Rhody Native goes to seed in Rodman’s Hollow
Rhody Native botanist and coordinator Hope Leeson led a walk through Rodman’s Hollow on Saturday, Oct. 13. Approximately two dozen people, many armed with cameras and wildflower guides, showed up on the sunny afternoon for a session on finding and identifying native plants, as well as to learn techniques for seed-saving and propagation of those seeds.
Rhody Native is a joint venture of the Rhode Island Natural History Survey, the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences; the URI Master Gardeners, as well as the Rhode Island Nursery and Landscape Association. Their mission is, in part, to make native plants available to nurseries, landscapers and the general public. According to their website www.rhodynative.org, plants and trees that one may think are native species may in fact not be, perhaps being grown several states away or being a slightly different species or cultivar.
Native plants are important in maintaining the specific ecology of any particular area. They supply the right diet for local wildlife and sometimes protect against invasive species. It seems almost redundant to say, but usually their growing needs are a great match for their surroundings, requiring less water and maintenance than other plants. They are valuable in recreating landscapes destroyed by development, natural disasters, or along roadsides.
However, one of the problems is sourcing and maintaining a stock of genetically sound plants to make available for those purposes. Often the solution starts simply with the collection of wild seed, in a sustainable manner, of course. The team from Rhody Native had walked through the Boy Scout Camp earlier in the day in the hopes of doing just that. Leeson’s assistant Brittany told me as we walked along how she would spend the coming winter cleaning and stratifying seeds for future planting in the greenhouses at the University of Rhode Island.
Cleaning seed can be vitally important. Take the case of Winterberry, the deciduous holly that will soon dominate Block Island’s landscape with its attractive red berries that provide valuable food for migratory birds. The fruit surrounding the seed inhibits germination, even as it protects that seed as it develops. We learn that if the seed, after being separated from the fruit, can be dented with a fingernail, then it isn’t yet viable.
The first native plants encountered on the walk were two types of goldenrod: the rough leaved type and the thin leaved type. The latter is great for attracting beneficial pollinators that will often attack non-beneficial predators, we are told. Next we encounter some white asters and are told that all species of white asters, except one, are native. These small, daisy-like flowers are important to bees and butterflies as sources of nourishment.
Along the way we also come across Mile-a-Minute Vine, which is an invasive species introduced from China. Although it has attractive blue berries, it can grow quite rapidly, choking out the other vegetation around it.
Two different native grasses were also encountered: Deer Tongue and Little Blue Stem. While both are grasses, they look distinctly different. Indeed, the Deer Tongue looks more like a miniature corn stalk, while the Little Blue Stem is more “grass-like” in appearance. Leeson thought that the Little Blue Stem found on Block Island had more of a reddish hue along the stems than some they have found on the mainland. She mentions that researchers at URI are investigating whether specimens on Block Island are genetically different than those found on the mainland (and whether those on the mainland may differ from those from other states). She said that the plant’s roots extend three times longer into the ground than the height of the plant, which is about 18 inches. In winter, these clumps of grasses provide important cover for birds and voles.
Another species that may be unique to Block Island is our Shad. There are two types found on Block Island and those walk-participants unfamiliar with this iconic island tree were quite taken by the Shad’s unusual trunk forms and smooth bark.
Next we came upon some bayberry shrubs. They may be most commonly known for the candles our first settlers to New England made to light their homes, but did you know that these same berries are amongst the fattiest available, and thus an important food source for migratory birds? Or, did you know that the shrubs fix nitrogen in the soil they grow in, or that substances in the leaves and roots can inhibit competing plants from growing underneath them? I didn’t.
Do you also know how to distinguish a native rose from a multi-flora rose? I still don’t, despite attempts to show me the very slight differences at the base of the leaves that give the non-native multi-flora types away. We did come across two of the three locally native types though: the Native Swamp Rose (Rosa palustris) and the Virginia Rose (Rosa virginiana).
In Rodman’s Hollow, we also found a Black Cherry, a Red Maple and Purple Chokeberries. You can eat those, said our guide, and so we stopped for a snack. The scientific name for this plant is Aronia, an important thing to know since the common name is easily confused with similarly named berries. The term Chokeberry, according to Wikipedia, results from the mouth puckering that can occur when one eats these astringent fruits. Our guide also told us that they were supposedly really good for you. “Anti-oxidants, or something” she said. Indeed, when I looked up Aronia on Google, up came all of these ads touting this humble little fruit as the “Next super-food,” one that can rival Acai. Juices, tinctures, oh my.
As the sky clouded over and our walk came to an end, I took the opportunity to ask Leeson if she knew what the white-flowering shrubs, now blooming so luminously along the banks of the Great Salt Pond, were. For those of you also wondering, she told me they were Bacharus, a type of white aster, and as if always thinking about those seeds, that the plants are either male or female.
Rhody Native plants are available from several wholesale and retail nurseries and garden centers in Rhode Island, as well as some in Massachusetts, including Clark Farms and Farmer’s Daughter, both in South Kingstown. For a complete list, as well as a list of the plant types currently available (and “Up and Coming”) visit their web-site. On the home page click on Rhody Native on the left hand side of the page.