Ecotypes: Native plants and their adaptability

Contributed photoUsing local ecotypes is more likely to produce plants that bloom precisely when their local pollination partners need them.

Did you know that the native red maple tree you bought from your local nursery may have originated with a clone collected in Florida? Or that the native meadow seed you planted likely was collected in the Midwest?

So what does that matter? Over millennia, truly local plants have evolved to flourish in the local conditions, and to harmonize with the local wildlife, Sefra Alexandra explains. These locally evolved plants are what scientists describe as ecotypes. Sefra — an agroecological educator with a master’s degree from Cornell University and international experience as a plant collector, she calls herself “the Seed Huntress” — points out that using local ecotypes is more likely to produce plants that bloom precisely when their local pollination partners need them. In the case of monarch butterflies, for example, the local milkweed ecotypes flower when the butterflies are migrating through that area; planting non-local ecotypes may cause the butterflies to linger too long, or it may produce a premature bloom that peaks before they arrive.

Unfortunately, nurseries do not typically advertise the provenance of native plants, and too often locally sourced native plants are not available at all. If Sefra has her way, though, a program she is coordinating for the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, “The Ecotype Project,” could mark the beginning of a change.

Begun in 2019, the Ecotype Project pursues a complete cycle of preserving and promoting locally sourced native plants along the lower Connecticut River corridor (Ecoregion 59 on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency map). The cycle begins with the collection of seeds of 17 species of local wildflowers, a process that is carefully supervised to avoid stressing the remnant wild populations. These seeds are then planted out in “founder plots” on organic farms across the region.

The seeds borne in the founder plots are harvested when ripe – this typically involves several visits as it is important to gather seeds of the widest range of genetic types, including early and late blooming specimens. These harvests are cleaned and processed with equipment maintained by the Northeast Organic Farming Association, and the results made available to growers through a farmer-led collective known as “Eco59.” Some of the seeds go to farmers to plant their own pollinator habitats, others to gardeners and members of pollinator pathways, and still others to local nurseries growing plants for ecological restoration projects.

Sefra is a believer that good work needs to be celebrated, and she has publicized the Ecotype Project with annual “BOATanical expeditions.” For these she takes a party of citizen scientists paddling down the Connecticut River with a cargo of ecotype plants to plant along the shores, either reinforcing wild populations or creating new founder plots. Although she has travelled far and wide in pursuit of locally adapted plants herself and is a member of the Explorers’ Club, she wants to make the point that you don’t have to fly to the Himalayas to mount an expedition, that there are plenty of opportunities for exploration and botanical (and BOATanical) adventures in your own backyard.

In a similar vein, Sefra also hopes that the impact of the Ecotype Project will be felt far outside Ecoregion 59. Pollinators, and gardeners and farmers, could benefit from similar efforts in any area of the country. “What we’re really trying to do with the Ecotype Project,” says Sefra, “is create a replicable model for ecoregions everywhere.” To this end, the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association has published on its website (ctnofa.org) a “Getting Started Tool Kit” with protocols for seed saving and growing, as well tips for planting and thumbnail guides to the different wildflower species it has included in its founder plots.

For more information about the Ecotype Project and Sefra Alexandra’s adventures as the Seed Huntress, go to the Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Growing Greener podcast, at thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden, located in Stockbridge, MA. Its mission, to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs, informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art and The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019). He is the 2021 Garden Club of America’s National Medalist for Literature, a distinction reserved to recognize those who have left a profound and lasting impact on issues that are most important to the GCA. Tom’s companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org, Pacifica Radio and NPR and is available at his website, https://www.thomaschristophergardens.com/podcast.

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