Photo taken at the 2015 Best Native Plant Sale in RI

R.I. volunteers work to rescue and preserve native plant species

By Liz Klinkenberg, Providence Journal
Special to The Journal
Posted May 28, 2016 at 12:01 am
Updated May 28, 2016 at 6:10 am

EAST GREENWICH, R.I. — When you pull into Sandra Thompson’s driveway, you can see firsthand how committed she is to promoting wild plants in Rhode Island. The pots, flats and trays line the circular drive, and curl around the walkway to the front door and back around to the garage where they stand five rows deep in front of the gas grill and garage bays.

“We have more than 300 plantings right here,” said Thompson, as she surveyed her East Greenwich yard. “And this is just my house — we have more than a hundred volunteers.”

Thompson is the co-chairwoman of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society’s annual plant sales, held at the URI East Farm in South Kingstown. While an early-season sale took place this month, the group is busy preparing for its biggest event, which it calls “the Best Native Plant Sale in Rhode Island.”

The sale, scheduled for Saturday, June 4, at 9 a.m., has more than 3,000 shrubs, trees, vines and perennials available — all grown locally and suited to Rhode Island gardens.

“We have an army of volunteers who seed, propagate and rescue native species,” said Thompson, now in her 10th year volunteering with the sale. “In February and March, we begin to dig things up just as the plants start to come alive so we can get them into pots and they can begin to get established.”

Native honeysuckle vines, wild geranium and bloodroot are packed in rows with Christmas, Cinnamon and Ostrich Ferns. Little bluets, or houstonia caerulea, promise a sea of small, blue blooms throughout the entire month of May.

Solomon’s Seal, or polygonatum, a native plant seen on the East Coast from New Brunswick to Florida, produces long, graceful stems with dark green leaves with a series of white bells hanging below.

“Part of our mission is preservation,” said Thompson. “I’ve propagated liatris scariosa variety nova englais, or northern blazing star, because they’re not doing very well here anymore. It is a tall plant with a fuzzy, purple-y, pin cushion on top.”

Thompson said its last known wild area, on Block Island, was wiped out during a storm a few years ago.

“It’s beautiful. You would hate to see it disappear.”

According to Anne Raver, a Rhode Island Wild Plant Society volunteer and avid gardener, that’s an important message to hit home.

“Gardeners can slow the rate of extinction by planting natives in their yards,” said Raver. “It’s not only the plant species that is protected, but the insects and birds that rely on them.”

For Wild Plant Society member Judy Ireland, it’s more about achieving a balance in her sanctuary than keeping to a strict code.

“I’m not a purist,” said Ireland. “But I do love living in the woods.”

Ireland spent many summers in the Maine woods with her father and draws her inspiration from those early memories. She moved to Rhode Island in the ’80s and joined the Wild Plant Society.

“When we first moved here, this yard was a flat lot with a vegetable garden in one corner,” said Ireland, as she looked over her wooded oasis in the middle of a North Kingstown subdivision. “But if you want native, you can create it.”

For a water feature, Ireland gathered large stones from a neighbor and had them placed in a very natural way. “There’s a liner, but you don’t see it. It’s all very heavily planted and we’ve done away with the fine edging and mulch. The end result is very natural looking.”

Ireland’s backyard woodland is a tranquil step into nature. The garden is alive with the sounds of birds, bugs, toads, titmouse, barred owls and chipmunks. “We’ve even had a great egret here,” she said.

The pond is surrounded by marsh marigolds, violets and aster.

“The loveliness of native plants is that they provide beauty across the whole season,” said Ireland. “You start with the tiny ephemerals, anemones and the red, native columbine, and then that leads into the blue bells. When they are at their height, they are a beautiful, dramatic blue cover surrounding the pond. It speaks to me. Everyone has to let a garden speak to them.”

Trained as a landscape architect, Ireland focuses on textures, planting levels and rooms. “Natives work well with exotics,” said Ireland. “Once you start looking, you can see all the textures and surprises.

I like a variety of areas for plants,” she said. “You go from a wild area and then step up into a more refined space. It is still native, but it has a different feel. When you step down into the mowed grass, it can surround you. It is full sun, surrounded by ferns, woodland azaleas that are sweeter smelling and huge Heuchera coral bell called autumn bride — that’s not a native, but in the fall it produces a spike with little flowers that just lights up the whole area.”

A path made of slate and rounds from tree trunks lead the way from the pond to the sunken garden, to the woods and then to a more formal area with a stone bench, mown grass and statuary. The path is lined with jack-in-the-pulpit, foxglove, wild ginger and violets. Ferns unfurl through sweet woodruff. “With the interplay of light, it looks like a painting.”

Find more information about sale, which runs June 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., rain or shine, and the Wild Plant Society at riwps.org.

 — Liz Klinkenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Warwick. She can be reached at rifeedsri@gmail.com.