Local Ecologist Aims To Preserve Native Plants with New Nursery

Dr. Gary Ray recommends the rare solanum conocarpum plant, above, for those who have limited gardening expertise, because it is difficult to kill.

Dr. Gary Ray, former University of the Virgin Islands botany and ecology professor, is doing his part to conserve native plants on St. John.

Ray, who quit his teaching job to focus on restoration ecology, is planning to open a nursery, where he will grow only native St. John plants to sell to nurseries, landscapers and homeowners.

“When I was a faculty member, and was attempting to get students interested in doing conservation projects, I realized that my best students had no intention of staying in the Virgin Islands,” he said. “I thought, ‘if I want to move ahead with this conservation initiative, I think the first thing the VI needs is a native plant industry nursery.’ It only works when you get to the point where you can grow large numbers and feed the market, directly or wholesale, which I will try to do first.”

Restoration ecology is important to St. John’s forest, said Ray.

Conservation Significance
“Our forest on St. John has a conservation significance that is far greater than the island itself,” he said. “It’s important to the region. That lends conservation urgency to what I try to do.”

Restoration ecology involves two types of conservation—in situ and ex situ, which is what Ray will focus on.

“Ex situ involves what they call protective propagation,” he said. “You sample what is in the wild, grow it in a garden setting, and then reintroduce it into the wild as a way of preventing extinction.”

Ray collects seeds from his own property, roadsides and biological inventories he conducts.

“I can get most of these from the properties that my wife and I own,” he said. “If I’m doing a biological inventory of a large piece of land, I ask that they allow me to collect seeds.”

“Collecting seeds anywhere, except in the case of rare plants, does not harm them at all, and I collect seeds only where I have permission to do so,” Ray said.

A plant will produce tens of thousands of seeds for every plant which survives into adulthood, he added.

Growing from Seeds
Ray has assembled plastic racks of cylinders at his home where he grows the seeds into small plants.

“I adopted a method that the forestry industry does in the west,” he said. “I put plastic racks together with a large number of cylinders. I can fit 100 plants in a space slightly larger than a shoebox.”

The Virgin Islands currently lacks a native plant nursery industry, said Ray.

“Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands is one of the five major hot spots of biological diversity in the U.S., but we don’t have a native plant nursery industry,” he said.

Necessary Industry
This type of industry is necessary, said Ray, because it is difficult to improve the native habitat without the proper plants. “Any time the park service wants to improve the native habitat, they don’t have native plants to do it with,” he said. “Plants are the basis of restoration ecology. Often times, the Park Service asks local landscapers for plants, who have nowhere to go but Florida.”

Although Florida can meet the territory’s needs when it comes to providing plants, problems occur when importing plants from other areas.

Harmful Imported Insects
“Eighty-five percent of the plants being brought in are perfectly harmless with regard to our natural forests,” he said. “What’s even more of a threat ecologically, is those trees in Florida might have pests from Florida that we don’t have. Imported insects are a lot more problematic than imported plants.”

Although reviving the island’s native plants is a huge undertaking, it is something that must be done soon, said Ray.

“Someone has to be there, finding the plants, getting them going, and growing very large numbers of them,” he said. “There’s a real urgency now for me to get the physical part of the business going.”

Ray said he hopes to get a large inventory of plants before considering getting into retail.

“What I would like to do is be relatively free of retail for the first year or two, and get a large inventory at a good size,” he said. “Then I would have the option to do a little retailing.”

“I’m most interested in the conservation goal, and that means growing a lot of native plants,” he said.

Homeowner Consultation
In addition to selling his native plants to nurseries and landscapers, Ray plans to offer consultations with homeowners.

“Eventually, I’m hoping to sell the plants directly to homeowners,” he said. “If a homeowner wants plants from my nursery, they can ask me for a consultation, and I’ll come to their house, look at their surroundings and see what’s appropriate. My number one goal is to provide a conservation-wise option for people who want to put native plants in their yard.”

Ray expects 90 percent of his business to be wholesale, and said he has spoken with one nursery on island, which is interested in cooperating.

He currently has approximately 350 woody species to choose from, and is growing about 1,500 plants at his home.

“Although I have 350 species to choose from, they don’t all have ornamental potential,” he said. “But, to restore an ecosystem, you have to have them all.”

Ray said he has learned which plants are truly native to St. John through this endeavor.

“This is an education business,” he said. “It took me a while to find out what was native, and what wasn’t.”

Ray, who said he hopes to be in business by late summer or fall, said he is not trying to compete with existing nurseries on the island.

Complimenting Existing Nurseries
“I don’t want the nursery people to say, ‘here comes more competition,’” he said. “The truth of the matter is I am complimenting, not duplicating. Just about everything that our nurseries have is not native to the island.”

Essential to Ray’s business will be his Web site, which is not yet up and running.

“My business will have a Web site which will have a whole listing of the plants that I’ve selected for ornamental trade, and I’ll have information and images of those plants,” he said. “The Web site will be very essential, because you can’t understand much about what’s native and what isn’t if you don’t have a solid resource that’s easy to understand.”

Ray said he would like to work together with nurseries and landscapers to determine species that are most wanted on the island.

For more information on Ray’s native plant nursery, contact him at 693-0020 or garyjray@gmail.com.