Taking Cues from Nature's Design

By TOM DRESSER

Native plants are the keynote of the landscaping at Up-Island Cronig's in West Tisbury. There is woodland with viburnum, beach plum, winterberry and high bush blueberry, as well as aroria and shadbush. An intermittent wetland can be found by the parking lot drain, where beetlebung, shadbush, iris and joepye weed flourish. Native pine, sheep fescue, inkberry, switchgrass and little blue stem grow on the edge of State Road.

Photo

In short, the property is a testament to the Vineyard's rare sandplain grassland habitat.

Sitting on a stoop with the architect of this landscape, Carlos Montoya, one senses his appreciation for native plants. He plucks a strand of little blue stem and rubs it between his fingers. "Very adaptable," he says. "It's a warm season grass, indigenous. It isn't brown like the lawns around here."

Mr. Montoya operated a landscape business and Pitch Pine Nursery in West Tisbury for 13 years. He sold it this summer because the nursery and landscaping distracted him from his true calling. "My specialty has always been native plants, but there's just nobody else doing it, so there's not even that much awareness of what can be done with native plants," he says.

He smiles ruefully, adding: "It's a stretch to get anyone to go native."

Mr. Montoya's goal is to preserve and protect the globally unique environment on the Vineyard - in particular the sandplain grasslands, which are characterized by open, grassy plains with scattered patches of low shrubs and ground cover plants. "I'm focusing on the main actors among grasses, sandplain wild flowers and woody ground cover such as bearberry and low-bush blueberry," he says.

Grassland habitats support high concentrations of rare and endangered plants and animals. It has been estimated that over 90 per cent of the worldwide acreage of sandplain grassland habitat occurs on Nantucket, Tuckernuck and the Vineyard.

Mr. Montoya's knowledge on the subject is encyclopedic.

"Little blue stem is kind of the core grass of the sandplain grassland," he says, adding the historical note that the seed originated in the prairie states. "Somewhere along the line, with weather running from west to east over the years, different conditions, higher humidity, sand, salt and wind from the ocean, created an end result that is different.

"Environment has a very pronounced effect on plants in the short run, and even more so in the long run," he adds. "Darwinian adaptations [take place] over centuries, with plants that started from seed in the Middle West over the years converting themselves." Butterfly weed and New England blazing star also have prairie state ancestry, and are distinctly different from their Midwest cousins.

Even within the Vineyard landscape, certain plants are indigenous to specific sites. Stiff aster is unique to Aquinnah Circle, New England blazing star is exclusive to Chappaquiddick and there is a sole moor or heath on Moshup Trail.

Mr. Montoya recently read a report that confirmed his views about the origin of the habitat on the Island.

He said it explained "how the sandplain grassland got established, considering that it was originally forested. Those sandplain grasslands began and were able to sustain themselves in land that had been worked agriculturally by white men. The agriculture area became fallow and became the nursery site for the seed babies, probably in the 1800s. It happened progressively."

As the sandplain grassland evolved into a forest through natural succession, the habitat for the heath hen was eliminated and the little guinea hen became extinct, he said. The Vineyard is now about 80 per cent forested.

Mr. Montoya strives to replicate the sandplain grassland by encouraging propagation of native plants.

"I have confidence soils and plants will regenerate and the sandplain grassland will take off. Seeds are opportunistic and take advantage of the situation," he says. He waves at the plants he raised from native seed; they are taller and fuller than many plants that grow in the wild. "I give them TLC and regular irrigation, native soil."

He also is actively working to spread the message among others in the industry.

"I work with landscape architects to make them aware of the beauty and unique quality of native plants, and environmental consultants to consider the impact of allowing unlimited forests or unsettling the land," he says.

Of landscape architects in particular, he adds, "If they're excited by the subject and believe it's beautiful and the right thing to do and will make their client happy, then they're going to spec it in.

"The truth is that only people with enough discretionary income to do something dramatic can talk about converting two to three acres of wooded land into sandplain grassland. Little blue stem would be the perfect meadow because it'd be at its tops in the hottest weather, just when you're there."

Mr. Montoya also thinks government should be involved in the perpetuation of the Island's unique habitats.

"I think the towns need to take more leadership in the role of protecting the Vineyard. They need to make the native plants available," he says. "In Aquinnah the goal is to preserve the native and wild character of the town and to make sure that the globally unique areas are not disturbed."

He already has made his mark up-Island. "I called up the Chilmark library and said I'd like to donate a demonstration native garden. Now they have a very long expanse of native plantings in front of the library. That's what I need, so people can see native plants through the season." He plans to do the same at the Aquinnah library.

As for his landscape design at Up-Island Cronig's, he says it is already doing its part to raise awareness and generate interest: "I can't tell you how many times people say, ‘What's that plant I see at Up-Island Cronig's?'"

Copyright ©2005 Vineyard Gazette