Getting wild with native plants

by Caroline Brown

I got a fun little gig as a "stringer"–that's journalism speak for freelance writer–at the Kent County Daily Times of West Warwick in Kent County, Rhode Island. They asked me to write garden and nature articles a few times a month. It's another way to get my name out there as a garden writer so I'm excited about it.

My first article, a story about the Rhode Island Wild Plant Society, was published yesterday. Here are few excerpts for those of you interested in native (and invasive) plants.

Native plants are those that were here before the arrival of European settlers in the 1500’s—including such favorite species as highbush blueberry, flowering dogwood, American holly, New England aster, columbine and Turk’s cap lily.

But besides their historic appeal, why do native plants need protecting? Erin Fournier, director of RIWPS, says that because they evolved hand-in-hand with native wildlife, native plants are better “biological citizens” than non-native species. They play a valuable role in Rhode Island’s diverse plant and wildlife communities, such as woodland bogs, pine forests with shrubby undergrowth, and saltwater marshes.

Fournier says that each of these plant and wildlife communities is sustained by a complex web of native plant and animal life. “The plants and animals are dependent one each other,” she explains. “It’s an important chain that needs to be protected and cared for.”

“By taking care of the plants, you’re also taking care of wildlife and their habitat.”

Fournier says that gardening with native plants is often more efficient than gardening with non-native species and exotic varieties. “Native plants are often overlooked because there are a lot of flashy plants out there,” she says. “But natives are perfectly suited to Rhode Island’s climate, soil and winters.”

“They’re highly adaptable and you don’t have to fight to keep them alive in your garden.”

One of the Society's biggest concerns is invasive plants. As I've written before, invasive plants are extremely harmful to species biodiversity.

However, RIPWS is concerned about non-native species whose spreading habits are so robust that they’re known as invasive plants. “Invasive plants are one of our top priorities,” says Fournier. “They’re very much an issue for gardeners, especially those with wild properties that are not completely manicured.”

Because they have no natural enemies in the areas where they’ve been introduced, invasive species are able to spread rapidly using fast-growing root systems. They often produce berries that are appealing to squirrels, birds and other wildlife that eat and spread their seeds. Sometimes their seeds are spread by humans who unknowingly carry them on their shoes. The seeds of aquatic invasive plants even hitchhike between water bodies on boats.

Invasive plants often out-compete native plants for precious resources such as space, sunlight and food. If invasive species continue to crowd out native plants, the region will lose its distinct biological diversity.

Well-known local invasive species include Norway maples, Oriental bittersweet, multiflora rose and burning bush (euonymus). “Purple loosestrife, which is found in marshy areas, shares a common trait with many invasive species,” Fournier explains. “Although it’s very visually enticing, it’s actually harmful because it tends to overpower other plants in the area.”

The key to managing invasive plants, says Fournier, is education. “People are undereducated about what is invasive and what isn’t, and why it’s important” she says. “You’d be surprised by how many of the plants commonly found in yards are invasive.”

“It isn’t realistic to completely eliminate invasive plants from your yard, because of the loss of important plant architecture or privacy screening,” she explains. “But we hope people will become educated about invasive plants.”

“We encourage people not to buy them, and where possible, to replace them with non-invasive plants.” 

Thanks to the KCDT for giving me the opportunity and the RIWPS for being so helpful in pulling together the article. 

Photo of Aster novae-angliae (New England aster) courtesy of White Flower Farms.

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3 Responses to “Getting wild with native plants”

  1. Hi C….Wow, what a beautiful flower/shrub/ weed??? Great color anyways and what is it by the way? I actually know about invasive plants…well one or two at least, gout weed aka snow on the mountain is something that a lot of people battle here, trying to keep it from taking over their yards. Amazing that it’s so pretty but i guess pretty can be destructive too.

    Congrats. on the writing gig, sounds interesting, Ive done a lot of freelance writing over the years, on many topics. Just don’t check my punctuation (and lack of) too much, I think its allowed in blogland, right!!! LOL
    Have a nice evening, G 🙂
    PS Did you figure out the latest Turdpress problems????

  2. Hey G., that is a New England aster, aster novae-angliae. And I’ve heard of goutweed, it is a bad one I’ve heard but luckily we don’t have that here. Oh, & I still have no idea what’s up with those two comments. Sometimes they’re there, sometimes they’re not!

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