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Plant Society Volunteers Go Wild Potting for Plant Sale

By TODD McLEISH/ecoRI News contributor
ecoRI, May 12, 2016

Tysh McGrail describes her 28 acres in North Scituate, R.I., as Yankee swampland with numerous microclimates, a place where a variety of plants native to Rhode Island wetlands grow and thrive. Jack-in-the-pulpit, a long-lived perennial wildflower with a unique hooded shape, grows in abundance, as does the tall, spiked turtlehead, which provides late-season color.

Both species are in great demand among gardeners seeking to landscape with native plants. So every year, McGrail digs up a few dozen, puts them in pots and donates them to the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society’s annual native plant sale. This year’s sale is set for June 4 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. at the University of Rhode Island’s East Farm in Kingston. About 3,000 plants and shrubs will be available.

“I’m just capitalizing on what is already an ideal environment for these plants and helping out the Wild Plant Society,” said McGrail, a landscape designer whose business, Woodscapes Inc., specializes in finding ways to incorporate native plants into residential landscapes.

One of her personal favorites in her yard is the pagoda dogwood, with branches that extend to the ground and which is difficult to find in nurseries. She said it’s “a handsome architectural understory tree with a lot of uses in small gardens. We had some on the property when we built our house, and they’ve been making beautiful babies.”

She donates many of those babies to the plant sale, too, along with tulip trees and other specimens.

But she’s not the only one. More than 30 Rhode Islanders donate native plants from their gardens to the sale each year, and a similar number grow plants from seed or propagate shrubs to benefit the society.

Dick Fisher, for instance, collects seeds every autumn from the bayberry, winterberry, beach plum and red twig dogwoods in his Little Compton yard to cultivate for the sale. He soaks the seeds in water and cleans them, then stores them in damp peat moss in his refrigerator for the winter before planting them in pots in March. It takes a year or two before they grow tall enough for the sale, so he always has large quantities of shrubs in various stages of growth.

“It’s our avocation; it’s fun; it’s part of what we do,” said Fisher, who expects to donate 75 shrubs to the Wild Plant Society sale this year. “It allows us to garden year-round. We never have to quit.”

According to Sandra Thompson, who co-chairs the plant sale, native plants are increasingly in demand as gardeners recognize the important role they play in the natural environment. Native plants provide food and habitat for a wide range of native birds, insects and other wildlife. Few exotic plants provide similar benefits. News coverage of the decline of bees and other pollinators also has motivated gardeners to plant natives to boost the population of pollinators in the area.

Thompson said trillium and jack-in-the-pulpit are especially big sellers at the sale, as is bloodroot, cardinal flower and New England aster.

Many of the herbaceous flowers that will be sold at the upcoming sale were started from seed by a group of about 20 gardeners, including Thompson and Fisher’s wife, Marty, who call themselves Seed Starters East. Working out of a greenhouse at Plane View Nursery in Portsmouth, they have been busy for several months potting and repotting delicate seedlings of Canada lily, blood-root, trillium, lady’s slipper, lupine and many other varieties.

Thompson said all have been carefully tended into sturdy, disease-free plants for the sale. And because the seeds were gathered locally, they are genetically adapted to thrive in local conditions.

Since many gardeners aren’t used to planting native flowers and shrubs, the Wild Plant Society will have experts available at the June 4 sale to explain the specific needs of each plant.

“Native plants are underused, so to some gardeners they’re almost an exotic,” McGrail said. “It’s great to see that we’re having a revival of the special plants that belong here.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Karen Asher trains RIWPS volunteers for the June 4 plant sale

Karen Asher, who grew up in the Bronx, never gardened until she and her husband, Ira, bought their first house in Kingston 40 years ago. “I looked out at the yard and said, ‘What am I supposed to do with that?’” she told a group of wild plant lovers gathered at the North Kingstown Library last Saturday.

The completely self-taught gardener then launched into a fascinating talk, with luscious images of dozens of favorite natives in her sprawling woodland garden, which rolls down to the edge of Barbers Pond in West Kingston. (Ira always dreamed of fishing for trout, so the couple moved about 14 years ago, to nine acres along the pond.)

“See the fuzz on this fiddlehead?” asked Karen, a past president of RIWPS, flashing an image of Osmundrastrum cinnamomeum (cinnamon fern) unfurling its first frond. “Hummingbirds make nests out of the fuzz. I’ve watched them carry it off.”

A popular speaker, who also teaches about native plants at URI, Karen was coaching a team Rhode Island Wild Plant Society gardeners who will be selling hundreds of different kinds of native plants, all grown by RIWPS seed starters and propagators on June 4. More than 3,000 plants will be for sale at URI East Farm, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in South Kingston.

“Ask them what kind of garden they have,” she suggested. “Use the common names of the plants and tell something about them. Don’t overwhelm them with the Latin names, which can be alienating to beginners. Like we’re part of a special group and you’re not.” (Amen! Learn the Latin names as you go along, falling in love with the plants.)

Why garden with natives anyway, a newcomer might ask. Karen offered some of the most basic reasons, in her informal conversational style. “If you want butterflies and pollinators and birds in your garden, they – how shall I say this – grew up with these native plants, so they know them, they prefer them to the nonnatives in your garden.”

But please, don’t tell interested gardeners, new to the world of native plants, to rip out their beloved Japanese maples and azaleas. “I’m not a purist. I have plants from all over the world in my garden.” Asian rhododendrons, stewartias, hostas, lilacs and peonies, Korean spicebush viburnum, yellow wax-bells, to name a few – all mixed in with a mind-boggling number of natives, which after all, serve a crucial role.

“The wild places are disappearing,” Karen reminded us. “Shopping malls, houses, parking lots. It’s unfortunate, but kind of inevitable, I’m afraid.”She opened her hands outward, and looked at her audience.  “But if we all plant some natives in our gardens, and if our neighbors plant natives, and then we all plant more…” Her arms kept opening wider. “And more and more people plant natives. Then all together, we can make a difference.”And this isn’t exactly some terrible sacrifice.

“I happen to think native plants are very beautiful.” Native plants also lend a regional feel to our landscape. Karen Asher knows she’s in New England, when she walks among her oaks and mountain laurels, partridgeberry and high bush blueberry. “If I see saguaro cactus and mesquite, I know I’m in the Southwest.” And another thing, she says, with a touch of her Bronx humor. “I’m lazy. Why fight with plants that don’t want to live here? I don’t want to fertilize and spray. I want to have plants that want to be here.”

We stared at an image of Lindera benzoin (northern spicebush), whose greenish-yellow flowers are a lovely alternative to forsythia. Plant it beneath an oak tree, Karen counseled, “because it blooms early, before the oaks leaf out.”Spicebush is also a host plant for the spicebush swallowtail butterfly, she said.

 Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed), which thrives in sandy soil and hot sun, and festoons itself with clusters of bright orange flowers, is nearly as endangered as the Monarch butterfly, which lays its eggs on the whorled leaves. The yellow and black striped caterpillars feed on the leaves, which contain compounds toxic to birds. (And over the millennia, the birds have learned to avoid them!)“Then they pupate and turn into butterflies, which are just as toxic to the birds, so they don’t get eaten,” said Karen. It’s such a good defense mechanism, other butterflies, like the viceroy, which is quite palatable to birds, have evolved with the same pattern. “They pretend to be monarchs,” said Karen, hunching her shoulders and looking up at the sky. “Don’t eat me! See? I’m a monarch!” But seriously, “if you only plant one native, plant butterfly weed, the monarchs need our help desperately.”

Geranium maculatum (spotted crane’s-bill), with its lobed leaves and single-petaled bluish-purple flowers, spreads readily in moist, sunny conditions. “The seed actually moves along the ground looking for a moist depression,” said Karen.

Rhododendron prinophyllum (early azalea), also known as the roseshell azalea, is a deciduous species that opens its bright pink, fragrant flowers early in the season. It will propagate itself by dropping its seeds into moss growing on acid soil.

Karen recalled her first days in the garden, when she went to a wild plant lecture by Judy Ireland, a landscape architect and longtime member of RIWPS.“Everything she said made sense to me,” she said. Then, she started to go on the botanical walks that RIWPS offers (, throughout the seasons, all over the state.“I noticed where things were growing – on a slope, or by the water – and then I’d try to replicate those conditions in my garden.”


RIWPS Record breaking sales of Spring Ephemerals!

RIWPS sold more than 700 native plants last Saturday, May 14, at URI East Farm spring festival, in South Kingstown. The warm, sunny morning brought out crowds of eager gardeners, who queued up early to find beautifully-grown specimens of Geranium maculatum (wild geranium), Aquilegia canadensis (red columbine), Trillium erectum (red trillium), Sanguinaria canadensis (blood-root), and hearty natives of the coastal plain, including Vaccinium angustifolium (low-bush blueberry) and Rosa virginiana (Virginia rose), which thrive in sunny, dry sandy gardens.

These early bloomers are just a tantalizing preview to RIWPS’ June 4 sale, also at URI East Farm, Route 108, South Kingstown, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m, rain or shine.

More than 3,000 shrubs, trees, vines and perennials, all locally grown and suited to Rhode Island gardens – sun, shade, dry or wet – will be for sale. To name a few: Hamamelis virginiana (American witch-hazel), Benthamidia florida (flowering big-bracted dogwood), Amelanchier canadensis (eastern shadbush), many viburnums and azaleas suited to Rhode Island.


These natives species not only enhance the subtle beauty of a landscape, they provide food and habitat for birds and native insects, including pollinating bees and butterflies.

Why buy plants at the RIWPS sales, rather than at the box store?

Why plant Benthamidia japonica (kousa dogwood), which, according to ecologist Doug Tallamy supports no native insects (and thus feeds no birds), when you could plant a Benthamidia florida (flowering dogwood), and feed 117 species of native insects (and a lot of birds)! Let’s plant for wildlife.

Development — cities, suburbs, highways, strip malls, grazing land, miles of crops, 40 million acres of lawn – have taken over 95 percent of the wilderness that first greeted the Pilgrims. Scientists find a 1 to 1 correspondence between habitat loss and the loss of plant and animal species.

At our sales, choose from plants native to Rhode Island, New England and Eastern North America.

•  Plants are organically grown, from seed or cuttings, by knowledgeable local gardeners, so they are sturdy, disease-free specimens with healthy roots.

• Experts will be available to explain the needs of the plants, and their role in sustaining pollinators and birds.

• Native plants for a variety of conditions – sun, shade, wet, dry – are available, and knowledgeable gardeners can suggest plant combinations and tips on how to grow them successfully.

• Both plant sales include Rhody Native™, plants grown from locally collected seed, which means these specimens are genetically more diverse and better adapted to local conditions than those commercially grown, which are often cloned from a small number of plants.

• A collector’s plant table at the June Sale, including the double forms of Trillium grandiflorum (white trillium) and Sanguinaria canadensis (blood-root) and Cypripedium parviflorum (yellow lady’s slipper) awaits the connoisseurs! But come early; these rare beauties are soon snatched up.



Preview for the Early Native Plant Sale on May 14

ON APRIL FOOL’S DAY, RIWPS Seed Starter Sandra Thompson writes:

It must be spring!  Look what I woke up to this morning.  Blood-root. With more to come, by the look at all those buds. Ever wonder how this lovely early bloomer, (Sanguinaria canadensis) got its common name?  Its dark red, knobby, underground stems, or rhizomes are filled with an orange-red sap that inspired its Latin name, Sanguinaria which means bloody. Native bees and flies may cross-pollinate blood-root flowers, if it’s warm enough for insects to be flying around, but if it’s too cold out, blood-root has an insurance policy: self-pollination.  What a plant! And you can have one of your own, if you come to RIWPS’s Early Native Plant Sale at the URI Spring Festival at East Farm on Saturday, May 14th.

• Blood-root is native to moist woodlands and floodplains from Nova Scotia to Florida and Texas. A member of the poppy family, its flowers last only a few days, but its rounded notched leaves make a beautiful groundcover, and can be combined with native ginger, trillium, columbine and ferns.

• The Eastern woodland herb was used extensively by Native Americans to treat coughs and croup, to heal sores and ulcers. Its bitter compounds made a powerful emetic. The root juice was also used as a red dye and face paint. Blood-root’s common name in the South – coon root – may have been a corruption of the Indian name, puccoon.

• Blood-root is among many woodland wildflowers with fleshy elaisomes attached to the seeds, which are rich in lipids and proteins. Ants carry these seeds back to their nests, where they eat the nutritious elaisomes and toss the seeds on a waste pile that provides the perfect conditions for germination! It’s one of the many examples in which an insect species is fed by a plant, which in turn spreads a bit farther into the woods.

Go Botany – Sanguinaria canadensis

RIWPS 2016 Annual Volunteer Awards

Volunteer of the Year is awarded to Helen Drew for her work at Seed Starters West and the Early Native Plant Sale. The Lifetime Service Award is given to Doug McGrady for his dedication to seeking and identify rare plants and plant communities in RI and sharing his passion and knowledge as a RIWPS walk leader.  Rhode Island’s native plant populations and the RIWPS community are better because of them.  Awardees from past years.

RIWPS Native Plant Exhibit Wins Three Awards

Rhode Island Coastal Habitats – Spring: Emergence and Rebirth earned, First Place Award (Non Profits), First Place Award (People’s Choice) and The Roger and Elizabeth Swain Award for Design and Execution at the RI Spring Garden & Flower Show at the Providence Convention Center, February 18-21.

Congratulations and much appreciation to Kevin Alverson, Judy Ireland, Frances Topping and Barney Webster for their outstanding exhibit. Special thanks to Sue Gordan for her work forcing and nurturing plants and to all those who volunteered their time and talents to bring the design from the planning stage to its final rendition on the exhibit floor, complete with exhibit docents.

Rhode Island Coastal Habitats – Spring: Emergence and Rebirth highlighted the plant diversity occurring at the transition zones between coastal and inland climates, one of Rhode Island mini ecosystems that makes our landscape so unique and beautiful, and one of the habitats most threatened by rising sea levels and other climate changes.

Using our native plants in our public open spaces as well as our private coastal properties is essential to secure a diverse coastal vegetative habitat, to create a buffer zone to protect against coastal erosion and to maintain the foraging and shelter habitats that native plants provide for our wildlife.

State of New England's Plants

Why Native Plants Matter

New England Wild Flower Society
has released its State of the Plants report, the most comprehensive assessment of New England plants and plant communities ever assembled.

The report discusses the critical importance of plant diversity, profiles five key habitat types, and identifies primary threats to these habitats and to New England’s plant life as a whole. It assesses the status of hundreds of rare and declining plant species. The report also outlines priorities for researching, conserving and managing thousands of species that together comprise New England’s vibrant flora.

Insights from the report include:

  • Plants are in trouble worldwide and in New England, where 22% of native plant species-593 species-are listed as rare or possibly extinct, and 31% of plants are non-native.
  • After a century of reforestation, New England’s forest cover is declining, along with plant diversity.
  • Climate change is already affecting New England plant communities and will accelerate if current trends continue. Forest, alpine, coastal, and estuarine species are most at risk. If current trends continue, Vermont will have the climate of Connecticut by 2039 and of North Carolina by 2070.
  • Multiple threats, ranging from land development to widespread pesticide use to invasive species, together undermine the resilience of our native plant communities.
  • Insect-pollinated plants-the majority of native plants-are in particular trouble and are declining along with insects that pollinate and rely on them.

The report recommends urgent and continued action to save endangered plants, mitigate threats, and conserve and better manage land where plants thrive. At a regional level, we must expand research about our native plant ecosystems and strengthen laws to protect them.

We can individually support native plants and their vital food webs in many ways: by planting native species in our landscapes, avoiding pesticides and herbicides, controlling non-native invasive plants on our land, and educating our children and communities about native plants and their ecological value.

Authored by Elizabeth Farnsworth, the Society’s Senior Research Ecologist, the peer- reviewed report draws on hundreds of studies of New England plant communities, the fieldwork of more than 700 volunteers and professional botanists across New England, and the expertise of leading botanical researchers and the 60 partner organizations in the Society’s New England Plant Conservation Program.

Read State of Plants in Brief or the full report