Asian Jumping Worm

This article by Pat Foley first appeared our publication WildforaRI, Spring 2022

What are they? 

Adult Jumping worm, Photo Revell Sandberg-Diment.

Members of the species Amynthas agrestis, Amynthas tokioensis, and Metophire hilgendorfi have been colloquially called Asian Jumping Worms. Other common references are: Georgia or Alabama Jumper, Jersey Wriggler, Crazy Snake-Worm and Wood Eel. 

They range in size based on age and environment but four to five inches long seems a typical adult size, so within the size range of other species referred to as “earthworms.” The so-called “jumping worms” are primarily distinguishable by their very vigorous flailing when disturbed. Undisturbed, they move side-to-side, with a snakelike motion. 

Why are they a concern? 

Earthworms, generally, have been considered beneficial to gardens because they break down decaying organic matter and make it available as plant nutrition. However, there have been no earthworms native to northeastern forests since the last ice age, according to studies. Since current northeastern forest biology evolved without earthworms, all present species cause some damage, by consuming the duff layer of the forest floor. 

The jumping worms are particularly destructive because of their high reproduction rates, ability to live in very dense clusters, voracious appetites, and large dry castings that are inhospitable to plants and soil organisms. 

How did they get to Rhode Island? 

Worms of these Asian species originated in Japan and Korea. Documented sightings in American nurseries and arboreta date to the late 19th century and available studies speculate their introduction dates to the earliest shipments of ornamental plants from those countries in the latter 1800s. 

Despite their prolific reproduction, no definitive scientific evidence accounts for their relatively recent emergence as an invasive of concern. Speculation suggests a warming climate, continued trade in ornamental plants from host countries, internet shipping of the worms for use as bait in sport fishing, and the very portable nature of the tiny cocoons that overwinter through extremely cold temperatures. 

Approximately half the United States has identified or is soon likely to identify infestations. Early infestations, particularly in southeastern states have spread northward and westward. 

How to locate and control them? 

The RI Department of Environmental Management has no policy concerning the control of jumping worms. “Unfortunately, it’s not one of the priority pests we look for, and we have no authority to do anything about them,” said Cynthia Kwolek, a senior environmental planner in the Cooperative Agricultural Pest Survey (CAPS), which monitors introduced pests in the state. 

“They do seem pretty destructive,” she said. “People are calling to say they have jumping worms in mulch that they’ve purchased.” 

So, gardeners need to practice their own diligence in identifying them. Jumping worms, once established— which might only require a season or two—give strong evidence of their presence: 

• They appear to not burrow like other earthworms, but live in leaf litter, compost, and under stones and plant pots 

• They are often found in large groups 

• Their vigorous movements easily distinguish them from other earthworms 

• Close examination reveals several distinctive physical characteristics related to color and the placement and appearance of the clitellum band 

• Soil in infested areas is very grainy and coarse, described as ground taco meat or Grape Nuts cereal in appearance. 

• Affected forests lose native flowers and young saplings and are dominated by Jack-in-the-pulpit, ferns and grasses, plants not harmed by jumping worm activity. 

Can we stop them? 

Jumping worms are subject to predator control in their native range, but introducing those organisms here likely would entail other risks and outcomes 

Currently, no definitive prevention or management program exists, but there are steps we can take to reduce damage and delay the worms’ spread. A Cornell University Extension program offers this advice: 

• Do not buy or use jumping worms for bait, vermicomposting, or gardening. 

• When purchasing bulk mulch or compost, use a reputable producer that has heat-treated the material to a temperature of 130°F for at least three days to destroy the cocoons or purchase bagged mulch. 

• Check your property for jumping earthworms using a mustard pour (it won’t harm your plants). Mix a gallon of water with 1/3 cup of ground yellow mustard seed and pour slowly into the soil. This will drive any worms to the surface where you can easily remove them. 

• Cocoons are sensitive to heat and can be destroyed with clear plastic solarization; in late spring or summer, cover moistened soil with a sheet of transparent polyethylene for two to three weeks or until the soil temperature exceeds 104°F for at least three days. 

• Be careful when sharing and moving plants; always check for worms and know where your plantings come from; buy bare root stock when possible. 

• If you have a small population of jumping worms, handpick and destroy them by bagging them and throwing them in the trash, or place them in a bag and leave out in the sun for at least 10 minutes; then throw the bag away. 

• Research is currently being conducted on invasive worms at the University of Wisconsin and several practices do show some promise of control. Abrasive materials such as biochar (ground up charcoal) and diatomaceous earth (fossilized diatoms) may kill adult jumping worms. Incorporate one of these products into the infested soil to a depth where the worms are located. 

What else should I know? 

RIWPS is developing a policy and procedures for safeguarding the plants we sell. Volunteers will be educated about the worms—their appearance and life cycle. Any plants dug from the ground will have their roots cleaned and be potted in sterile potting soil. These practices should minimize the chance of spread. 

Resources

There is very useful information online from federal, state and local government sources; partnerships; and councils or task forces. Some are cited below: 

USDA National Invasive Species Information Center: https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/invertebrates/asian-jumping-worm 

National Park Service Northeast Temperate Network Inventory & Monitoring Program: https://irma.nps.gov/DataStore/DownloadFile/603161 

Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station: https://portal.ct.gov/-/media/CAES/DOCUMENTS/Publications/Fact_Sheets/Entomology/Jumping-worms-in-Connecticut.pdf 

UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry Program: https://ag.umass.edu/landscape/fact-sheets/jumpingcrazysnake-worms-amynthas-spp 

Cornell Cooperative Extension: http://warren.cce.cornell.edu/gardening-landscape/warren-county-master-gardener-articles/invasive-asian-jumping-earthworms 

Jumping Worm Outreach, Research & Management Working Group: https://www.wnyprism.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/05/JWORM-Homeowner-Guide-Jumping-Worms-Accessible-Version-2021.pdf 

Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management: https://www.wnyprism.org/invasive_species/jumping-worms/ 

Urban Wild

This article by April Alix first appeared in WildfloraRI, Spring 2022.

Throughout history, especially here in New England during the Industrial Revolution, cities popped up along waterways consolidating the population into a small area. City dwellers needed to get outdoors and enjoy nature, so public parks sprang up as havens for residents as well as urban wildlife.

Cindy Corsair, a U.S.Fish and Wildlife biologist, with students from the George J. West Elementary School, celebrating the first certified schoolyard habitat in Providence. Photo by Providence Urban Partnership.

Now, 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas. How can they develop a meaningful connection to nature? Here in Rhode Island, the Providence Urban Partnership was formed in 2013 as a collaborative between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), the Providence Parks Department, and the non-profit Partnership for Providence Parks. This Urban Partnership focuses on connecting children and their families to nature in the city using parks and green spaces as outdoor learning areas. It creates the opportunity for them to experience the local flora and fauna and to develop a sense of appreciation and respect for nature in their neighborhoods.

By understanding the importance of these urban ecosystems and their role as stewards within them, Providence residents learn to advocate for positive changes that benefit both people and natural habitats throughout the city. The revitalization of schoolyards in Providence has made nature accessible to Providence students for in-school and afterschool learning and exploration. Working with the Audubon Society of Rhode Island and the USFWS, two valuable resources have been created and are available online. They are the “Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide,” a step-by-step guide for designing and planting a schoolyard habitat, and the “Schoolyard Habitat Resource Guide for K-6 Educators,” which suggests programs for outdoor classrooms. Local schoolyards, including one at the George J. West Elementary School, are getting a ‘habitat make-over’ with the installation of native plants that attract a variety of wildlife. These schoolyard habitats allow students hands-on learning about local species and the importance of conservation, as well as bringing nature to the neighborhood.

Providence is also home to many community gardens, which include plantings along their borders accessible to the public. These include native plants, such as milkweed (Asclepias sp.) with seeds that fly off on bits of white fluff from unusual seed pods or small bayberry (Morella caroliniensis) with waxy seeds and leaves that are delightfully fragrant when crushed. There may be plants that attract birds and pollinators such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata), with bright red berries, and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), a favorite of hummingbirds when it blooms in the spring. Students, like the second graders from Kizarian Elementary School, explore the plants surrounding the community garden at Father Lennon Park to find insects and other invertebrates, while learning about the interconnectedness of plants, animals, and humans within the urban ecosystem.

Creating healthy habitats in urban areas is critical, not just for the well-being of both human and wild residents, but also for the migrating species that use city greenspaces as stop-over points during their long journeys. Providence is one of 30 Urban Bird Treaty Cities, designated by the USFWS Migratory Bird Program. A Treaty City is committed to restoring, enhancing, and protecting habitats for birds while engaging communities in the effort. The Providence Parks Department’s landscape architects incorporate bird habitat enhancement in their plans. Station Park, for instance, at the entrance to the downtown Amtrak Station, has been planted with native species that provide habitat, including food for migrating birds. Signs explaining the importance of these natural spaces, and how to help are posted in the park.

Whether you live in Providence or are a visitor, plan to spend time this summer exploring some of the 120 parks throughout the city. Riverside Park, besides having a robust community garden, is home to a fish ladder that helps fish migrate upstream through the Woonasquatucket River. The Roger Williams Park Edible Forest Garden is a habitat-rich, food-producing space modeled after a woodland ecosystem. Neutaconkanut Hill features hiking trails through 88 acres of woods, fields and wildflower meadows. At Davis Park, pollinators thrive in the gardens across from the playground. (Learn more about parks in Providence )

Native Bees vs. Honey Bees: Which Ones Do We Really Need to Save?

This article by Ann Brouillette first appeared in Wildflora RI, Spring 2022.

Honey bees are everywhere. You sometimes see their hives on conservation land, at nature centers, and even in people’s backyards. They are not native but agriculture in North America is dependent on them for pollinating crops. This is because our native bee populations are simply too small to adequately pollinate crops raised using today’s farming methods. There are an estimated 2.8 million honey bee colonies with about 30,000 bees per colony in the United States, according to entomologist Alison McAfee. What effect do all these honey bees have on our native bees?

I posed this question to Dr. Robert Gegear, professor of Biology at UMass Dartmouth who studies pollinators, especially bumble bees, and runs Beecology, a citizen science project to gather data about pollinators so that we can “effectively develop conservation and restoration strategies for threatened species.” He said, “Honey bees do have negative effects by passing diseases and depleting floral resources (competition).”

Research shows that the effect of honey bees on native bees, though hard to quantify, is generally negative. McAfee, in a Scientific American article, explains, “Honey bees are extreme generalist foragers and monopolize floral resources, thus leading to exploitative competition— that is, where one species uses up a resource, not leaving enough to go around.”

Competition doesn’t just reduce pollen and nectar. In one study, scientists James Cane and Vincent Tepedino found that it also forces native bees to travel farther and forage over a larger area. This weakens them and leads to fewer and smaller offspring. They produce fewer daughters and more sons, further reducing their population. Weakened bees are less likely to live over the winter and are more susceptible to diseases and parasites carried by honey bees and other managed bees.

Another problem is that honey bees sometimes prefer to forage on non- native invasive plants, pollinating them as they feed, encouraging them to proliferate, crowding out the native flora so necessary to native bees. Where invasive plants take over native habitat, we “risk a mass simplification and homogenization of … flora and fauna,” which would lead to the extinction of numerous native species, Dave Goulson points out in Silent Earth. He goes on to say that studies of crop pollination have found that “pollination is more reliable and more resilient over time when more species are present.” In other words, reliance on one pollinator, such as honey bees, is not a good strategy even for big agriculture. Farmers are learning that native bees increase the overall pollination of crops by working in cold wet weather and in other conditions where honey bees don’t function as well.

The Xerces Society acknowledges that honey bees are critical for agriculture, but it has also found that planting strips of native plants along agricultural fields to support native bees can increase crop yields significantly. In addition, having mostly honey bees on the fields can actually reduce the rate of pollination for some crops, which in turn reduces fruit set. This is because the honey bees out-forage the wild bees and expose them to pathogens, reducing their numbers. Dr. Gegear pointed out in a recent email that honey bees “should be restricted to agricultural lands and only present if they are absolutely needed for crop pollination.”

In 2007 honey bees started dying in large numbers, and the term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was coined to identify what was happening. Efforts meant to “Save the Bees” were directed at honey bees. Bee keeping became very popular. But in fact, “honey bees are not in decline; they are probably the most numerous bee on the planet,” says Andrew Whitehouse of Buglife. org. As Scott Black of the Xerces Society puts it, “Keeping honey bees to ‘save the bees’ is like raising chickens to save the birds.”

Another problem? Our lawns. Since honey bees are not native and do harm to native pollinators, and since we have 40 million acres of lawn in the United States, which has eliminated much of the habitat our native bees rely on, keeping bees “might not be the most responsible thing to do,” says Heather Swan, entomologist at the University of Wisconsin. Her advice? “Plant organic native flowers, shrubs, and trees; quit using toxins on your lawn; and become a watcher of native insects.” To attract the greatest number of wild bees it’s best to plant a variety of native plants with bloom times ranging from spring through fall, so sources of nectar and pollen are available from early spring to late fall.

To effectively make a difference beyond our own gardens, we can encourage our neighbors to grow native plants. In addition, we can support green initiatives in our states and towns and encourage the use of native plants as part of these initiatives. School gardens are a great way to start children thinking about preserving the natural world, and plantings for pollinators on community properties can help educate the general public. Most people do not know the difference between native and non-native bees or plants. The key to saving our native bees and the native plants that sustain them will be educating our children, neighbors, and politicians about best practices for stewarding our yards and public spaces.

References

Angelella, G. M., C. T. McCullough, and M. E. O’Rourke, “Honey bee hives decrease wild bee abundance, species richness, and fruit count on farms regardless of wildflower strips.” www.nature.com/scientificreports

Cane, James H., and Vincent J. Tepedino, “Gauging the Effects of Honey Bee Pollen Collection on Native Bee Communities. Conservation Letters, Vol. 10, Issue 2, 2016. https://conbio.onlinelibrary.wiley.com

Goulson, Dave. Silent Earth–Averting the Insect Apocalypse. HarperCollins, 2021.

Hatfield, R. G., S. Jepsen, M. Vaughan, S. Black, and E. Lee-Mäder. 2018. An Overview of the Potential Impacts of Honey Bees to Native Bees, Plant Communities, and Ecosystems in Wild Landscapes: Recommendations for Land Managers. 12 pp. Portland, OR: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

McAfee, Alison. “The Problem with Honey Bees.” November 4, 2020. Scientificamerican.com

Vance, Erik. “Native Bees often better pollinators than honey bee.” November 14, 2011. Vcresearch.berkeley.edu/news

Whitehouse, Andrew, quoted from an article in The Guardian by Alexander Turner, “Honey bees are voracious: Is it time to put the brakes on the boom in beekeeping?” https://www.theguardian.com/ environment/2021

Healing Gardens

This article by Summer Gonsalves  first appeared in our WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Framing the garden (photo SGonsalves)

In the heart of Westerly, 150 acres of farmable land intermingles with a rare white cedar swamp. This is home to the Narragansett Tribal Farm. A short walk from the main entrance leads to the tribal apiary and pollinator garden, covering one-fifth of an acre. Though still in its early stages, the ground is prepared to be planted with sunflowers, milkweed, bee balm, hyssop, oregano, tickseed and other native plants in the spring.

As a member of the Narragansett Tribe, I was raised to honor the Earth for all the gifts and beauty she gives. The tribal farm is more than a space to grow crops and to garden; it offers auke sonkunaunk, or land to grow, physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally.

To serve my desire to maintain health and the land, I earned a bachelor’s degree in health studies from the University of Rhode Island and a master’s degree in public health at Brown University. Now, I am back at URI working towards a bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in writing. I also work at Brown as co-leader of the Superfund Research Program’s Community Engagement Core, which allows me to work directly with communities, including the tribe, impacted by environmental contamination.

My childhood days with the Tribe shaped my love of the land. Every August, the tribe hosted its Annual Crandall Powwow, welcoming visitors from all over the East Coast, who came to drum, sing, dance, and take in the whole experience. Here we ran in the fields as children, free and spirited. The drumbeat poured into the soil and cleansed the air of the junkyard just beyond the bushes. For more than 60 years, Irving Crandall, the last direct descendant of the family that purchased the land from the Narragansetts in the 1600s and named it Crandall Farm, maintained a working junkyard adjacent to where the powwow took place. Just beyond the tree line where we danced to the beat of the drum, hundreds of scrap cars, tires, appliances, and junk lay strewn about.

As a teenager, Irving was almost like a family member. My paternal grandparents, Robin and Jean Spears, welcomed him to many meals at their home, and in exchange he allowed them to plant a vegetable garden on his farm. The 40 by 120-foot garden allowed me and my 24 cousins the chance to revisit the farm, where we climbed trees, picked wild grapes and apples, and tended the vegetables, flowers, and herbs. In the evenings, we would climb atop a scrap trailer and watch the sunset over the cedar swamp.

My love of honeybees began when my grandfather, Robin, acquired a hive, and tucked it high on a hill in his yard. It quickly evolved to over a dozen hives. As a child there was no greater treat than to see a frame of capped honey sitting on his kitchen counter.

Through these memories and moments, mixing my love of plants and bees came naturally. In the spring of 2019 and 2020, with permission from the Tribe, I established four hives on the farm.

In the fall of 2020, the Tribe approved the creation of a pollinator garden on the farm. Having seen the dire impact a few months of COVID-19 had on the tribal community, and the world, the notion of health and well-being was a focal point of my life. Having grown up in the outdoors, lockdown had a severe impact on my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. So, I decided to design the pollinator garden around the four directions, with each direction dedicated to a different realm of health.

I chose a spot that offered a tranquil feeling. Tribal members donated funds for a split rail fence. That same fall, Elizabeth Malloy, Co-Director of TerraCorps RI, which works with other organizations to support land conservation, sustainable farming, community justice, and food resilience, offered to collaborate. Liz oversees service-learning work, mentoring individuals from various organizations, including Aquidneck Land Table, Audubon Society of Rhode Island, Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council, and Southside Community Land Trust. Together, we gathered about 15 volunteers who cleared brush and invasive plants, cleaned the high tunnel hoop houses, and installed the fencing around the pollinator garden.

It took an intense eight hours on a chilly overcast day to build the cedar pergola that is the centerpiece of the garden. Bundled in coats and gloves, we took turns reading directions, using drills and rubber mallets to assemble the parts. Just as we set the pergola in place, a hard rain pounded the farm.

I was happy to receive the RIWPS grant early this year, as the money has funded the purchase of project materials, including signs, compost, trellises, gravel for the walkway, and butterfly boxes. A small bit has been saved to purchase plants in the spring. Melissa Guillet, URI Master Gardener and Director of 15 Minute Field Trips, designed the garden and its planting schematic, based on my rough sketch on a torn scrap of paper.

In the spring, a soil analysis indicated that our garden soil had a pH of 5.7, and was very low in calcium, phosphorus, and potassium. Melissa’s scaled planting schematic included the species and number of plants fitting my design idea. Southside Community Land Trust’s Community Growers Coordinator, Andrew Cook, was a mentor to the project, assisting with a soil remediation plan and planting timeline. Planting would go on hold while we improved the soil.

The work was healing, too. (photo SGonsalves)

With help from the tribal farm workers, Steven Smith, Lee Fry, Ralph Stanton, Kaheki Northup, and Lonny Brown Jr, we purchased and installed crushed stone for walkways and six inches of compost in each section of the garden. Ralph delivered load after load of stone and compost from Richmond Sand and Gravel. Steve manned the tractor, digging and moving soil. Lee, Lonny, and Kaheki shoveled and raked, laughed and sweated as they spread the gravel and soil. I had my hands in every aspect of work, fussing over site lines and laying pavers for the bee boxes to sit on, spending hours each day under the warm sun, watching a dream come to life. With the compost laid, the six of us spread clover seed while listening to music on the radio and talking about individual plans for the upcoming weekend. All this laughter and hard work helped me channel my energy into my own health while making sure that the guys had plenty to eat and drink as they worked in the hot sun.

In April 2021, TerraCorps returned with a new group of volunteers, along with students from Brown and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These students worked with farm staff to assemble plastic trellises to separate the beehives from the walkways and flowering plants so that a wall of plants keeps people from getting too close to the bee boxes. I planted butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii) and took pictures of many of the visiting bees and butterflies including a tagged monarch and several bumblebee moths. However, I recently learned that butterfly bushes are not native and are harmful to monarchs. Monarchs lay their eggs on the leaves, which caterpillars are not able to eat, leading to their death. So now we will replace this nonnative species with another species that supports not only honeybees, but also native insects.

As spring turned to summer this year, two small gardens of naturally growing clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) have bloomed and will nurture monarch butterflies and other wild species. (Soon signage will welcome visitors and provide information about the garden, explaining its importance for pollinators and people, and thanking supporters.)

While the garden was made to honor our health and house the bees, it has been a space for me to grieve and heal. Seventeen months ago, my father, Macheece Spears Sr., died unexpectedly. For the last several months, I have worked to honor his memory by donating to organizations around the world, including funds for planting a tree in Sri Lanka (Save Simacik) to purchasing access to water for a family in Sudan (Water for Sudan). And I poured my heart and soul into making the pollinator garden. When I was sad, my tears watered the soil; when I was angry, I dug deeper; and when I was happy, the sun radiated off my back and the butterflies floated around me. Through this energy I choose to dedicate the pergola and the space beneath it to my father.

My dad was a stone mason. The Spears family is known for stone masonry throughout New England and the country, though most notably in Rhode Island. To honor my father in this space, I installed a concrete paver patio, laying each stone individually and fussing over them being level and near perfect. I spoke to each stone with a memory of moments I spent with my father: walking in the woods, observing luna moths or praying mantises, or sitting in silence watching the sun set.

For me, this space will welcome folks from all walks of life, and when I stand here alone and watch the sunset, I know my dad is standing beside me, and this is where I heal.

Reseeding Rhode Island

This article by Anne Raver first appeared in our publication, WildfloraRI, Spring 2022

Sifting Seed (photo S.Alexandra)

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 office@riwps.org to express your interest in helping us with this exciting adventure.

Paradigm of Change

By Anne Raver

This article first appeared in our WildfloraRI Fall 2021

One hot, humid day in September 2020, the team of volunteers at the Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuge in South Kingstown were awaiting a backhoe to dig the swales for the demonstration gardens they were building around the rustic cabin that serves as the refuge’s contact center. The backhoe never showed up, so they took up their shovels and moved the dirt by hand.  “With masks on, it was brutal,” recalled Mark Cordle, a RIWPS member and URI Master Gardener, who co-leads the project with Nick Ernst, USFWS wildlife biologist. Nick manages Trustom as well as the four other refuges within the RI National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

The volunteers laid down corrugated cardboard, soaked it, then shaped the mounds of soil — 15 cubic yards delivered from nearby Highland Farms. Janis Nepshinsky, who manages visitor services and outreach for the complex, purchased the weed-free soil and contributed earthmoving equipment. “Then we planted about 250 plants of 30 species in two days,” said Mark.

Group touring the restoration sites at Trustom Pond (photo ARaver)

A year later, a group of us from RIWPS were walking around the garden. Bumblebees nuzzled the yellow sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and white boneset thoroughwort (Eupatorium perfoliatum) still blooming in the rain garden. The garden now features close to 40 native species, including the sassafras and witch hazel already there and a beautiful old shadbush transplanted from nearby. Most of the plants were grown from seed collected from Kettle Pond.

That September afternoon, Dave Vissoe, who helped create this garden, leaned over a wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum) eaten down to a nub by deer and nodded toward the white wood asters (Eurybia divaricata) next to the shadbush (Amelanchier sp.). “We’re hoping the wood asters will spread into the woods,” he said, gesturing to the trees to the north. But deer love asters of all kinds, so the team sprays them regularly with nontoxic repellents. On the other hand, broadleaved mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) and the goldenrods are unpalatable to deer, so these were flourishing.

The plants are labeled, so as I watched a bumblebee on a goldenrod, I could identify the species — wreath goldenrod (Solidago caesia) — and remember how its tiny yellow flowers cluster in the leaf axils of the arching stems. I also studied how rocks were laid in a lined trench beneath the downspout that directs water off the cabin roof into the swales of the rain garden, where cardinal-flower (Lobelia cardinalis), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus), and other moisture-loving species were planted.

Dave had learned a bit about collecting seeds and propagating native plants from Hope Leeson, when she ran Rhody Native, an initiative of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey. He picked up the art of winter sowing from Peggy Buttenbaum, who has taught us how to turn plastic containers into mini-greenhouses. By the fall of 2018 the gardens at Kettle Pond were producing a bonanza of seeds — so volunteers collected them for winter sowing.  “We laid out a tarp in one of the classrooms, so we didn’t get potting soil everywhere,” said Dave. The volunteers poked holes in the plastic containers, planted the seeds, and took them home to sprout outdoors.  They then re-potted the thousands of resulting seedlings in Dave’s backyard and set them in an old dog pen no longer used his Jack Russells.  “We grew 500 to 1,000 plants the first year,” said Dave. “This year, we had a bumper crop of 5,000 plants.”

As the Kettle Pond gardens flourished, Dave set his sights on Trustom Pond, submitting a proposal to the URI Master Gardener program, which funded the project in March 2020. “Trustom is a special place to me,” Dave said. “When I was a kid, my parents and I would go to Moonstone Beach to swim and crab in Trustom Pond.” His parents ashes are scattered here. After launching the project, Dave and other early leaders stepped aside.

Mark and Nick are expanding the project into the grasslands behind the contact station. “Our mission is really to create awareness of the benefits of planting native species for habitat restoration,” said Mark. “The demo garden is a classroom where you can see all the species with labels. But it’s unnatural.” It’s also a gateway for 60,000 annual visitors, half of them birders. “There needs to be a paradigm change in our yards and landscapes,” said Nick. “These manicured lawns and nonnative shrubs are ecological deserts. But a lot of people think native plants are messy. The goal of the demo garden is to show folks how great it looks.”

Visitors might remember a few labelled plants – then recognize that same native species in one of four restoration sites along the trails. “People can see these plants spreading out in the natural environment,” said Nick, who paused by the tall grasses turning shades of purple, mahogany and orange.  He showed us how to tell the difference between big bluestem, whose flowering stalk resembles a turkey foot, and Indian grass, which is more of a feather. “Indian grass is rare in Rhode Island,” he said. “But most of the seed came from the Midwest.”

He explained why a seed isn’t just a seed: “The plants in New England have evolved for thousands of years with local growing conditions,” said Nick. “So if you use seed from the Midwest, the plants might not grow as well here, they might have differences in bloom times that might affect their pollinators.”

Restoring native species (photo MCordle)

In 1995 USFWS seeded the 15-acre field we were standing in with warm-season grasses intended to provide habitat for ground-nesting birds. However, “there are no songbirds nesting here, because it’s so dense,” said Nick. “It’s not really meeting our objectives.” It’s also too small an area for many bird species to reproduce. So Nick is shifting the goal here to creating  a diversity of native plant species that are larval hosts and nectar sources for insects, including moths and more than 38 species of native bees.

But where to get enough local genotype plants is the challenge. “We were getting plants from Hope Lesson, but the Rhode Island Natural History Survey is no longer doing Rhody Native,” Nick said. “The Master Gardener partnership has really filled that hole, by collecting seed from local plants and putting them back on the refuges. Early last year, Mark and Nick chose four restoration sites with different topography and soil and light conditions. Then, the crew of volunteers and USFWS interns started clearing the invasives. A Bobcat Skid Steer grinding up a tangle of multiflora rose and bush honeysuckle hit a wall, literally.

The low stone wall was a remnant of the farm that once belonged to Ann Kenyon Morse, a sheep breeder and keen horsewoman who also flew fighter planes as a WASP during World War II. In 1974, she donated 365 acres of land to USFWS, which was the start of the 787-acre Trustom Pond Refuge.

As the team pulled out grapevine and honeysuckle, they found black cherry and shadbush. Clethra, spirea, and swamp azaleas were blooming in the wetlands. One morning, Nick spotted a hummingbird clearwing moth, Hemaris thysbe, sipping nectar from a swamp azalea flower. They were puzzled by a large treelike shrub with mottled bark on the edge of the swamp. “I thought it was a viburnum at first,” said Mark, who snapped a few pictures for PictureThis. “It was a poison sumac. With a trunk 18” in diameter.”Its old limbs were leaning out from the edge of the boggy woods toward the sun, its leaves turning apricot-red.

The crew started planting in mid-August and worked through September, putting in about 5,000 plants sourced from Kettle Pond. Nick contributed 2,000 more, from Planter’s Choice Nursery in Connecticut. “I tried to get a variety of species the MG’s didn’t have, so they could use them for future seeds,” said Nick. “But I also got some of the same species, to increase genetic diversity. We don’t want to collect seeds from the same garden over and over.”

Nick and Dave had recently toured one of the Connecticut farms that are growing native plants for the Ecotype Project. Botanists collect seed from wild plants in ecoregion 59; organic farmers then grow out the seeds in ‘Founder Plots’; tens of thousands of seeds are then harvested from the plots and sent to nurseries. That basic model is exciting to restoration ecologists. “Maybe East Farm or organic farmers in Rhode Island could grow Founder Plots,” said Nick. I would love to see infrastructure in the Northeast to produce seeds in volume like they do in the Midwest.”

At some point, “if we wanted to transform the field at Trustom, we could plow up strips, then do no-till or broadcast seeds.” And this time the seed would be from this ecoregion, not the middle of the country.In the meantime, he and Mark will be interested to see how well the native species in the restoration areas establish. “Considering the bluestem and the thatch, it’s unlikely that they would without any kind of disturbance,” he said. “Maybe a prescribed burn or light tilling of soil would open up an avenue for those plants to spread.” But just having them flower and set seed in the restoration sites will increase the seed bank of local genotypes.

Mark took a break near a site where yellow thistle (Cirsium horridulum), rare to Rhode Island, was flourishing.  “To me, it’s like restoring an old historic house,” he said. “Only we’re restoring the plants that have been here for thousands of years.”

 

A Sense of Place: Kettle Pond

by Marnie Lacouture

This article first appeared in our publication WildfloraRI, Fall 2021

Dave Vissoe sharing his knowledge (photo PLacouture)

The native plant garden at the Kettle Pond Visitor Center in Charlestown had a serendipitous beginning. In 2016, Janis Nepshinsky, Visitor Services Manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Rhode Island National Wildlife Refuge Complex, received a $5,000 grant to establish a native plant garden for pollinators.

The center, built in 2005, offers information on all five of the state’s National Wildlife Refuges — Trustom Pond, Sachuest Point, Ninigret, John H. Chafee, and Block Island – and also serves as a central office for the complex. It is located on the forested upland of the Ninigret refuge, north of Route 1. The Rhode Island glacier, which created the Charlestown terminal moraine approximately 20,000 years ago, left many kettle holes and ponds as the ice retreated. The name Kettle Pond refers to them.

For years, Janis had imagined creating a “sense of place,” by transforming the grassy area outside the center into a demonstration garden full of native plants and their pollinators, to show how biodiversity is necessary for the earth and its inhabitants. It would embody ‘mosoquotaash,’ a Narragansett word meaning ‘we are all connected.’

One slow day at the center, she noticed that Dave Vissoe, who was volunteering at the front desk, was poring over notes and books spread out on the table. “He said he was studying for a Master Gardener class,” recalled Janis. “I had just gotten this grant, and I thought, ‘Boy, have I got the garden for you!’” That is how Janis’s dream gained a project leader and became a reality.

Dave, who grew up in the south end of Hartford, CT, remembers his French grandfather as a gentle soul who was a serious gardener. As a young boy, Dave helped water in his grandfather’s greenhouse where the damp, earthy smell drew him to love gardening. He admits that he was not an earnest student and calls himself a “late, late, late bloomer.” Entering college right after high school, he soon dropped out to join the army, then returned after completing his service. It was at North Adams State College, now Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, that he met Bev Mickey, his future wife. After graduating, Dave landed a job teaching high school biology and chemistry in Bennington, VT; Dave commuted to work while Bev finished her senior year. We can thank Bev for not liking the Vermont winters.

The couple moved to Rhode Island in 1970 where they both taught at Davisville Middle School in North Kingstown until 1977 when Dave was hired by Silver Burdett, a textbook publisher. There he used his science background and honed his management skills, living in Rhode Island as a national consultant until taking other positions that necessitated a move to New Jersey, where he and Bev raised their family. In 2013 Dave and a friend began to remodel the house that had belonged to his parents in Green Hill, a coastal community in South Kingstown. He and Bev moved back to the Ocean State and live there today.

Dave enjoys people and has a gift for bringing them together. He is quick to credit the accomplishments of others while modest about his own. Mary O’Connor, a Master Gardener as well as a Rhode Island Wild Plant Society board member, joined the Kettle Pond project shortly after it began and was instrumental in getting Dave to join the RIWPS board. She said his energy and passion are contagious, so he’s a pleasure to work with, a sentiment repeated by all the volunteers I spoke to. He is joyful and upbeat, and I always smile after a conversation with Dave, whether it is about his visiting grandson or a favorite plant.

In 2014 Dave’s appreciation of nature had drawn him to volunteer at both the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Trustom Pond refuge and the Kettle Pond Visitor Center. He became a Master Gardener in 2017 and dove immediately into the native plant garden project at Kettle Pond with Sharon Bridge, a veteran Master Gardener, as his coleader. Melissa Hughes and Darlene Trott each served for a time as coleader until 2019 when Erin Beuka, a Master Gardener who had recently moved to Rhode Island from New Jersey, took over. Dave describes her as a “powerhouse”, and Erin calls Dave a “dynamo.’ Erin is now maintaining the data bases originally created by Melissa from plot maps drawn on graph paper to track plant inventories and information. According to Dave, having this data has taken the garden to a higher level.

Native species grace the parking lot (photo DVissoe)

Dave’s many accomplishments have earned him The 2021 Rosanne Sherry Distinguished Educator Award from Master Gardeners.

Graham Gardner, a landscape designer and longtime RIWPS member, created a master plan for the garden consisting of several plots in various shapes and sizes before moving to Colorado. The plan was ultimately implemented by landscape designer Tysh McGrail, who had worked on many projects with him, promoting the use of native plants.

Volunteers prepared the beds, first removing invasive plants as well as poison ivy and maple saplings, then suppressing weeds with six layers of newspaper. Since the gardens were being planted over a septic system, they brought in weed-free loam to build up the soil. They pruned several overgrown winterberry shrubs (Ilex verticillata) that were growing along the building. They studied the prevailing wind, soil pH, and sun exposure to help match specific plants to the best spot. They laid out the curved plots with garden hoses and dug the edges deeply for neatness and to keep grass from growing into the paths. They layered the plants according to their height and bloom times.

Dave assembled an enthusiastic team for the first planting, which occurred over three days in mid-June of 2017. Nick Ernst, the FWS wildlife biologist for the refuge complex was there along with Janis, Tysh, several volunteers from Master Gardeners, April Alix and her summer intern Michael Bonilla from the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, and members of the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society — twenty or so volunteers in all. Lorén Spears, a citizen of the Narragansett nation and executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, who had shared her knowledge of native plants and their uses by indigenous people, was also there on planting day. Although she was dressed for a later engagement, she couldn’t resist getting her hands dirty. Most of the plants, grown from locally sourced seeds, were obtained from Rhody Native, a RINHS project begun by botanist Hope Leeson. The rest came from a wholesale native plant nursery on Long Island.

A second planting was installed in October of 2017. The garden grew and the plants filled in as work continued in 2018 and 2019. In March of 2020, however, Covid restrictions meant that the garden would be tending itself until well into June, when volunteers returned to work practicing social distancing and wearing face masks. Dave continued to educate the public with video and Zoom presentations. Because he realized that the garden would be a source of comfort for many, he created safe guidelines for volunteers to work in small groups to keep the gardens weeded. The volunteers also installed a rain garden to the left of the visitor center entrance with a $2000 grant from RIWPS, although $750 was unused and returned.

An “adopt a plot” idea has been implemented recently in the hopes that maintenance will be manageable. Volunteers also can “adopt a plant,” learning all they can about it while tracking its growth in the garden. This information has been used to create a treasure hunt for school groups and as resource material for teachers, the general public, master and advanced gardeners, and garden clubs.

Butterfly milkweed seed pods (photo DVissoe)

In September, on one of the last days of summer, I visited the garden and was greeted by a tall clump of Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), the seed heads glowing in the afternoon sun. Goldenrods and asters were in their glory, abuzz with pollinators, and the fuel needed by the monarch butterflies for their long migratory trip was plentiful. The goldenrods included seaside (Solidago sempervirens), gray (S. nemoralis), wreath (S. caesia) and licorice (S. odora). There was an array of asters: wavy-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum undulatum), calico (S. lateriflorum) heart-leaved (S. cordifolium), New England (S. novae-angliae), and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata). The pods of the butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) were beginning to open, showing the white fluff of seeds inside, and the seed heads of the towering ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) were ripening. Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a warm-season grass, was maturing to a lovely amber color. Several native vines, including trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), common ground nut (Apios americana), and summer grape (Vitis aestivalis) were climbing the posts of a handsome curved arbor built by Rudi’s Rangers, a local volunteer group. Nearby, tree stumps were positioned in a semi-circle, as seating for an outdoor classroom.

As I wandered the paths, the dedication and work of so many was evident. Although the garden is still evolving, it had grown into one that demonstrates the importance of native plants to pollinators and other wildlife, as well as their beauty.

Life on a Dogwood

—This article by Dick Fisher first appeared in our WildforaRI, Spring 2021

We are by now aware of the importance of pollinators in our ecosystem to promote diversity, fertilize native and food crop plants, and take their place in the food web. Pollinator gardens are the rage and for good reason. But the story does go deeper, so let’s start with a nice summer day last August.

Passing by an actively growing red-twig dogwood, aka red osier dogwood (Swida sericea), it was obvious some leaves were missing and stems were wiggling. Indeed the leaves of several small branches had been stripped and were being devoured by a large number of gray, striped, clamoring caterpillars. Although the shrub was small, less than one percent of it seemed affected. The caterpillars remained bunched together and confined themselves to the several adjacent twigs. Over the next few days their numbers decreased, and then they were gone; the red-twig dogwood did fine.

R

This was a red-humped caterpillar (Schizura concinna) and is just one of 113 species listed in the National Wildlife Federation database that feed on the dogwoods in our area.1 Several species are limited to dogwoods only but most, like Schizura, feed on a multitude of native trees and shrubs.2

Lifecycle

The red-humped caterpillar is the larval stage of a small brown inconspicuous moth. The adult moth emerges from the pupa in the spring or early summer and lives only seven or so days during which the female deposits small yellow eggs on the underside of the host plant’s leaves. The eggs hatch in about two weeks to begin the larval stage as caterpillars and begin eating, perhaps increasing their mass one thousandfold over one and a half months until they are mature.2

As they grow they molt, shedding the outer cuticle and forming a new covering. Between molts they are known as “instars.” There are multiple instar stages as the caterpillar grows. The first instar is the larval form that hatches from the egg, and the final instar forms the pupation cell. Most butterflies spin a cocoon in which the pupa develops while moths usually develop an unprotected pupa cell. The red- humped caterpillar’s final instar drops into leaf litter and soft ground beneath the host plant and spends the winter in a pre-pupa stage. Pupation begins after the winter and ends with the emergence of the adult moth. In our area there is usually just one or perhaps two cycles per year.2

The red-humped caterpillars were not alone last summer. The dogwoods here hosted at least three other dependent species including the rusty tussock moth (Orgyia antiqua), the dogwood sawfly (Macremphytus tarsatus), and the yellow sawfly (Macremphytus lovetti). Sawfly larvae look and behave much like caterpillars but differ in some fundamental anatomical features such as the number of appendages or eyespots.3 True caterpillars belong just to butterflies and moths, but the life cycles of both the true caterpillars and sawfly larvae mentioned in this article are similar as is their dependence on the dogwood.

Diversity

We see these caterpillars and larvae for just a short time, but it is the time when they are most vulnerable. Schizura concinna, like the others, is a food source for something at every stage of its life cycle. The eggs are attractive to other insects, the adult moth is not a beautiful butterfly but is food for birds, and the pre-pupa and pupa stages are prey for soil organisms. The larvae, being highly visible, are at high risk, so much so that they have developed several defensive strategies. When disturbed these particular caterpillars show a collective warning display by thrashing about in unison, and they excrete an offensive fluid containing formic acid.3 Despite that behavior, they slowly disappeared over the next week or so, and I am not sure where they went. Perhaps some dropped into the leaf litter to begin their next stage, but many were still small and I suspect became part of the food chain for local birds.

In addition to our red-twig dogwood, two other dogwood species grow here: alternate-leaved dogwood (Swida alternifolia) and gray dogwood (S. racemosa). They flower and require pollination to produce seed. If not the red-humped moth then maybe another adult stage from the 113 species they host will help out. But they also have many non-lepidoptera pollinators including bees, wasps, and, yes, sawflies. The sawfly adults look like a cross between a fly and a wasp, they do not sting, and they can pollinate many crop and flowering plants.4

As the dogwood seeds ripen in mid and late summer, we can watch the birds clear them from the branches and disperse the seeds to begin the dogwood life cycle anew. The dogwood and its predators require interaction with the soil microbiome and the vast ecosystem it supports. It is all a fragile system, which we should take care to respect and support.

References
1  https://www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder
2  Wagner, David L. Caterpillars of Eastern North America. Princeton University Press, Princeton/Oxford. 2005.
3  https://breedingbutterflies.com
4. https://www.whatsthatbug.com

Xanthotype urticaria (false crocus geometer moth), Cumberland, RI

Turn out the Lights!

You’ve covered the basics—planted natives for the pollinators, done away with insecticides and other harmful chemicals, and are whittling away at that huge monoculture so beloved in suburbia, the lawn. Now what? What more can you do to make your yard more wildlife friendly?

Beavers Rebound

This article by Anne Raver originally appeared in our WildfloraRI, Spring 2021

You can’t help but wonder how the beavers are doing on Rhode Island, if you read Jeff Goldfarb’s Eager: The Surprising Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. Our RIWPS book club had discussed Eager in early March 2021, marveling at the abilities of this natural engineer, Castor canadensis, to hold and cleanse water, and to create habitat for myriad species of plant and animal life. (Beavers also flood roads, farm fields and septic systems; and they kill trees. But more on that later.)

Goldfarb fires the imagination with images of pre-historic North America, where beavers crossed the land bridge millions of years before humankind and may have numbered between 60 and 400 million before the year 1600. Forget that idea of clear, racing streams and wide rivers flowing through the wilderness. Beavers, driven to build dams, turn running water into mucky ponds and marshlands. As Goldfarb puts it, “a sluggish, murky swamp, backed up several acres by a messy concatenation of woody dams. Gnawed stumps ring the marsh like punji sticks; dead and dying trees stand aslant in the chest-deep pond. When you step into the water, you feel not rocks underfoot but sludge. The musty stink of decomposition wafts into your nostrils.”

Beavers, North America’s largest rodent, seem to be drawn to the sound of running water and driven to build dams of sticks and logs, packed with stones, grass and mud. These nocturnal mammalsusually construct a mounded lodge of logs and sticks in the pond behind the dam or on the edge of the bank. Plastered with mud, these cozy lodges remain above freezing, and are big enough for a male and female, who mate for life, to raise their young. The juveniles remain for two years, then move out to find mates and new territory. The pond has to be deep enough to enter and exit the lodge underwater, and to reach a submerged cache of tender stems of woody plants and roots for winter food. This watery lifestyle offers protection from land-dwelling predators.

Beavers’ back feet are webbed, and their front hand-like, clawed feet are built for digging and grasping sticks. Their incisors, which never stop growing, are sharpened and filed by constant gnawing. A beaver’s large, flat tail doubles as a rudder when swimming and as a prop when standing to chew down a tree. The animal’s transparent eyelids allow it to see underwater.

Indigenous people revered the beaver for many reasons. “Beaver is a hardworking animal,” said Lorén Spears, the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “It’s industrious, creative, and scientific in creating the type of dwelling that has multiple purposes. It also creates natural systems that create the balance that you need.” The museum, which is devoted to indigenous cultural education, takes its name from the Narragansett word for beavers.

Indigenous people throughout North America used the beaver’s fur for warm, waterproof clothing, its incisors for tools, its meat and glands for food and medicine. They traded these treasures with the first explorers, and then the colonists, who generated a craze for furs and castor sacs that Goldfarb likens to the Gold Rush. Beaver meat was also in demand, Goldfarb notes, once the Catholic church classified beavers as fish, which they are not, so that meat-lovers could eat this ‘fish’ during Lent.

“By the early 1800’s, the beaver had been extirpated from Rhode Island and much of New England,” writes state wildlife biologist Charles Brown, in Beavers in Rhode Island,  a guide he created for the Division of Fish and Wildlife, RI Department of Environmental Management (DEM). However, as farming declined in New England, forests regenerated. At the same time, a growing conservation movement and wildlife management practices, including reintroduction programs, brought back the beaver.

By the late 1960s, there were active colonies in Connecticut and Massachusetts. By the 1970s, trappers and fishermen began noticing chewed trees and peeled twigs in the western part of the state. “They probably traveled from Connecticut along the Moosup River,” said Brown, who joined DEM in 1999. By 1976, state biologist Charlie Allen had found an active lodge along the Trestle Trail in Coventry, in a tributary of the Moosup River. He later reported half a dozen colonies in the Moosup River watershed. By the 1980s, beavers were building dams in the Pawcatuck, Blackstone, Pawtuxet, Quinebaug, Hunt and Woonasquatucket watersheds. That’s when proper

ty owners started calling DEM about flooded roads, orchards and ornamental trees. By 1995, DEM established a trapping season. Brown extended Allen’s work with a survey of beaver and river otter occupancy. He covered the state’s largest watersheds—the Pawcatuck, the Pawtuxet, the Blackstone and the Quinebaug—on a five-year rotation from 2001 to 2012.

Beavers are now expanding their range in the northeast part of the state, primarily throughout the lower Blackstone the Moshassuck and Woonasquatucket watersheds. “Beavers have defied everybody’s expectations,” Brown said. “I think it was widely assumed, they needed a certain amount of wild area, that they wouldn’t coexist with people. But they obviously have proved everybody wrong.” The determining factor, he said, is food. Beavers eat aquatic plants, such as cattails, water lilies, ferns and grasses during the summer, and the cambium of woody species, including willow, alder, cottonwood, poplar and red- osier dogwood in winter.

Their dam-building creates ponds and meandering side channels, marshes and wet meadows beneficial to so many plants, insects, and animals that biologists consider the beaver a keystone species. Brown has studied aerial photographs that show how beavers can change the landscape over decades. They can turn a forested red maple swamp, for example, into an open water marsh by flooding the area and killing the trees. “Great blue herons will nest in those dead standing trees,” said Brown. The quiet water channels provide nurseries for fish and amphibians. “Beavers will impound a section of stream with low topography, and sediment will accumulate on the bottom,” he said. If the beavers move on, the dam breaks down, “exposing rich sediment to plant growth.” That abandoned marsh then becomes a meadow, generating scrubland and trees.

Beaver ponds also filter pollutants and break down nitrates; their surrounding marshes serve as flood control and firebreaks. A study by scientists at the University of Rhode Island found that the processes of plants, soil, and microbes in beaver ponds could remove from 5 to 45 percent of nitrates in the water. Graduate students, led by Julia Lazar, collected samples from three beaver ponds in Washington County, during the fall of 2011 and the spring and summer of 2012. They paddled canoes into the middle of two ponds on the Chipuxet River and one on Roaring Brook to collect soil rich in organic matter deposited over decades.

Back at the lab, the students applied nitrate with a tracer to the samples. Bacteria in the organic-rich soil transformed nitrate (NO3) to nitrogen gas, which makes up 79 percent of our atmosphere. This process, known as denitrification, is constantly going on in beaver ponds and surrounding marshlands.

John Crockett, a master’s degree candidate at the University of Rhode Island, is building on Brown’s surveys in a joint project funded by DEM. The five-year project is focused on beaver occupancy and on the presence of river otters and muskrats. Crockett started out in December, on foot and by kayak, looking for dams, lodges, chewed sticks, and any other sign of beavers. One morning in late March, as we took a walk together, he pointed out a large lodge in the Great Swamp Management Area, in South Kingstown. He leaned over some dried gray scat, probably left by an otter, brushing it apart to reveal bits of dried fish scales, crayfish, and fish bones. Beaver runs, or paths, led up from the water and continued across the trail into the swampy woods. We found stumps of young trees and gnawed sticks with the telltale marks of sharp incisors.

Granted, beavers can cause problems for humans. In Westerly, where Route 91 bisects a wetland for about a mile, beavers have frequently plugged a As Brown said, “Beavers look at an existing dam, or a causeway bisecting a wetland, and they see the culvert as a hole in the dam, so they plug it up.” When beavers first built dams on the East Sneech Brook, in 2014, they flooded a swamp full of rare Atlantic white cedars, as well as hiking trails in the Cumberland Land Trust’s nature preserve adjacent to the Nate Whipple Highway.

Mike Boday, the land trust’s vice president, recalled pulling sticks out of an historic culvert that harks back to farming days. “When we broke that first dam, we released a few hundred thousand gallons of water and flooded the highway,” said Boday, who lives on the edge of the 154-acre forest and wetland. “The mayor wasn’t too happy about that.” The beavers just plugged up the hole again. “I would come in here with a garden hoe and break it open,” said Boday. “The next day, it would be filled again.”

When the Atlantic white cedars began to die, the land trust called up Mike Callahan, in Southampton, MA whose expertise in water control devices helps communities to live and let live with beavers. “We’re not going to trap them, because then you have to euthanize them,” said Randy Tuomisto, president of the land trust. “They do a lot of good, so we’d rather live with them.” Great blue herons now nest in the tops of the dead white cedars. There are wood ducks, muskrats and river otters.

Callahan visited the site and advised land trust members where to install each device—essentially a pipe driven through the dam, to allow water flow, surrounded by fencing to keep beavers from plugging the hole. Members built the devices themselves. “They work,” said Tuomisto. “But you have to maintain them.”

A large lodge, about five feet tall and 15 feet wide, sits within 50 feet of the hiking trail, which has been rerouted, and now includes a DEM-approved boardwalk and bridge over the beaver- engineered wetland. Another large lodge is hidden downstream. “You usually don’t see them, but if they hear a noise or notice the water level going down, they’ll come out and look,” said Tuomisto. “I was working away and saw this beaver about 20 feet from me. He slapped his tail in warning, and dove under the water.” To no doubt return later, to rebuild the dam.

“They work seven days a week; they’re not unionized,” said Boday, who has watched them, admiringly, jam sticks into the mud and push ten-pound rocks through the water. “They know exactly what they’re doing and they’re defending their home.”