Wildlife & Nature

More Than Just Pretty Faces: Native Plants Gaining Popularity

Butterfly weed is, as the name implies, a food source for native butterflies. (Cynthia Drummond photos)

A story in a recent issue of a national gardening magazine extolled the benefits of “naturalistic garden design,” a less constrained landscape that features native plants grouped in ecologically compatible communities.

The reader was encouraged to look for inspiration in the local ecosystem and to “suspend fussiness” to develop a wilder, more resilient garden that is in tune with the surrounding natural landscape.

Magazine articles about native plants indicate their growing acceptance as garden plants, but because they have co-evolved over thousands of years with native insect and bird species, these plants play a much more critical role. 

David Gregg, director of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, described native plants as central components in the evolution of the Rhode Island ecosystem.

Mountain laurel is one of Rhode Island’s most abundant native shrubs.

“They’re the environment and context in which all the other animals in our plants in our area evolved,” he said. “So, the bees’ tongues are the right length to get the nectar from the flowers. The birds can eat the caterpillars that that eat those plants. The soil microbes are such that those plants can get nutrients from the soil instead of fertilizer.”

While gardeners have differing opinions on how “native” a plant should be, whether a garden should contain only native species, and whether those species should be native to Rhode Island, New England or beyond, more people are choosing to plant natives, even if it’s just a few to start. This higher level of awareness is evident in the recent growth of the membership of the nonprofit Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, which, in the past two years, has gone from about 400 members to more than 600.

Society vice president Sally Johnson said she is not sure why the organization has so many new members, but she said it is probably due to people spending more time at home as well as growing concerns about the climate crisis.

“A lot of us are out in our yards, outside more, and a lot of us are going for more walks because it’s COVID-safe, so we’re appreciating nature more, and that’s got to contribute to it,” she said. “The other factor, and this is my gut feeling on it, it’s got to be global warming. We see so much environmental destruction. There’s so much talk of resiliency. That contributes.”

Johnson also noted people were becoming more aware of the need to support pollinating insects and birds.

“People are going from the purely ornamental, showy plants, and understanding more the role of supporting pollinators and host plants,” she said. “The understanding of, it’s not just the pretty bees and butterflies, but it’s also the wasps and who’s going to live there over the winter and leaving your perennials up over the winter so that insects can overwinter in them.”

Michael Adamovic, author, photographer and and a botanist at Catskill Native Nursery, attributes the greater interest in native plants to the noticeable decline in insect populations.

A bee feeds on mountain mint, a native plant and pollinator favorite.

“Natives are definitely increasing in popularity,” he said. “Probably one of the main reasons is that because in the last 20, 30 years, there’s been a large decline in insect populations. You would take a road trip, 20 or 30 years ago, and your car would be completely covered with insects. These days, you’re lucky if you get one or two splattered on it. The same thing goes for songbirds. The songbird population is really starting to decline, and people are finally starting to realize there’s something wrong with the environment.”

Adamovic said sales at the nursery took off during the pandemic and continue to be strong.

“Our sales probably at least doubled from the previous year,” he said. “We couldn’t keep up with the demand. And even last year, 2021, it was still going in the same direction and there’s no indication of it slowing down.”

Johnson, who owns a garden design business that uses native plants, said they can still be hard to source in Rhode Island, and she often has difficulty finding them for her clients.

“You can’t find native species,” she said. “… I had a client who had to put in native plants for a CRMC [Coastal Resources Management Council] permit by the end of October and she could only put in three species.”

The Rhody Native program, a federally funded initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, began in 2010, but ended in 2018. The initial objectives were to provide enhanced job training for unemployed nursery workers following the recession, and plant native species to fill the spaces where invasive plants had been removed.

“The idea was, all right, here’s another economic opportunity,” Gregg said. “Let’s gather seed and cut clippings from local sources and we’ll pay out-of-work nurserymen to grow them up for us. And then, we will use them in restoration projects and we’ll let nurseries and garden centers sell them to try to change people’s minds about natives.”

But when the federal funding ended, the idea of building a local native plant supply chain ran up against the realities of the nursery business.

“You can’t pay a professional staff on the kind of volume we were doing in Rhody Native plants, and there’s a couple of reasons,” Gregg said. “One is, the margins on propagating nursery stock are so thin, you have to do zillions of plants in order to make a business out of it. For native plants, you still have to order from far away because it won’t pay. We didn’t have the right model for making local plants pay.”

There was also an issue, Gregg added, with a tax-exempt nonprofit operating on tax-exempt land competing with commercial growers in Rhode Island.

Current garden trends favor native plants, a change Adamovic has also observed.

“They are going more toward native plants than they are non-native,” he said. “We still get a few people who don’t get it at all. They’ll come in and have this huge list of non-natives. They don’t really understand what the whole native thing is about, but every year that goes by, that’s decreasing.”

Cardinal flower is a favorite of hummingbirds.

Johnson believes gardeners evolve at their own pace, and some people will adopt native plans more readily than others.

“I think you have to accept people for where they are and try to just gently move them,” she said. “We as a wild plant society are trying to move towards being purists, of only selling plants from Rhode Island and trying to get out seeds from Rhode Island, and I totally support that effort. … It’s important to realize that hey, if you don’t want to do your entire garden as native plants, at least start putting some in and start looking at them and thinking about them, and then you realize ‘Hey, the native goldenrod is kind of nice.’”

It is becoming increasingly important, Adamovic said, that people include native plants in their gardens.

“It’s really rewarding, too,” he said. “You put a native plant in your garden and you’re able to see that the caterpillar that ate it turned into a butterfly. You’re also providing a bunch of food for wildlife in general, and you’re really helping to save the environment by switching over to using natives.”

For Gregg, native plants are the foundation of Rhode Islanders’ sense of place.

“Rhode Islanders live in a place that has oak trees that drop their leaves in the winter and it’s got stone walls with moss and asters growing along them and it’s got native beach grasses,” he said. “You go to the beach, you see the little waving grasses. … If you want a place with palm trees and eight foot-high elephant grass, go somewhere else. Rhode Island is about a sense of place. It’s about our native plants.”

Native plant resources
Rhode Island Wild Plant Society native plant sales.

Xerces Society pollinator-friendly native plant lists.

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  1. Great article, glad to see more awareness on the topic of native plants of Rhode Island! I’m a little confused as to why Adamovic’s commentary and info on the Catskill Native Nursery is highlighted throughout, as that appears to be located in upstate, NY.

  2. Everything in this article is good stuff, but if the focus is really on biodiversity, why doesn’t that word appear? I see the words native plants, birds, insects, pollinators, bees, wasps, butterflies, songbirds, wildlife, and ecosystem, but not biodiversity. Why doesn’t anybody want to say, biodiversity?

    Before I opine on that question, let’s consider a couple of things. First, I do find the new high membership figure (600) of the Wild Plant Society to be somewhat sad considering the meager percent of RI residents that number represents. Although the Society’s message is important, it is clear not many people are getting it. That’s probably because people tend to listen to, and believe the message they get from, government. And the message they get from government about biodiversity is, nothing.

    Government’s message is not about preserving Nature, it is about using Native for fun and profit. The thousands of people who hunt and fish pay government to do so. Government gets nothing from those who take plant walks, bird watch, or photograph butterflies. Those interests are secondary to government’s main objective, providing for the hunter and angler. That’s why there is more habitat being created for game species today, and more natural ecosystems being destroyed in the process, along with the biodiversity they support.

    Government also thinks the response to the “pollinator crisis” is to create more habitat for the economically important honeybees and other crop pollinators, ignoring the hundreds of other insects that pollinate native plants. But the cookie-cutter government pollinator habitats simply create larger populations of the most common bees and other pollinators, further homogenizing native biodiversity. Is it any wonder we don’t hear government mention biodiversity? They seem to be more intent on trying to be the main contributor to biodiversity loss.

    There are about 1300 native plants known from Rhode Island, more than 100 have been lost or are on the brink of extirpation from the state. Efforts to encourage the use of native plants are laudable, but we should recognize that there is a limited number of species available to the homeowner for various reasons. First, there are a large number that simply are not desired by the public, the more than 200 species of sedges, for example.

    Another reason is the difficulty in growing some species. There are more than 30 species of orchids in Rhode Island, almost all of them impossible to cultivate in the nursery. The preservation of the state’s orchids therefore relies on the preservation of the natural ecosystems where they grow, which for the majority of orchids is mature forest. These plants are threatened mostly by government’s draconian management practices that seek to cut down mature forests for wildlife habitat. The resulting inflated deer herd compounds the threat by chowing down the orchids.

    On a lighter note, one tip for landowners who want to seriously think about contributing to biodiversity preservation – don’t try to save everything yourself. Examine the natural communities around you and try to fit in, based on the soil conditions, drainage, etc., and select plants accordingly. For example, if you have a sandy open site, wild lupine may do well. This plant is the larval food of several rare butterflies in RI that will colonize new patches, if large enough. Bearberry, the larval food for another butterfly, also grows in the same dry sandy conditions. On loamier sites, broad-leaved mountain mint attracts a wide variety of insect visitors with a long, late-season flowering period that extends into October. It also deters deer and as a member of the mint family can spread readily to form large patches.

  3. I like to add that RIDEM also plays a part in all this, especially when they approve permits, where in one particular instance I am aware of the landscape design included non native plants. Shouldn’t ecologically considerations be used when selecting native plants in a landscape design that receives Government funding? If one knows the wildlife of a given area and knows too that one insect is a species in Greatest Need of Conservation, might one then plant more host plants for said species? More importantly, would not it be nice if there were wildlife habitat protected areas put in place at public parks, where rare plants and RIDEM WAP’ species habitat’s were protected from Sports events and Spectator events?

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