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Ruth Parnell and the Natives

Ruth Parnall

“When you have such a huge list of native plants, [as we do in New England] you don’t need exotics,” Ruth Parnall said as she handed me pages of native grasses, wetland wildflowers, ornamental shrubs, vines and trees. Then she handed me a list of books that would give me even more names of natives.

Her comment reminded me of the enormous traffic of our native plants to England in the 1700s. John Bartram, often considered the first American botanist, turned his botanical and horticultural hobby into a business, sending hundreds of native American plants to Peter Collinson in England who sent them on to the owners of great estates who longed for our beautiful trees and plants.  Since then, some of those plants like goldenrod, Solidago, have come back to us in hybridized form.  Parnall is not the first to appreciate the richness of our own native flora.

Like so many women, Parnall did not travel a straight career path from being a student to being a professional landscape architect. She left college without a degree to work as a secretary for House and Garden Magazine, traveled, and then worked in Rochester where she grew up. She finally returned to school, and partly because she “liked being able to name trees,” she studied and received her degree in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois-Urbana.

She went to work for the planning department of the City of Indianapolis where “I was naïve and spoke my mind when others would have been more prudent,” she said about the public hearings where she defended the position of the department.

It was her marriage to Don Walker, of the Conway School of Landscape Design, that brought her to our area. It was Walker who got her interested in the beauty and importance of native plants. “He was a strong advocate for the native landscape. It was rough going sometimes, but I went willingly. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.

Now Parnall’s passion for, and love of native plants shows up in her own landscape design business and in her collaboration with Virginia Sullivan. Together they operate Learning by the Yard which creates master plans for naturalizing school grounds and other environments for children as well as providing teacher training and workshops for those in private and public schools.

Happily, there is more and more acknowledgement of the importance of the natural world for children’s emotional and mental development. As even young children spend more time in front of a screen, it seems to take more thought to get them into the outdoors and be a part of the natural systems that sustain us.

Her aesthetic sense and knowledge of plants has led her to an interesting job as Curator of the gardens at Manitoga, the 75 acre estate that belonged to Russel Wright, one of the most important designers of the 20th century. His simple modern designs were carried out in dinnerware, pottery and melamine, as well as furniture. For several years one of his popular lines of furniture was produced by the Conant-Ball Company in Gardner Massachusetts.

As Curator Parnall says she  [among other things] takes periodic tours of the landscape with an arborist to survey particular areas and do the necessary pruning to preserve views that Wright had created in his design. “Wright did theater design; he knew how to make a view dramatic.  His love of nature was such that he wanted nature to reveal itself and used native trees. . . . He created several ways of crossing water because he wanted people to take notice – one bridge was flexible to move as you crossed. Another bridge was simply an 18 inch wide planed log.

“On one path a large white pine was knocked down in a storm, but Wright left it for people to admire the root array,” Parnall said.

Like Wright, Parnall has no interest in maintaining a fine lawn. Near the Manitoga house Wright had moss, along with peastone and mulch paths.

She suggests that homeowners calculate how much lawn they actually need for certain activities, playing, walking, and then consider what other plantings, hardscaping and paths can be used.  Most of us want more from our domestic landscape than lawn; we might want edible plantings, vegetables, berries and even fruit trees. We may want flowers and plants that welcome wildlife. We may need privacy screens of trees and shrubs. A smaller lawn will also take less energy to maintain, physically and environmentally.

I think it is important to remember that a lawn of any size should be cared for organically because there are statistics that show fertilizers and herbicides from lawns carried away by storm water cause more pollution in our waterways than runoff from farms. When we love our landscapes, we must learn how to protect them in every way we can.

Some of the resources Ruth Parnall passed on to me include: Flora of Berkshire County, Massachusetts by Pamela B. Weatherbee 1996 Berkshire Museum; American Plants for American Gardens by Edith A. Roberts and Elsa Rehman 1996 University of Georgia; Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb  1977 Little, Brown & Company. I  would add books on native plants by William Cullina including Native Trees, Shrubs and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing and Propagating North American Woody Plants. For those who want to know more about the traffic of American plants to Britain there is The Brother Gardeners by Andrea Wulf.

Between the Rows 19, 2011

2 comments to Ruth Parnell and the Natives

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  • Stuart Krantz

    Hi! I’m a FL Native. I’ve lived in Williamsburg since November 2013. I want to plant natives for pollinators and I have land for solar that is in dire need of natives that are short. I have a limited budget so if you have any suggestions where I can access these type of economical things, I would appreciate it.
    I bought about 25 plants from Nasami (sic) last fall and they are planted. Hopefully, some made it through the winter. I have another lot coming from FEDCO (hopefully native?) in the spring. I also have over a lb. of their seeds which I will plant in the spring. AND, I’m growing indoors about 36 milkweeds (unfortunately from MN) which if they sprout, I will plant for monarchs.
    The more the better as I have the land but have too much to do for our energy efficient home, not yet under construction, to spend much time on the wildlife garden. (As much of my yard as possible, I don’t want grass.)
    I read of Don Walker’s interest in native plantings when I read the latest CSLD brochure and my search for him, via mostly Google, lead me to Ruth Parnell and this blog.
    Any assistance you can tell me would be welcomed. Thanks!
    Stuart Krantz
    stuartkrantz@gmail.com
    413-636-7926

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