Wildlife & Nature

Rhode Island Begins to Go Wild Over Native Plants

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These seedlings recently journeyed 600-plus miles with their caretakers, Martha and Dick Fisher. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos)

When Martha and Dick Fisher recently visited their grandchildren in upstate New York, they brought with them something precious they simply couldn’t leave behind in Rhode Island: a tray of Clethra alnifolia.

The Little Compton couple admits it’s a little weird to travel with seedlings of a rhizomatous shrub, especially when they had no plans to leave them in the Adirondacks, but they noted the tiny plants were not ready to be left alone.

A visit to their beautiful 2-acre property on Austin Lane reveals the importance native plants play in their lives. Sweet pepperbush of all sizes decorate the property, from mature clusters in their back yard to starters in pots headed to this Saturday’s Sogkonate Garden Club plant sale and to the June 4 Rhode Island Wild Plant Society sale.

Besides Clethra alnifolia, their property, which includes a small greenhouse, is home to other native shrubs, plants, and trees, including arrowwood, cardinal flower, and jack-in-the-pulpit — “I just love this plant,” Dick said; “It’s a fun plant” — and a variety of fruits and vegetables. There are few nonnative species and cultivars, and the only lawn is pathways to various gardens and an area for the grandchildren to play.

Even though they recently drove a tray of sweet pepperbush 300-plus miles in two directions, Dick said it is “a fallacy that it’s difficult to go native.”

When they moved in a dozen years ago, the property, part of a former dairy farm, was essentially all grass, multiflora rose, and oriental bittersweet. Any native species were buried beneath, with little space to thrive or even survive. Invasives, such as multiflora rose and oriental bittersweet, take over when space is created when developed or agricultural areas are abandoned. They quickly spread.

The Fishers’ fondness for native plants also extends to other back yards and those who tend to them. Since snake worms have made their way into their yard, Dick repotted every sweet pepperbush and other shrub he plans to donate to the two upcoming plant sales into containers with soil free of the Asian invasive. He keeps these containers on pallets lifted off the ground.

Also called jumping worms, the castings these aggressive worms produce are very granular and loose, so if anything tries to grow in their waste, the roots have a hard time gaining a foothold and struggle to survive. Snake worms can also be a problem in forests, as they consume the top layer of soil and dead leaves, called the duff layer, where the seeds of plants germinate.

Before the Fishers moved, in 2007, to Rhode Island from Colorado to be closer to their grandchildren, they joined the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society. While living in Colorado, near Steamboat Springs, they ran Ramshorn Native Plants, growing and selling organic native plants, when they weren’t working their full-time jobs.

They quickly learned propagating seeds in an environment 7,500 feet above sea level is vastly different than along the coast. They also learned that the Ocean State still hasn’t embraced organic native plants as Colorado had by the early 1990s, and that many Rhode Islanders favor ornamentals and lawns. They were also saddened to notice Rhode Island, unlike Colorado, lacks native plants thriving in the wild.

During the past 12 years, the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society has helped the Fishers hone their skills to grow and donate species native to the state and southern New England. The retired couple has helped the organization embrace the idea of using organic methods to grow local species.

“People ask why organic,” Martha said. “I tell them planting marigolds full of chemicals in the middle of a vegetable garden will leach those toxins into the vegetables they will be eating.”

Sally Johnson’s yard is filled mostly with native plants, but the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society member calls her gardens ‘nativeish’ because she likes to grow some nonnatives and cultivars.

Wild start

The Rhode Island Wild Plant Society’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 is a question representatives of the North Kingstown-based nonprofit, including the Fishers, have been answering for the past 35 years. It’s not easy 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.

Gould, a founding member and the organization’s first president, and the handful of others — Doris Anthony, Marnie Lacouture, Nancy Magendantz, Martha Marshall, Betty Salomon, and Johnny Stone — who created the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society (RIWPS) weren’t seeking to establish a club where its members discussed their gardens and sipped cocktails, but an entity with a strong conservation component. One, like the Sogkonate Garden Club, that gets its hands dirty.

The RIWPS is “dedicated to the preservation and protection of Rhode Island’s native plants and their habitats,” according to the organization’s website. This mission is achieved by volunteer members who provide opportunities to study and enjoy native plants, encourage and offer guidance in their cultivation and use, educate the public on their ecological and aesthetic values, and support land preservation and practices fostering their natural communities.

Native plants support pollinators and provide wildlife with food and shelter. They play a significant role in maintaining the function and diversity of ecosystems.

The National Audubon Society says restoring native plant habitat is vital to preserving biodiversity. It notes that during the past century, urbanization has taken intact, ecologically productive land and fragmented and transformed it with lawns and exotic ornamentals. The United States has lost a “staggering” 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to urban sprawl, and the nation’s “modern obsession with highly manicured ‘perfect’ lawns alone has created a green, monoculture carpet across the country that covers over 40 million acres.”

“By creating a native plant garden, each patch of habitat becomes part of a collective effort to nurture and sustain the living landscape for birds and other animals,” according to the National Audubon Society.

The RIWPS has been spreading that message locally for three decades. It has begun to slowly catch on. The organization’s latest newsletter, the Spring 2022 edition, is a glossy, 20-page magazine with color photos. Membership has grown to 655. And the RIWPS’ annual plant sale has become a must-go event for many.

This year’s sale, scheduled for June 4 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at University of Rhode Island’s Cooperative Extension Center Botanical Garden at 3 West Alumni Ave. in Kingston, will feature some 4,000 plants of 150 different species of shrubs, including about 80 donated by the Fishers, and trees, grasses, ferns, and perennials.

They are organically grown and sourced from native species growing within Ecoregion 59, which includes all of Rhode Island, most of Connecticut and Massachusetts, and sections of New York, New Hampshire and Maine.

“Plant species within an ecoregion have co-evolved with insects and other local fauna, under similar environmental conditions, for thousands of years, so their genetics are best suited to your gardens,” according to RIWPS.

The Fishers and Sally Johnson, a fellow RIWPS member for the past 12 years, believe the organization’s message is beginning to take root.

In fact, Johnson, who founded her own gardening design business three years ago after a career in Rhode Island government, said it is becoming difficult to find some native species, such as highbush cranberry, bayberry, inkberry, and sweetgale.

“Hopefully, it’s a short-term problem as nurseries begin to realize more people want to rip up their lawns, get away from ornamentals, and plant natives,” she said.

Like the Fishers, when Johnson and her husband, Curtis Betts, moved into their Beach Point Drive home in East Providence, which abuts Bullock Cove, there was a dearth of native plants on the long-neglected property. Phragmites were pulled — and still are — and a lot of pavement ripped up.

Now, a dozen years later, the property is largely full of native plants, such as asters, mountain mint, lupines, and shadbush, which Johnson said produces a “delicious fruit” — although Johnson admitted she isn’t a purist and has planted some nonnatives and cultivars. She said the 10,000-square-foot property, which includes two rain gardens, is home to about 300 species of plants, shrubs, and trees.

There is, however, not a single patch of lawn.

Information about the history of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society was borrowed from The Beginning: Excerpts from the History of RIWPS, 1987-1997 by Mary E. Finger.

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  1. I think you buried the lead! What is to be done about the invasive worms? If it’s so bad they’re potting up their pepperbush they obviously have a problem. Love to hear how they plan to combat this and save their beautiful native plant gardens.

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