Sometimes the old ways are best. At least when it comes to plants and the pollinators who rely on them.
You have a chance to bring your yard — or at least a corner of it — back to a precolonial time when a rich variety of native grasses and wildflowers (and even cacti!) covered the Long Island landscape as part of an interrelated and productive ecosystem.
The Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI) is rescuing native species from the brink of extinction and coaxing the seeds into vigorous plants. You can buy some of these specimens of living biological history at the LINPI Plant Sale from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, September 23 and 24, at the Suffolk Community College Eastern Campus greenhouse.
“We have local ecotypes that we collected from wild populations,” says Chris McHugh, production manager for LINPI. “Then we try to get them to grow. We use different strategies like stratification, which is for plants that need to overwinter. We might leave them in a protected area or refrigerate them with potting soil to reproduce the cold conditions.”
Some of the most popular native plants are the ones that attract butterflies. You might call milkweed the gateway drug of native plants. “The interest in the Monarch butterfly has brought a lot more interest in native plants,” McHugh says. “Milkweed is the host plant where the Monarch lays its eggs and the caterpillar feeds on it. That gets people started on milkweed, but since it is great if the Monarchs also have nectar from other flowers to drink, we also try to get people to get interested in other plants and grasses that make up their habitat.”
In addition to milkweed, LINPI will be selling seedlings of native grasses and wildflowers ($10 for 6 plants; $50 for a flat of 36) and fun stuff like yellow-flowered Eastern prickly pear cacti (Opuntia humifusa; not surprisingly they favor hot dry conditions) and another surprise more usually associated with the tropics, a native hibiscus whose common name is amazing: crimson-eyed rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos L.). New and notable is Spiraea tomentosa L. or steeplebush. “It’s a small shrub with neat little pink flowers that usually likes wet conditions but is pretty adaptable,” says McHugh. “They are actually doing a trial of it around UConn to plant in parking strips.”
According to McHugh, once you get the right plant established in the right place, they require very little care, no fertilizers or pesticides and can easily fit into a broader landscape design.
“We advise people about the plants, for example if it prefers a wetlands-type environment or full sun,” says McHugh. “They are native plants, but you still have to put them in the right spot. You have to do some work to establish them, making sure they get enough water, etc., but once they are established they are pretty low maintenance, no different from perennials. If they like the spot they’ll grow and spread.”
Your purchase will also support the work of LINPI. An outgrowth of a program started by the Suffolk County Soil and Water’s Native Grass Initiative, LINPI was formally started 5 years ago as an independent nonprofit with a board of directors and an all-volunteer militia of plant rescuers.
For more information on the Long Island Native Plant Initiative’s work — to volunteer or make an appointment to obtain plants if you can’t get to their plant sale — call them at 631.560.9945 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The SCC greenhouse is at 121 Speonk Riverhead Rd, Riverhead, NY 11901.