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April 2006
Give Native Plants a Chance
By Mariellé Anzelone


Large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) is extinct in New York City, but could live on in your garden. Photo Courtesy of M. Anzelone

Conservation is a tough job, especially in New York City. The over 50,000 acres of open space set aside for parkland does not guarantee the survival of the biological diversity housed there. In fact, New York City is thought to have lost more than 30 percent of its native flora. By using native plants in your garden, windowsill or stoop, you can act locally to help preserve our natural heritage.

What is a Native Plant?
A native plant naturally occurs in a region without having been introduced from elsewhere. New York City natives include mosses, ferns and fern allies, grasses, sedges, rushes, wildflowers, trees, shrubs and woody vines.

Over thousands of years, New York native plants have adapted to the climate, soils and environmental conditions of our locality. They have developed the ability to thrive given our rainfall pattern and hours of sunlight, to attract bees and butterflies to pollinate them, to lure birds and small mammals to disperse their seeds. Native plants are the building blocks of our biological diversity and essential to healthy, functioning ecosystems.

Of the 2,179 plant species currently found in New York City, only 1,359 are native. Many of our native species are now historical, including beautiful wildflowers like white milkweed and pink ladyslipper.

To determine whether a plant species naturally occurs in New York City, consult a good field guide, such as the Peterson or Audubon series, visit a nearby arboretum, park nature center or botanical garden, or join a local native plant club.

What is an Introduced Plant?
After habitat destruction, invasive species are the second biggest threat to our natural heritage. Introduced plant species hail from other states or countries and have been brought here primarily by people. This may have been on purpose for food (apples, rice), ornamentation (lilacs, peonies, Queen Anne’s lace) or by accident, as stowaways in commercial ships or packing materials. Over the past 350 years, thousands of plant species have been introduced to our area. Most live peacefully with the indigenous flora that was already here.

Unfortunately, a small but significant number of these introduced species have become invasive. They escape from where they were planted (often through bird-dispersed seeds) and run rampant through our natural areas. Once there, they cause extensive damage to our local forests, fields and wetlands. Exotic invasives smother our native plants, shading them from the sun and effectively starving them to death. Some hybridize with closely related indigenous flora. This changes the fundamental makeup of the local plant, altering its bloom period, color or frost hardiness. This could be devastating for the wildlife that depends on that native species. Thus invasive plants disrupt biological relationships and degrade ecosystems. Despite the ecological damage they cause, invasive species continue to be sold through the horticultural trade.

Why go Native in the Garden?
• Sense of place. The New York area has its own regional flavor and distinct assemblage of native plants. Yet, most of America’s favorite garden plants—begonias and mums—hail from places like Europe and Asia. Cultivate a sense of home by sowing local seeds.

• Ease of care. When installed in the appropriate habitat, native plants require less maintenance than exotic alternatives. They usually need less water, little or no fertilizer or pest control, having evolved with the area’s insects and diseases.

• Create habitat havens. Native plants are critical sources of food and lodging for our native birds, bees, butterflies and other critters. As forests, wet meadows and grasslands are continually lost, every little bit that gardeners can do to create habitat for our wild fauna becomes increasingly important.

• Added beauty. New York City has hundreds of native species, most of which would be a gorgeous addition to any garden. From ground covers to lovely foliage plants and hardy bloomers, a native garden provides year-round beauty.

• Preserve natural heritage. Our local biological diversity has suffered from an onslaught of exotic invasive species. Some introduced garden plants, like dame's rocket, Oriental bittersweet, privet and purple loosestrife, have become noxious weeds. Adding hometown species to your garden gives natives a chance to reclaim the landscape.

How to get Started
First, assess your space. Is it sunny or shady, wet or dry? Choose an ecosystem that most closely resembles your garden site. Purchase plants that have been nursery propagated, do not dig up plants from the wild, as they may be rare. One of the best places to get greenery is at plant sales sponsored by native plant societies. Try the Native Plant Center at Westchester Community College, Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve in New Hope, PA, or the New England Wildflower Society. Also, starting this April, both the Union Square Greenmarket and Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket at Prospect Park will be offering New York City native plants for sale.

• For sunny window boxes and other dry sites, try wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) and seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens).

• For shade gardens, try white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum).

• To attract butterflies, try butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) and scarlet bee-balm (Monarda didyma).

Mariellé Anzelone is the founder of Drosera, a company dedicated to celebrating New York City’s natural heritage and helping people reconnect with nature, and is the botanist for New York City’s Department of Parks. Learn more at

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