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Rhody Native puts local plants back where they belong

March 18, 2012

Photo by Shaun Kirby

Rhody Native, led by RINHS Botanist Hope Leeson (center), aims to provide native-sourced plant species to local businesses and the public, stressing the need to make local environments sustainable once more.

SOUTH KINGSTOWN—Harry Chase, owner of Chase Farms in Jamestown, comes from a long line of family members who have dedicated themselves to the local landscape. Joe Pye Weed, Meadowsweet, and Seaside Goldenrod are all examples of native plant species about which many farmers, unlike Chase, have forgotten in place of tulips and other plants from foreign soils. Rhody Native, however, seeks to return native plants to the familiar soils they once enjoyed.

“Both my dad and uncle were trained landscape architects,” said Chase. “My uncle worked his entire career for Connecticut’s Department of Transportation, and both studied at the University of Rhode Island. My uncle worked with native plants so there is a history. He stressed the need, like Rhody Native, to use native plants in local environments, especially in mitigation projects.”

In 2009, the Rhody Native initiative began to promote the use of native plant species in landscape projects undertaken by the public, as well as encouraging local nurseries to sell local plants. In partnership with the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association (RINLA) and URI’s Master Gardener Association, among other groups, the Rhode Island Natural History Survey (RNHS) has been directing the propagation of native plant species, from seeding to planting, for local businesses to sell either wholesale or to the public.

“In Rhode Island, more farmers devote their efforts to ornamental horticulture than to food, and that is where a lot of our open space comes from,” said Vanessa Venturini, Extension Educator at URI’s Outreach Center. “Our main goal is to help these farms to diversify and sell more native plants, but we also realize we have to work on the demand as well as supply.”

“We are creating a branded look modeled after Rhody Fresh Milk and other initiatives,” she added. “We want people to recognize that, when they see the Rhody Native logo, [those plants] have been locally sourced and grown in state.”

Venturini has studied the effects of using native plant species in landscape projects and developing local markets for native plants as a graduate student. She cites that the benefits to using species such as Joe Pye Weed or Steeplebush for both the environment and local nursery farmers are many.

“Native plants evolved to live in our climate and soils,” said Venturini. “Once [Rhody Native] plants are well-established, they are able to survive better and will attract the necessary insects that attack pests.”

The introduction of foreign plant species has been prevalent in the United States for some time, and the effects have been significant. Rhody Native seeks to minimize the problems created when such plant species are brought into unfamiliar environments.

“In the past, some of the species from Europe and Asia have brought over pests and species from other countries,” said Venturini. “Chestnut was a major species in our forested ecosystem, providing food and habitat for animals like butterflies. When the European chestnut was introduced around 1900, a blight came with it which spread and the native chestnut had no resistance, wiping out the entire dominant species in our forest.”

“Native plant species also improve water quality because with less inputs of herbicides, you don’t have to build up soil and spray plants with pesticides,” she added. “Thus you won’t have those pollutants ending up in our major waterways.”

In order to successfully bring a native plant species to the public, RINHS, led by Botanist Hope Leeson, has developed a strict program from seeding a plant in native soils to growing it to a marketable size, a process which averages about five years. Leeson, along with groups of dedicated volunteers, have gone out into local habitats and gathered more than 31,000 native plant seeds and cuttings from 45 tree, bush, and other plant species for cultivation in the Rhody Native program.

A number of local nurseries and gardeners are beginning to sell Rhody Native plants, either for wholesale or retail. Jane Case, owner of Blue Moon Farm Perennials in Wakefield, sees a general public which values local initiatives such as Rhody Native, unlike in the past when aesthetics alone might guide decisions on backyard displays.

“Our biggest focus has been on native and sustainable plants,” said Case. “When I first started growing, I had another greenhouse, but couldn’t get enough of the plants that I liked. I started growing native plants about 10 years ago, but people had no clue what these plants were.”

“They cringed at the idea of putting a native plant like Joe Pye Weed in their backyards, but things have changed and I am encouraged by the general direction of native plant use,” she added.

Chase has participated for the past two years in the Rhody Native initiative as both a grower of native plant species and a wholesale vendor, and stresses the need to bring as much information to the public about the benefits of planting native species for municipal projects as well as at the home. The divider on Boston Neck Road in front of Narragansett Town Beach, for example, has been landscaped with native plants from Chase Farms.

“The buzz word now is sustainability, and Rhody Native plants can be used as part of the palette of plants a designer could use for a landscape project,” said Chase. “Typically, if you have a sensitive area or perimeter to encourage wildlife, you might use Rhody Native.”

“There is still room for a petunia on the front steps, but using Rhode Native is a long term investment for your backyard habitat,” he added.

RINHS and local nursery farmers also recognize that educating the public about native plant species is crucial for Rhody Native to succeed long-term, and have engaged locals through putting on workshops across the state.

“The idea is that because Rhode Island is the second most densely populated state in the United States, so much of our land is devoted to residential use,” said Venturini. “We have converted a lot of our natural ecosystems, creating habitat pockets in our backyards. If you are in Foster and on the edge of a forest, you know which species to incorporate, but if you live in the suburbs, there are no native species, so we encourage people to do site plans.”

“It is about finding the right plant for the right place, and we have developed outreach documents and workshops,” she added. “A group of MBA students at URI are working on a sustainable business plan for the initiative, for example. Right now, a lot of the Rhody Native program is grant funded, and we need to figure out how to make it self-sustaining.”

In the past, local residents could recognize at a glance native plant species and witness healthy, sustainable ecosystems not only out among the forests and coastal zones, but within the community as well. Although society has since strayed from promoting natural environments, Rhody Native is putting everyone, from the public to local businesses, back on a path which will allow us to touch our eyes upon familiar landscapes once more.

For more information about Rhody Native and a list of retailers, visit www.rinhs.org, or Rhody Native’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/rhody.native.

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