Native Plants a Chance
By Mariellé Anzelone
(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
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.
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
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
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
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
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