Plant Society Cultivates Wild Initiative to Reseed Rhode Island
March 3, 2023
The idea behind a recently launched Rhode Island Wild Plant Society project is to make native species more popular by reseeding local yards and nurseries with wild flora.
Native plants are the key to creating ecologically healthy habitats that support local pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, and other insects that benefit us and the birds we enjoy watching. Native flora have co-evolved with local fauna, and are genetically suited to meet the needs of the creatures in a particular habitat — even the fungi and microbes living in the soil below these plants, shrubs, and trees.
Recognizing their importance to a hardy and productive ecosystem, the Wild Plant Society launched its “Reseeding Rhode Island” initiative in early 2022 — an ambitious plan for increasing the availability of seeds and plants grown from locally sourced native seeds collected from Rhode Island and eventually other parts of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Ecoregion 59.
Ecoregion 59, one of 105 ecoregions mapped on the continental United States, includes all of Rhode Island, most of Connecticut and Massachusetts, and sections of New Hampshire, coastal Maine, and Long Island, N.Y.
Those behind the reseeding initiative hope that over time the project will create an abundance of Ecoregion 59 seeds to help keep native plants from being lost.
“What we are really trying to do is to make high-quality native plants more mainstream,” said Sue Theriault, chair of the ReSeeding Rhode Island Steering Committee, which is guiding the initiative. “If you go to a nursery and you’re looking to buy native plants, your choices involve a lot of cultivars … you really have no idea of where the plants came from. The ultimate goal is to get our nurseries in Rhode Island or retail places in Rhode Island to carry our ecotype plants. To do that, we need to have a seed source.”
To create a never-ending source of ecotype plants — native species that have a genetic background typical for the local region and adapted to it — for nurseries to sell, the plan is to grow the collected wild seed into plugs and plant the plugs on farms and land trust properties, where these gardens will then act as perpetual seed beds and sources of seed year after year without the need to disturb wild populations again.
The initiative is currently finalizing plans with five organic-practicing farms to host seed beds, according to Theriault. Seeds of nine wild species have been planted and the first seed harvest from these plants is expected in fall 2024.
Among the wild species the initiative is targeting are common yarrow, cardinal flower, swamp milkweed, New York ironweed, and switchgrass. New England aster, butterfly weed, and bee balm are among the wild populations proving difficult to find in Rhode Island, even though they are common species in this region. Wild populations of rare species are left alone.
The Reseeding Rhode Island initiative is modeled after The Ecotype Project, established four years ago by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut. It was created in response to pollinator populations plummeting, from habitat loss and the spraying of pesticides, and to meet the growing desire for native plants. The project relies on trained field botanists to sustainably collect seeds from across a spectrum of native plants.
To help set up and oversee the Reseeding Rhode Island initiative, the Wild Plant Society brought botanist Shannon Kingsley onboard. The Providence resident determines how and where seeds will be collected, gets permission from property owners, helps the organization determine which wild species seeds it will collect, and works with volunteers.
The 2020 Brown University graduate has so far collected hundreds of thousands of wild seeds from 30 species. But don’t fret, it’s not as much as you may think. A single seed head of a Joe-Pye weed, for instance, holds thousands of seeds. At the opposite end of the seed-gathering spectrum, though, is the wild geranium, which has about five seeds per flower.
When collecting, Kingsley closely follows the federal Bureau of Land Management’s Seeds of Success protocols, which, among other things, only allow the collection of seed from wild populations that have at least 50 plants.
“You can’t collect more than 10 percent of the population seeds,” Kingsley said. “It’s not necessarily something I’m too worried about, because the populations I have found have, for the most part, way more than 50 individual plants.”
Theriault said the plan is to get about 200 plants of each species in beds, “because the whole goal is to maintain the genetic diversity that Shannon has collected.”
The organization’s reseeding initiative — which is being supported by the efforts of board of trustees members Peggy Buttenbaum, Dick Fisher, Sally Johnson, Brian Maynard, Mary O’Connor, and Dave Vissoe, among others — builds on the work of Hope Leeson, the botanist who coordinated the Rhody Native program for the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. The now-defunct program, launched in 2009 in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, was designed to train landscapers to recognize and remove invasive plants and replace them with native ones.
During Rhody Native’s decade-long run, Leeson taught volunteers how to identify and collect seeds of wild species and the nuances of their propagation. The program supplied native plants to restoration projects and public gardens, including the native plant garden at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown.
Before the Rhody Native initiative ended in 2020, Leeson and the volunteers had collected seeds of some 120 species of native perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees, from which they grew thousands of plants at Natural History Survey facilities at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm in South Kingstown.
The program helped diversify habitats at wildlife refuges, salt marshes, and private and public gardens. Eventually, the program became so successful that Leeson was receiving orders for thousands of plants, which was more than she could produce on her own. But without a commercial nursery willing to take it over, the program was discontinued.
The Wild Plant Society has spent the past 36 years stressing the importance of native species. The organization is “dedicated to the preservation and protection of Rhode Island’s native plants and their habitats.”
The North Kingstown-based nonprofit’s first newsletter, a Fall/Winter 1987-88 edition, was published on both sides of a single sheet of tan paper, illustrated by line drawings of bluets on the front and witch hazel on the back. It was distributed to 150 members. A short article by Lisa Gould answered the question “Why Go Native?”
It’s not easy, however, explaining to people who are conditioned that lawns and exotic ornamentals are good and dandelions are bad that native plants are easier and less costly to maintain and better for environmental and human well-being.
Native plants and native insects are the foundation of a vibrant ecosystem. But the system and the ecological services it provides are breaking down.
Fifty-two butterfly species in New England are in decline, according to Robert Gegear, assistant professor of biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and co-founder of the Beecology Project.
Total insect mass is decreasing by 2.5% annually, according to a 2019 study. It points to troubles ahead. Insects are both pollinators and a food source for amphibians, birds, fish, reptiles, and some humans.
More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, with butterflies and moths among the worst hit, according to the peer-reviewed scientific paper published in the journal Biological Conservation. The study noted that intensive agriculture is the main driver of insect decline, particularly the overuse of pesticides. Development and the climate crisis only serve to accelerate their demise.
Note: The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society’s Early Native Plant Sale is scheduled for Saturday, May 13, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m. at Casey Farm in Saunderstown. The Best Native Plant Sale in Rhode Island is scheduled for Saturday, June 3, from 9 a.m.-noon at the University of Rhode Island.