Karen Asher trains RIWPS volunteers for the June 4 plant sale

by Anne Raver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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