More Than Just Pretty Faces: Native Plants Gaining Popularity
March 17, 2022
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.