a collaborative study of hellbender salamanders and their usage of nest boxes in mountain streams, and she was charged with the intriguing task of monitoring wildlife cameras on Zoo grounds.  Her photos of coyotes, foxes, and turkeys can be seen on the internet.  Not bad for a botanist!

This past summer (2019), Nell retired from the Zoo but not from the Piedmont.  She is now devoting her time to a personal landscape restoration project -- 12 acres of Piedmont longleaf pine savanna at her home near the Zoo.  The Zoo herbarium has been relocated to UNC Pembroke Herbarium, where it can grow and provide valuable educational and research materials.

Nell Allen takes a stroll in the woods
Nell Allen takes a stroll in the woods

Nell Allen's passion for plants is reflected in her daily activities and in her interest in restoring longleaf pine communities on her property in the Piedmont.