Every spring I look forward to seeing the whitish patches that start creeping across open grassy areas. No, it’s not the last of the snow, but a tiny, very light blue flower known by a variety of names.
This article by Garry Plunkett originally appeared in the RIPWS publication, WildFloraRI, Spring 2019. Photos by Garry and Virginia Plunkett
The word “meadow” brings to mind fields of open grassland, dappled with wildflowers bending to the wind in rolling waves across the horizon. Those inviting images frequented gardening publications twenty-five years ago, about the time I was figuring out my meadow. I was all in, transfixed by a patch of grass that hearkened back to the bluestem prairies of my native Oklahoma.
I actually did not create my meadow. Our two-acre house lot was part of a hay meadow in a subdivision that broke up one of the last working “Providence Plantations.” Winnisimet Farm had the classic look of what was once a common scene across New England—fields of grasses divided by a grid of fieldstone walls. Those hayfield grasses were typically a mix of Old World, “cool-season” species originally brought to America by settlers for livestock fodder. It was known as English hay. Today, those species are still prominent in open fields and pasturelands, including bluegrass, orchard grass, perennial rye, velvet grass, timothy, and meadow fescue. They were on the house lot and still grow in my meadow today. The house was surrounded with conventional suburban landscaping, but I kept a back acre of hay meadow next to a stone wall as a bit of nostalgia from the old farm.
A couple of years had passed when I first noticed changes, new colors sprinkled among the blanket of green. Henry David Thoreau was the first to coin a term for what was unfolding— natural succession. Thoreau recorded a predictable progression of plants he saw appearing in fallow fields around his Concord home. Broad-leaf plants came first, then brambles and deciduous thickets. Ultimately, if left untended long enough, succession will produce New England’s climax community, a temperate forest.
My backyard succession brought squadrons of goldenrod, milkweed, evening primrose, St. John’s wort, buttercup, stitchwort—something new every season. This was happening about the time meadows were a popular topic in gardening circles. RIWPS was passing out “No Mow” stickers at the spring flower show and offering “meadows in a flat” at plant sales. The meadow bubble eventually burst, but I kept my meadow and have also stewarded large conservation grasslands. Both experiences provided reality checks for what can work in a grassland, and what does not.
Most people would not get a meadow gift-wrapped as I did, but must either abandon weekly mowing of a lawn, or start from scratch and plant a seed mix. Yes, one can simply stop mowing an area of lawn and voila! a meadow is born. Turf grasses are like forage grasses, cool-season species that, if left uncut, will grow vigorously in the spring and into early summer. They can grow to about three feet, flower in May, and go to seed in June.
A pure, cool-season grass meadow can certainly be visually appealing with its changing hues and textures in varying light, wind, and moisture conditions. But it does run out of gas in summer, turn brown, and go dormant. The meadow then begins to look scraggly—the perfect time for mowing. The vegetative structure is light and dry, so a garden tractor is adequate for mowing at a slow speed with the mower deck at maximum height. Extra reverse-direction mowing will produce a light, straw-like fluff that disappears after a couple weeks. The cut field will green up later and grow to about a foot high, but without re-flowering. An additional mowing in early spring, as the grass begins to grow, is useful for weed control as it exposes encroaching woodies and invasive plants that typically emerge early.
An alternative to the lawn-to-meadow conversion is the complete do-over: plowing up the sod, preparing the soil, and planting a meadow seed mix. This method permits one to choose actual meadow grass species and to mix in flower seed at the outset, but it is an arduous task . Methodical soil preparation to kill weed roots and seeds in the soil bank is very important. Done properly, with a seed mix specifically chosen for our bioregion, it can produce spectacular results—for a year or two. But alas, succession inevitably begins to change the meadow.
Some volunteer plants are desirable, such as goldenrod and milkweed,as they colonize into attractive patches. (Dare I say two-foot high dandelions will add bright yellows?) Others are not desirable, like common tansy and knapweed, both aggressive aliens that outcompete natives and reduce diversity. The key is early identification of the undesirables, and early removal.This is a rigorous process, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “forget it,” as in don’t even think of trying. Long-term success is possible with diligent soil preparation and a good seed mix from reputable sources. Then, expect dynamic changes. Better yet, celebrate them! I planted an area with a seed mix twenty years ago, and it was great fun watching the successes, failures, and surprises as the planted patch blended into the surrounding area with its own unique character.
It’s reasonable to wonder about the validity of establishing a meadow in New England. Our native grasslands are generally wetlands—salt marshes and “fresh meadows” (riparian flood plains, fens, and reedy marshes). All are threatened communities in need of protection but are not practical for individual landscapes. So, is something that is hardly a natural plant community, is a chore to establish, and needy to maintain worth the effort?
It is. So, let me count the ways:
- If they replace turf, meadows can host many native pollinators and reduce the pollution associated with lawns.
- They can be an attractive transition between a lawn and a woodland.
- They can function as a mini- ecotone, increasing backyard biodiversity (Who else has twinkling fireflies on warm summer nights?).
- They preserve a bit of New England pastoral history.
- Properly maintained, they can be a beautiful native wildflower display.
(It should be added that large conservation grasslands are critically important habitat for threatened ground-nesting bird species.)
Managing succession by methodically allowing a meadow to evolve into an “old field” will add beauty and environmental value. Volunteers will appear, adding colors, textures, and spatial patterns. Evening primrose, cinquefoil, cow vetch, Queen Anne’s lace, red clover, yarrow, chicory, and fall asters were welcome in my meadow— lots of flowers free of charge! Selectively controlling volunteer wildflowers to favor native species and desired locations refines the natural process. Planting additional natives that can survive competition from grasses will add further visual interest.
There can be no specific road map or species list for doing meadows because much depends on site conditions—soil, moisture, surrounding area vegetation, and land history, to name a few. I would, however, offer these general recommendations:
- Hand-pull undesirables early and often to control invasives and manage desirable volunteers (most easily done when soil is rain- saturated and soft).
- Favor late-season bloomers to accommodate mid-season grass mowing—asters, Joe-Pye weed, ironweed, black-eyed Susans.
- Locate flowers around meadow edges or in islands to facilitate mowing.
- Avoid fall mowing, as it removes highly desirable winter cover, food for over-wintering birds, and attractive winter textures and colors.
- Dig deep, wide oversized holes when planting potted perennials— competition in a meadow is fiercer than in a flowerbed.
- When strolling in your meadow, bring gloves—there’s always something to pull!
Finally, add the coup de grâce of a beautiful, environmentally impactful meadow: warm-season grasses. They are everything that cool-season grasses are not—native, drought-resistant, and exuberant in late summer, plus they have an amazing ability to retain structure and attractive tawny colors over the winter. (They also are excellent for conservation grasslands, because they are bunch grasses that have better structure for grassland nesting birds compared to rhizomatous spreading cool-season grasses.)
Warm-season grasses include switchgrass, broomsedge bluestem, Indian grass, big and little bluestem. They dominated the vast prairies of the Midwest, and some are found in New England, often where soils are nutrient-poor and dry. In my experience switchgrass and big bluestem are the best species for planting where there is strong competition from established cool- season grasses. But all warm-season grasses do well in well-drained, nutrient-poor soils, such as upper edges of salt marshes, roadsides, and South County’s glacial moraine.
Tackling a meadow in a bioregion where nature really would prefer a forest just might fall into the “if-it’s- easy-it-ain’t-worth-doing” category. Indeed, meadows are not for wimps. But they are rewarding for those willing to make the long-term investment in hands-on, up-close-and-personal stewardship. John Burroughs is credited with the saying, “To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” Caring for my meadow has drawn me down a meadow path practically every day for 30 years, and I continue to learn new things about it and about the natural world outside my back door.
— This review by Anne Raver first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2019
Robin Law Kimmerer begins Braiding Sweetgrass with the story of Skywoman, who falls from a hole in the Skyworld, clutching a bundle of branches with many fruits and seeds. She hurtles downward, in a shaft of light, where there was only darkness before, toward the murky water below. Many eyes in the sea are watching, and geese rise up to break her fall, holding her in their soft feathers. A great turtle offers his back for her to step upon, a muskrat dives deep into the water to bring a handful of mud from the depths below. Skywoman spreads the mud on the turtle’s shell, scatters the seeds in her hand, and dances the world from brown to green.
Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizens Potawatomi Nation, combines science and the knowledge of her indigenous ancestors to contemplate the devastation that we humans, particularly descendants of the first white settlers, have wrought since first setting foot in the so-called New World (which, as Kimmerer points out, was only new to Europeans and other immigrants; to native inhabitants, it was as ancient as the creation story).
Kimmerer is a distinguished professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, NY, where she also founded and directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment. The center works with tribal partners and students to integrate traditional ecological knowledge with scientific research for restoration and sustainability projects.
Kimmerer also is a poet and a storyteller, and Braiding Sweetgrass weaves together many threads– stories of her childhood, of her own children, of her graduate students, of desecrated lands and healed ones—with the page-turning power of a beautifully written novel. At the same time, her mind, sharpened by both science and the observational skills of her tribal elders, is constantly analyzing the particulars of any given situation, be it the near extinction of wild salmon in the Northwest, or the chemical toxins that Allied Chemical poured into Onondaga Lake, or the day her daughter refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school. (Kimmerer recalls her own childhood participation in the puzzling ritual, with its reference to God and the republic: “And you didn’t have to be an eight-year-old Indian to know that ‘liberty and justice for all’ was a questionable premise.”)
As a Potawatomi, Kimmerer considers plants and animals her teachers; she was listening to the trees long before scientists discovered how they communicate through pheromones in the air and mycorrhizae, a vast symbiosis of fungi and roots beneath the forest floor. Sweetgrass, or “wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth,” was one of the plants that Skywoman clutched in her hand, the day she fell out of that hole in the sky. It was a gift, just like all the other plants, just like the land itself, to be passed from hand to hand shared but never sold. A metaphor for sharing and reciprocity, rather than taking from the earth and others, Sweetgrass calls for a radical shift in consciousness.
As a teacher and activist, Kimmerer offers many examples of people working together to restore balance to the earth—to bring back salmon to their spawning grounds, to restore polluted lakes and salt marshes, to simply learn to listen to the plants and animals.
— This article by Deidre Robinson, Wenley Ferguson and Steve Reinert first appeared in WildforaRI, Spring 2019
If you’ve never experienced the sunrise over a salt marsh, inhaling the distinctive fragrance of hydrogen sulfide given off by decomposing smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) and hearing the dawn chorus of marsh birds, you might want to explore one sooner rather than later. The marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate.
The saltmarsh sparrow is an obligate salt marsh specialist, living only in the marshes along the east coast of the United States. Rhode Island provides critical habitat for several small pockets of this threatened species, whose population has plummeted by 75 percent since the 1990s. With accelerating sea level rises, tidal marsh losses of 0.5 to 1.5 percent annually are predicted, likely dooming this bird to extinction by 2040.
We first spotted this sparrow at Jacob’s Point Salt Marsh in Warren on a steamy July day in 2016 while conducting a survey of breeding birds for the Rhode Island Bird Atlas. She was stealthily returning to her nest to incubate four small eggs. Rather than fly directly to the nest and possibly reveal its location to a predator, she lands in a patch of salt meadow several meters from the nest, then zigzags through the grasses running much like a mouse, a strategy that has worked well for it for millennia.
Locating an active nest of this threatened species is always cause for celebration, but we had discovered a bird that had been previously banded–an extraordinary bonus. Contacting the Bird Banding Laboratory at the US Geological Survey in Laurel, MD, we learned that she had been banded in Florida in the fall of 2015. She had likely hatched at Jacob’s Point that spring, over-wintered in Florida, and returned to breed in Rhode Island the following summer. Weighing the equivalent of just three nickels, she made the arduous round-trip of 1440 miles and now holds the record for the longest migration distance for her species.
This discovery launched the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative (SSRI), a local citizen-science project to document the breeding ecology of this vulnerable bird. With permission from the Warren Land Conservation Trust (WLCT) to access its marsh property, we began a five-year comprehensive study of the sparrow, including documenting changes in the marsh flora and measuring the elevation of nests, which are increasingly vulnerable to flooding. (Read much more about our research on www.SALSri.org.)
During the first two years of our study, we banded 88 adult saltmarsh sparrows and found 101 nestlings. We also documented the elevation and surrounding vegetation for each of the 56 nests we located. We found that nests are increasingly subject to flooding, a finding consistent with other studies that report rising tides as the major threat to this species, which cannot survive in any other habitat.
This obligate species thrives in a healthy salt meadow community of Spartina for nesting, intermixed with saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), saltmarsh rush (Juncus gerardii) and maritime marsh- elder (Iva frutescens). Its breeding strategy is one of promiscuity, with males often perching on the marsh-elder to scan for females. (Typically, nests contain eggs fertilized by two to three different males.) The male is simply the sperm donor, who copulates with as many females as possible; the female is responsible for nest-building and feeding her young. She removes their fecal sacs and hunts for invertebrates in the grasses and water pools within close range of her nest. Nestlings must grow rapidly to develop from naked hatchlings to fully- feathered young birds, strong enough to climb out of the nest to higher ground or perhaps onto a marsh-elder before the flooding tides occur.
Nests have a domed canopy, which does help keep eggs from flooding out of the nest at high tides. The birds need about 26 days from nest construction until fledging, and lunar flood tides happen at least once every 28 days; this leaves very little margin for survival. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests. By measuring the elevation of all the nests, we hope to determine how high above sea level they must be for eggs and nestlings to survive.
The ebb and flow of the tides are vital to the health of the salt marsh and thus the survival of the sparrows. At the southern end of Jacobs Point, tidal flow was greatly restricted by old stone culverts that had collapsed under an elevated roadbed built in the 1930s. Without the flushing of salt water, Phragmites australis, a highly invasive common reed, had spread into the marsh. Increasingly, marshes are also flooding before the peak high tides and again at mid-cycle, which dooms many nests.
Working with the Land Trust, Wenley Ferguson of Save The Bay acquired funding in 2009 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the Coastal Resource Management Council to oversee the design and installation of three new culverts. These arched culverts have increased tidal flow and created saltier water and less suitable conditions for Phragmites by flushing out the nutrient-rich runoff it thrives in. The culverts also drained standing water from the southern high marsh, where the saltmarsh sparrow nests. However, standing water in the high marsh to the north was still killing off marsh grass and degrading the peat, thus destroying still more of the saltmarsh sparrow’s habitat.
Save The Bay documented similarly degraded high marsh in a region-wide assessment of salt marshes in 2012 to 2013. This widespread degradation is largely attributed to accelerated sea level rise. To deal with standing water in the salt marsh to the north, shallow creeks, called runnels, were dug by hand and with a low-ground- pressure excavator. The runnels now drain surface water off the marsh, and high marsh vegetation is recolonizing the bare areas. The Land Trust and Save The Bay obtained funds for this project from the Coastal Resource Management Council and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Another goal of this ongoing restoration effort is to protect a stand of native common reed, Phragmites americanus, from a highly aggressive stand of non- native Phragmites australis, which has expanded in the last two decades due to runoff from streets and development. Both Save The Bay and the Land Trust are meeting with property owners along Jacob’s Point to discuss better ways to keep storm water runoff from roofs and parking lots from reaching the marsh. Reducing runoff and restoring more of the high marsh habitat would give the saltmarsh sparrow a leg up in its race against sea rise.
In the first nesting cycle of 2017, only one nestling was strong enough to climb out of her nest before it flooded. After the Rhode Island state motto, we nicknamed her Hope. Her name also recalls the title of Emily Dickinson’s poem, which begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers…”
Authors Steve Reinert and Deirdre Robinson hold master’s degrees in Wildlife Sciences and Biology, respectively, from the University of Rhode Island. Both have spent decades studying birds on salt marshes in southeastern New England. At Jacob’s Point, Robinson and Reinert have worked with Wenley Ferguson, the Director of Habitat Restoration for Save The Bay, to help improve the ebb and flow of the tides through the salt marsh since the late 1990s.
One unexpected delight this September has been discovering the meadow bottle gentian, or gentiana clausa. Its deep violet flowers don’t open, remaining clusters of plump oval buds (I’ve seen as many as 22 on a single stem). Because the flowers stay closed, only “strong bees” can pollinate them.
- − This article by Marne Lacouture first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2020
The pitch pine forest has been an important but declining Rhode Island ecosystem since the days when fire maintained it. Pitch pine (Pinus rigida) is a fire-tolerant tree that thrives on nutrient-poor, dry soil often referred to as a pine barren. Its needles are in bundles of three, and its bark is thick and protective, able to sprout new growth after a fire. It can hold its cones for a long time, even years. Although some of the cones have a resinous coating that fire must melt to release the seeds, not all require fire. The dry, non-resinous cones release seeds that germinate in the warmth of the sun if not consumed by wildlife. Many birds and small mammals, including eastern towhees and red squirrels, eat them.
The pitch pine community, which includes scrub oak (Quercus ilicifolia), black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), common lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), hillside blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) and other members of the heath (Ericaceae) family, is important for biodiversity. It provides habitat for wildlife, including tiger beetles, whip-poor-will, woodcock, New England cottontail, and box turtle. Many small birds including warblers glean insects from under the bark and inside the cones. Sundial lupine (Lupinus perennis), rare in Rhode Island, and yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), both of which grow in these dry sandy conditions, are the only hosts for the larvae of the frosted elfin butterfly, which is listed as state-threatened.
Pine barrens in Rhode Island are found along the southern coast at Ninigret Wildlife Refuge in Charlestown; inland in Coventry, Exeter, and West Greenwich; and on Prudence Island at the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. Over the years shade-tolerant species such as white pine, oak, and maple have crowded out pitch pines; their needles and leaves create closed canopies in the forests and thick damp litter on the ground. Tanner Steeves, a Department of Environmental Management (DEM) wildlife biologist, used the term “overstocked forest” to describe this.
Most Rhode Island forests are 75 to 100 years old, he said—not young and not old. Restoring pitch pine barrens will add diversity.
In 2005 Rhode Island wrote its first Wildlife Action Plan, which allows the state to apply for federal grants. Steeves said that DEM has worked with the Natural History Survey and other environmental organizations to write the original plan and revise it in 2015.
Native Americans used fire to keep woodlands open for hunting and berry production. Early colonists burned large areas of forest to clear land for agriculture. More recently a friend recalled his grandmother burning the family cemetery plot each year. Now it has become risky to use fire as a land- maintenance tool, since development has encroached on much of our forestland. Together fire suppression and population growth have caused loss of pitch pine habitat. There were around 30,000 acres of pine barrens in Rhode Island before European settlement, but today only around 6,000 acres remain.
Forest fires are relatively rare in the East, where rainfall is plentiful, while drier conditions in the West have caused a build-up of debris resulting in raging fires that have destroyed houses and caused loss of life. Wildfires could also occur in the East during an extended drought, since over the years without fires, duff has built up on the forest floors. Recent winters that lacked snow cover, climate change with its warmer temperatures and sometimes violent storms, and insect damage that has killed large areas of trees may also be contributing factors.
In the spring of 2018 after years without fire, Nicholas Farm, a DEM property in Coventry, was the site of a prescribed burn on 25 acres over two non-consecutive days. The goal was to restore the overgrown pitch pine barren and also the adjacent meadow to encourage native warm-season grasses and pollinator-friendly wildflowers. A prescribed burn is sometimes called a controlled burn, but fire experts agree that this is misleading. A prescribed burn, the preferred term, is carried out according to an intricate plan written well ahead of the burn.
Northeast Forest and Fire Management, LLC (NE-FFM), headquartered in Sandwich, Massachusetts, works with state, federal and private landowners, and environmental organizations to restore habitat. It worked with DEM to write the plan for the Nicholas Farm burn, taking into consideration goals for restoration of the environment; specific weather conditions such as temperature, humidity, and wind direction and speed; the existence of rare species; and the safety of the community. The boundaries that form the burn unit were configured with plans for fire breaks, and the local fire chief signed off on the plan. About two years earlier, a contractor had removed the tall white pines, oaks, and maples using an excavator with a mulching head, or masticator. The wood was left on the ground to dry until spring of 2018 when conditions were right for the burn.
A prescribed burn is a team effort. The one at Nicholas Farm included expert firefighters and others from DEM and U.S. Fish and Wildlife, local Coventry firefighters, and employees from NE-FFM. Prescribed burns are kept low to the ground since a fire in the treetops could be disastrous. On the first day of the Nicholas Farm burn, the operation shut down early after humidity dropped and temperature rose, creating unsafe conditions. The second day went according to plan, and the burn was successful.
It is a sunny cold afternoon in mid-February of this year. Olney Knight, Forest Fire Program Coordinator with DEM stationed at the agency’s Arcadia Forestry Headquarters, leads my husband and me through the burned area at Nicholas Farm. Knight grew up in eastern Connecticut, volunteering as a junior member with local fire companies. He knows about fires, in particular the local wildfires that happened long before he was born. He tells fire stories like an old timer, belying his 33 years. At home in the woods, he strides easily through the thick understory of scrub oak and lowbush blueberry that benefited from an initial release of nutrients back to the soil. We follow along, struck by the sight of new growth from the trunks of the pitch pine that are black a foot or two up from the understory. The open canopy, which allows light to filter in, is stunning. The Southern pine beetle, a destructive pest found in Rhode Island, will not move from tree to tree as easily now, Knight explains, and its pheromones may not be as powerful in the airy canopy. Warm season grasses, mostly little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and switch panicgrass (Panicum virgatum), have grown in the fire-blackened meadow and glow in the winter light. Common milkweed [Asclepias syriaca] came in last summer, Knight says with satisfaction.
For the restored pitch pine barren at Nicholas Farm to remain viable, future burns will be needed. After several longtime DEM foresters with fire knowledge and experience retired, Knight has relied on help from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forestry Service. He hopes to fill an open position at DEM, but hiring is stalled for now. If spring conditions cooperate this year, there may be a couple more prescribed burns on state land, but first plans must be written and funding sourced. Meanwhile Knight’s attitude is philosophical as he muses aloud, “I spend a lot of time wondering what these forests want to be.”
Kuffner, Alex. (May 18, 2018) “What in Blazes? They’re burning R.I. Forests, Turning Back the Clock.” The Providence Journal. Available: https://www. providencejournal.com/news/20180518/ what-in-blazes-theyre-burning-ri-forests- turning-back-clock–video
Gucker, Corey L. 2007. Pinus rigida. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/ tree/pinrig/all.html [ 2020, March 4 ].
Rhode Island Wildlife Action Plan (2015): http://www.dem.ri.gov/programs/fish- wildlife/wildlifehuntered/swap15.php
Cronon, William. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England. Hill and Wang, 1983.
Entrup, Alex. (2018, No.1) “A Prescription for Fire.” Massachusetts Wildlife, Vol. 68, pp. 18-24.
Wildlife-friendly gardens and pollinator gardens are becoming more and more popular, driving a demand for native plants. And the horticultural industry is responding with a huge selection of “redesigned” native plants, cultivars of the native species.
A few years ago Charlestown Elementary School chose Outdoor Learning as a focus. The site was to include a short existing trail that ran through the woods, a large sand area and the parking lot.
On June 3, 2009, Fran Under wood and I explored a bog in northern RI. We found Arethusa (Arethusa bulbosa—State endangered) an orchid that blooms in early June.
In our wilder areas, spring bloomers open their petals to the sun, a welcome reminder of the inexorable cycle of nature, at least as long as there are wild places for them.