Increasing the island’s native plants

Thu, 12/26/2019 - 5:30pm
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“It’s simple, but complicated,” said Judy Gray.

The “it” is growing native plants from seed, the subject of a workshop hosted by Kim Gaffett and Clair Stover Comings on Dec. 16 at the Island Free Library, with special guest Hope Leeson, botanist with the R.I. Natural History Survey. “It was an idea Clair and I came up with,” said Gaffett, hoping to get people involved in volunteering to collect and clean native seed. “We don’t really know what the end result is,” she said, but we would go for a walk and, at the least, “we’re going to practice looking.”

Leeson, Gaffett said, “is the mother of Rhody Native.”

Rhody Native started 10 years ago and operates out of the University of Rhode Island. Its mission is to reintroduce native plants into the landscape. It started with a RINHS grant to train landscape contractors on how to remove invasive species, and then to restore the habitat with native species.

While collecting native seed and growing it out is, as Gray said, complicated, Leeson said that the easier method of growing plant stock from cuttings — the usual method in the nursery trade — results in less genetic diversity.

Habitat restoration is important because of the complex relationships between plants, insects, and birds. Many insects rely on a host plant to lay their eggs, with the monarch butterfly’s reliance on milkweed as the most common example. But there are many more. The northern fritillary butterfly is symbiotic with violets; the juniper streak is dependent on red cedar.

Next up the food chain are the birds that rely on insects to feed themselves and their offspring. The insects provide valuable protein during the breeding season when few seeds are available, Leeson told those in attendance. “Native plants are birdfeeders.”

Leeson said she would present the “nuts and bolts” of cleaning and planting seed. “Most of it is observing.” The first thing is to know the lifecycle of the plant, when the seed is ripe, and how it should be stored. Some seeds are easy to germinate – you can just collect them and plant. In the “easy” category are seaside goldenrod, asters, boneset, and coastal Joe Pye weed. Some are harder, requiring one or more cycles of warmth and cold to germinate. In the latter category are the related winter berry and holly, and later Leeson would demonstrate how to extract the seed from a winter berry, a somewhat amusing process involving a bucket and an immersion blender with duct tape covering the blades.

Seed collecting is best done on days with relatively low humidity. This prevents mold from growing on them. Collecting the same type of seed on multiple days can also increase success. A valuable hint for knowing whether the seed collected is viable before planting is to put them in water. If they float, they are most likely non-viable. If they sink to the bottom, they are probably still good.

For storage, seeds may need to be separated from the surrounding plant material. Leeson brought a variety of sieves and shaking devices to demonstrate how it is done. Many seeds, such as the seaside pea, need to be scarified, a process that scrapes the seed coat so that water can penetrate the seed and start the growth cycle.

“How is that done in nature?” asked one attendee. The answer, said Leeson, was by going through the digestive system of an animal, or just by blowing against sand or gravel. To simulate the process, Leeson used one-grit sandpaper wrapped around a wood block.

When the group went out into the field – actually, it was the parking lot behind the buildings across the street, to find seeds, many more were found than one might expect in mid-December. Seaside goldenrod was found and distinguished from other types by a few remaining leaves. Also found: yarrow, evening primrose, seaside peas, common milkweed, and beach grass.

Back inside, the process of cleaning and separating commenced. As for planting, Leeson recommended thickly sowing the seeds in pots with just enough soil to cover. A covering of turkey grit goes on top. If placed outside, so the seeds can germinate when their biological clocks are ready, protect the pots from mice and birds with hardware cloth.

Kay Lewis suggested that those interested start with two or three types of seed. She brought along seeds from the endangered Maryland golden aster, which grows on her property. Leeson said the population of the aster at Lewis Farm is the largest in the state.

That advice was well-taken, and by the end of the workshop, Gaffett had more of an idea of “the end result.”

She proposed putting their efforts into growing three each of flowering plants, shrubs, and native grasses. If anyone would like to exercise their green thumbs in the effort, contact Gaffett at (401) 466-2224 or Stover-Comings at (401) 214-5429.