Annual seed swap boosts native plant growth

By Gary Ghayrat and McKenzi Thi Murphy

The Long Island Regional Seed Consortium (LIRSC) held its fifth annual seed swap on Sunday, Mar. 10 at the Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead where growers discussed the importance of native plants to Long Island.

Over a dozen local organizations and small agricultural businesses attended the swap and passed out information on the growing efforts to protect biodiversity and natural plant genetics. Five years prior, it had been the only seed swap in the area, but is now one of many throughout the month, Paul Anderson, a professor at Suffolk County Community College and member of The Long Island Native Plant Initiative, said.

“Long Island’s plants – and we should take some pride in this – are Long Island’s plants,” Anderson said. “Native plants provide ecosystem services here…our food stuffs are dependent on wild pollinators, and in planting native plants we support wild pollinators, and we support us.”

The U.S. placed bumble bees on the list of endangered species list for the first time in 2018. The Animal Welfare Institute currently lists eight bee species as endangered but bees as a whole species have not yet reached that point.

“Everybody is always worried about honey bees, but honey bees are not the only pollinators that are important to the environment,” Grace Mehl, master beekeeper and the club education director, said. “There are also native pollinators that are very significant in keeping the environment strong and pollinating a lot of plants.”

The Long Island Beekeepers Club teaches community members about beekeeping and the importance of 416 species of New York State native bees, Mehl said.

Following the organic movement, seed swaps are considered the next frontier to enriching the environment, Scott Chaskey, director of Quail Hill Farm and self-proclaimed farmer poet, said.

Quail Hill was one of the first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms in the U.S. and is now one of over 6,000 based on a conservative estimate by Chaskey.  A CSA provides consumers with farm-grown produce through a predetermined subscription.

“When you’re given a precious seed that someone has nurtured, and raised, and produced more seeds, it’s an awesome responsibility because you may be one of a few people keeping that particular variety alive,” Ken Ettlinger, the organizer of the event and member of the LIRSC, said. “In order to keep (species) alive, you have to plant them.”

Currently, seeds native to Long Island are commercially available, but the genetic basis is not local, according to LINPI’s informational pamphlet. The push to conserve native biodiversity has gained momentum, and in addition to a swap’s cultural significance, it also enhances crop diversity and genetic strength.

“I think I’m doing my part in…sustaining the environment by growing our own and growing seeds and plants from Long Island,” life-long gardener Toni Arno, said. Arno has been attending the last three years of seed swapping and tries to grow something new every year that is native to Long Island. “It’s good nutritious food that I’m growing myself, and I feel good about it.”

The growing industry and real estate industries, particularly development, are the biggest threats to biodiversity, Brian Smith of LIMPI said. The destruction of land threatens ecosystems and animal habitats.

Biologically speaking, invasive species are just as harmful. They can overtake native plants and drive them to extinction, causing environmental and health impacts. “A lot of life depends on [native] plants,” Smith said.

Some invasive species can even pose direct danger humans.

“Right now, giant hogweed is one of our greatest threats here on Long Island,” he said. Hogweed is a large-leafed perennial with deceptively delicate white flower clusters similar to Queen Anne’s lace. It can cause burns and even blindness if the oil gets into a person’s eyes. It was seen in Manorville as recently as a few years ago.

Seed swaps are efforts to combat these threats. Anderson urged participants to seek out native species at nurseries and seed swaps instead. “Otherwise most of what you will find will be European or Asian, and that’s not very patriotic,” he said. “I’m a patriot. So plant native. These seed-saving folks, they’re not doing it for themselves. They’re doing it for future generations.”