Five or six years ago Kristin Henriksen started doing lectures on Martha’s Vineyard about the value of planting Island native plants.
“And afterwards,” she recalled yesterday, “people would come up to me and ask where they could get them. And I had to say I didn’t know.”
And so in 2006, she opened a nursery called Going Native, in Vineyard Haven. And when she talks native, she means local. Not native to North America, not native to New England, but Island native genotypes — plants from seeds collected here.
She is one of just a few people and groups on the Island who work with truly native species, whose interest is not just landscape but habitat.
There are a couple of others. Landscaper Carlos Montoya also specializes in it. The Polly Hill Arboretum now is propagating and selling plants grown from Island seeds.
Ironically, in view of recent events, they all owe a debt to the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation and particularly to its former executive director, Dick Johnson, who saw the need to propagate native plants for sale, as a way to both link increasingly fractured habitat, Islandwide, and to stop people simply taking plants from the wild.
When Polly Hill began its propagation of native genotypes about two years ago, it was with the active involvement of Sheriff’s Meadow, which both provided a source of native seed, and also used the plants.
Likewise Dick Johnson helped Ms. Henriksen.
Said Tim Boland, the executive director of Polly Hill: “We wanted to get to the true native genotypes, collected and grown from seed on the Island. We have been selling them through our visitor center and also to restoration groups, mainly Sheriff’s Meadow, and they’ve been collaborative on this in helping us collect seed.”
He could not be more supportive of Mr. Johnson’s role in helping them collect the seed to get started on a venture which will help fill that demand, Ms. Henrikson noted.
“Sheriff’s Meadow has been a really great part of our program of helping identify native plants to grow from seed and they’ve been actively using our plants.
“We have about 45 species that we’re growing right now, mostly things that are more ornamental, like goldenrods, asters, that sort of thing, plants with a high bio-value, by which I mean they draw the pollinators. Often they’re very showy.”
And many of them are available from off-Island sources. But the point is, local genotypes are best adapted for the unique environment here. (To give some idea of the importance of local genotypes, Mr. Boland noted restoration work required that the plants should come from within 100 square miles. Further away and they are possibly less well adapted, or alternatively, can hybridize and swamp the gene stock of local plants.)
While both Polly Hill and Going Native sell the showy plants, and while likely to appeal to customers and be important to pollinators, they are not necessarily the most important ones to propagate.
Indeed, it is arguable that some of those less showy sandplain species are most important, as Mr. Montoya noted. Like sandplain grasses.
“The thing that is under most threat is the sandplain grasslands gene pool,” he said. The nonforested area of the Island is now down to about 20 per cent. And of that maybe 15 per cent is grassland.
“Sandplain grassland has been declared globally rare by The Nature Conservancy at the national level. It is found only on the Cape, Vineyard, Nantucket and a little bit on Long Island.
“It’s on the top 40 globally rare habitats.”
As the habitats of the Vineyard become more fractured by development, native plantings — even if they are mixed with other non-indigenous species — provide links across the Island, “little bridges,” as Ms. Henriksen put it, for wildlife.
And they have other benefits. They require no fertilizer — indeed, they compete better without it. Also, no pesticides and little or no watering, which both makes garden maintenance easier for people who use them and decreases the impact on Island watersheds. A significant part of the water quality problem with Island ponds is caused by nutrients leaching from fertilized land.
Ms. Henriksen now is in the process of finishing a native plant identification guide for the Vineyard.
“I think that becomes more important as time goes on and we are losing more of our biodiversity,” she said.
Dick Johnson understood all of this early on.
Speaking last week, just before the controversy about the mining of Sheriff’s Meadow land for plants by landscaper John Hoff, he said: “One of the things conservationists are realizing more and more, is we can’t just get by with conservation.
“If all we do is conserve little pieces of land and let everything else go around them, then we end up with Islands in a sea of development or incompatible development.
“So more and more we are concerned also about what happens on private land around us.”
It was that concern which led the foundation to allow landscapers to take some plants from its land, an informal arrangement which was abused.
And it was the same concern which led it to get involved in the business of plant propagation.
Hopefully, in the future, the demand for native plants will grow, along with the supply of plants propagated by nurseries. And the patience of landowners, to get those plants small and wait for them to grow.