This article by Anne Raver first appeared in our publication, WildfloraRI, Spring 2022
As native plant enthusiasts, we have long been aware of how important native plants are to creating ecologically sound habitats, ones that will support the local bugs, bees, and butterflies, the beasts and birds that depend on them, and even the microbes and fungi dwelling in the soil below them. Now, we are coming to realize that we need truly local plant species—that is, ecotypes that have coevolved with the local fauna and are genetically suited to meet the unique needs of all the occupants of a particular habitat.
Recognizing this need, the RIWPS board unanimously approved the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative in early February—an ambitious five-year plan for increasing the availability of seeds and plants grown from locally sourced native seeds collected from Rhode Island and other parts of Ecoregion 59.
(Ecoregion 59 includes all of Rhode Island; most of Connecticut and Massachusetts; and sections of Long Island, NY, New Hampshire, and coastal Maine. It is one of 105 ecoregions mapped on the continental United States by the Environmental Protection Agency to designate areas that share largely similar environmental conditions and plant genetics.)
“Over time, we hope the project will create an abundance of seeds so we don’t have to rely on seeds from other ecoregions,” said Peter Lacouture, RIWPS President. Trustees Dave Vissoe and Sue Theriault hammered out the proposal with trustees Brian Maynard, a URI professor of plant sciences, Peggy Buttenbaum, Dick Fisher, Sally Johnson, and Mary O’Connor
“Seed Starters has long felt the need to propagate more from locally sourced seeds, but our seed sources were limited,” said Buttenbaum. “We’ve purchased some seeds from New England sources and even some from midwestern suppliers in order to provide a diverse selection of native plants at our sales.”
The Forerunner: Rhody Native
‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ builds on the work of Hope Leeson, the botanist who coordinated ‘Rhody Native.’ Rhody Native was launched in 2009 by the Rhode Island Natural History Survey in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service. It was part of a $673,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act designed to help revive the economy. The real estate crash of 2008 had left many landscapers out of work; meanwhile, the Forest Service needed to get rid of the invasive species taking over its forestlands.
“The idea …was to train landscapers to recognize and remove invasive plants and give them an extra line of business to make them more secure in the future,” said David Gregg, the executive director of RINHS. The Forest Service found, however, that once the invasives were removed, “there weren’t any native nurseries and garden centers.”
Over the years, Hope Leeson taught volunteers how to identify and collect seeds of wild species and the nuances of their propagation. Rhody Native supplied plants to restoration projects and public gardens, including the native plant garden at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown. Before the Rhody Native project came to an end in 2020, Leeson and her volunteers had collected seeds of about 120 species of native perennials, grasses and sedges, shrubs, trees, and vines from which they grew thousands of plugs and plants at RINHS facilities at URI’s East Farm in South Kingstown. Leeson said, “We were trying to focus on species common to different habitats, so that people doing coastal or wetland restoration, or working with drought conditions, or creating some kind of pollinator garden would have the right plants.”
The ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ Initiative
To set up the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative, the RIWPS board signed a $25,000 contract with Shannon Kingsley, a young ethnobotanist, who will organize the seed collection process this spring. “She will determine how and where seeds will be collected, obtain permits from landowners, help us narrow down the number of species we will work with, then harvest the seeds in a timely fashion,” said Vissoe. The process will adhere to the Bureau of Land Management’s ‘Seeds of Success’ protocols, set up to protect wild plant populations while enhancing genetic diversity. Along with the original $25,000 funding, the board approved an additional $2,000 for expenses, including the cost of a GPS tracker and supplies for cleaning and growing the seed into plugs.
Buttenbaum emphasized the importance of education in this new project. “When the botanist goes into the field, she will be accompanied by volunteers who will be learning as they work.” Leeson, who now teaches at the Rhode Island School of Design, has begun to share her experience and data, including locations for collection sites, with Kingsley and the Reseeding RI team. RIWPS member Beth Dickson, who has a doctorate in botany and collects seeds of rare plants as a volunteer for the Native Plant Trust and plants for the Brown University Herbarium, has also offered to meet with Kingsley and help with the project.
Reseeding Rhode Island is modeled after The Ecotype Project for Pollinator Health, set up in 2019 by The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Connecticut (CTNOFA). It was created in response to insect populations plummeting from loss of habitat as well as to meet the need for local ecotypic native plants. Funded with two consecutive $75,000 USDA Specialty Crop Block Grants over four years, this project’s ‘specialty’ crops are native species that provide food and habitat for pollinators. Planted on organic farms, these plants, grown from wild-collected seed, have vastly improved food crop production.
The Ecotype Project relies on trained field botanists to sustainably collect the seed from wild plant populations. SOS collection protocols require finding a population of at least 50 plants to ensure a diverse gene pool in the seeds. “When we collect, we want a wide representation of all the genes in that population,” said Goerdie Elkins, lead seed collector for The Ecotype Project team speaking for a You Tube video.“We don’t collect from a few plants but across the whole spectrum of plants, all the while not over-collecting, sometimes taking seed from 5 percent and never more than 20 percent of the plants.”
Volunteers then clean and grow the seeds into plugs, and organic farmers plant the plugs on ‘founder plots.’ Each plot is planted with about 200 plugs of a single species, and each farmer plants at least three plots – one with a spring-blooming species, another with a summer-bloomer, and a third with a fall bloomer – to feed pollinators throughout the growing season.
These founder plots produce thousands of F1 generation seeds—the first generation harvested from plants grown from wild seed. The farmers can sell the seeds directly or to a farmer-led seed collective, Eco59. The seed can then be sold to gardeners, conservationists, and nurseries that are looking to grow locally sourced native plants.
“I think we’re on the F4 generation now at Kettle Pond,” said Vissoe, who co- leads that project [now under the auspices of U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Master Gardener Program] with Master Gardener Erin Beuka. “But some of those original plants don’t necessarily make it through the years. So, we’re constantly reinvigorating the garden with new plants of the same species … adding plugs from the wild.” These gardens and restoration areas produce thousands of ecotype seed, which can then be propagated. “The Kettle Pond native plant garden produces about 6,000 new plants a year,” said Vissoe. He envisions possible variations on The Ecotype Project model for Reseeding Rhode Island. He has talked about growing founder plots with some organic farmers and farmers who use sustainable methods on their land. Other possible sites could include URI’s East Farm, the Crandall Narragansett Tribal Farm in Westerly, land trusts, and private lands.
The key is finding a location with enough distance from related species or cultivars to avoid potential cross- pollinating and thus contaminating the straight species. The plots also need to be free of pesticides, including any pesticides that might blow in from adjacent fields or orchards.
Steven Alm, an entomologist at URI, would like to find a site for a founder’s plot at East Farm. “But we have apple trees here, which are sprayed, so we have to find areas we’re not spraying,” said Dr. Alm, who would love to see more habitat for native bees. “Of the 11 species of bumble bees that we know were here from historical records, we have found only six of them. That’s a huge pollination loss.”
Pollination loss was a key motivator for CTNOFA’s Executive Director, Dina Brewster, who planted the first seven founder plots for The Ecotype Project at The Hickories, her organic farm in Ridgefield, CT. “We have lost 74 percent of our insect abundance since 1976,” she said. Now, she says, those plots of native plants are “vibrating with pollinators and bees.” And so are her crops. “Those bugs are making juicier tomatoes, working alongside me.”
The Ecotype Project is currently growing 17 different plant species on 11 properties (nine farms, one land trust and one nursery); the number of species will increase to 25 this year, said Sefra Alexandra, the project coordinator. And thus far, she estimates, “there are upwards of nine million seeds coming out of the native seed supply chain we have established.”
Alexandra, who spoke at RIWPS’s annual meeting in March, is a Fellow for the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which oversees the worldwide seed banking network. She holds a master’s degree in agroecological education from Cornell University, and her “BOATanical Expeditions” paddle New England’s rivers, planting local ecotypes along riparian corridors and raising funds for The Ecotype Project.
Alexandra emphasized the importance of genetic material that is ecoregional: “When we take the genetics from another place, typically seeds and plants from large nurseries in the Midwest, it shifts the bloom time and all these adaptations that have been going on since time immemorial. “You see the nuances of speciation even within five feet of collecting seeds. So from New England to Minnesota, even within the same species, there are massive inherent differences.”
Finding grants is crucial to the development of the ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative. Vissoe recently met with Ghyllian Conley and Max Weinstein, soil conservationists at the state office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in Warwick. “They suggested funding that would go directly to the farmers growing the founder plots,” said Vissoe. “They’re excited about this being a great pollinator source for the farmers.”
The ‘Reseeding Rhode Island’ initiative intends to collect seed of 21 local species in 2022. Volunteers would process the seeds and grow plugs for 21 founder plots. Vissoe is exploring the possibility of working with URI to grow plugs from wild-collected seed, as well as retooling the old greenhouse once used by Rhody Native at East Farm.
An exact species list has yet to be made. Trustee Sally Johnson, an early proponent of developing sources for locally grown seed, has suggested that RIWPS grow species different from those being grown by The Ecotype Project, “If we collected a different set of 20 or so species and each group recorded the same kind of data, we could create a collective database,” Johnson said.
As Reseeding Rhode Island moves forward, it will be building on the knowledge gleaned by its predecessor. Rhody Native was an ambitious project, and an expensive one. “Hope harvested 120 different species, because we wanted to see what was there and what there was a market for, what was easy to propagate versus hard to propagate,” said Gregg.
The Ecotype Project, in contrast, started out focusing on a handful of familiar species within Ecoregion59. “We started with species we knew were readily available to nursery trade,” said Elkins, the operations director of Highstead, a conservation foundation with 200 acres in Reading, CT. “Plants that are available to homeowners and ones that they’re familiar with that also benefit pollinators. We didn’t want to get obscure plants nobody had heard of.”
Initially, Leeson set out to collect seed of a particular species in three distinct ecoregions in Rhode Island—Northwest, the East Bay and the South Coast—so that the propagated plugs and plants could then be planted back in the same area (even more local than Ecoregion59). “But it was so time-consuming to go to each area, to keep the collections separate and organized,” said Leeson. It was also a challenge training volunteers.
“Hope knew exactly what she was looking for, the right seed when it was ripe, but volunteers would get the wrong seed sometimes, or it wouldn’t be ripe,” said Gregg. Some wild species themselves are a challenge. “You can go out to collect little bluestem and get a pile of it in no time, but turtlehead ripens only one seed at a time,” slowing collection down.
Gregg estimates the annual cost of Rhody Native was about $100,000, which paid for Leeson’s salary and benefits, a part-time propagator, and expenses for labor and supplies. The return, Leeson estimates, was about $30,000. After its first federal grant ran out in 2012, RINHS kept Rhody Native going with additional grants and paid local nurseries to grow plants for large projects. “But once the money ran out for contract growing, no commercial grower was interested in taking it on,” said Gregg.
“Hope was ahead of her time,” said Vissoe. But it’s a different time now, informed by lessons learned from Rhody Native and a growing body of data and experience from The Ecotype Project. In a recent email to Vissoe, Leeson wrote, “I can’t tell you how good that makes me feel, knowing that the seeds have been sown and others are there to propagate them and carry on the work.”
Update June 27, 2022
Since the article was written, the Reseeding RI Steering Committee has identified a targeted and alternative species list for this project. RIWPS Botanist Shannon Kingsley has begun to identify the location of populations of these species in the wild and is seeking permission to gather seeds at these locations. Much appreciation to the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, RI DEM and Hope Leeson for their help and support with this endeavor!
Also, We anticipate ample and varied opportunities for volunteers at each stage of the project as it gets fully underway. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest in helping us with this exciting adventure.