The Native Plant Garden in NYC

Where New Yorkers Flourish With Indigenous Plants

Why Native Plants? 04/09/2010

What is a native plant?

A native plant is one that naturally occurs in a region without having been introduced from elsewhere by people. New York City natives include mosses, ferns, grasses, sedges and rushes, wildflowers, trees, shrubs, and vines. Over thousands of years, native plants have adapted to the climate, soils, and environmental conditions of our area. They have developed the ability to thrive in our humid summers and freezing winters and to entice local insects, birds, and other animals to pollinate their flowers and disperse their fruits. Native plants are responsible for clean air, pure water, soil stability, flood abatement, and wild animal habitat. Humans depend on these ecological processes every day. Thus native plants are the building blocks of our biological diversity and essential to healthy, functioning ecosystems.

Unfortunately, many of these plants are in decline. Of 2,179 species currently found in New York City, only 1,359 are native (62%). Additionally, many of our native species are now gone from the five boroughs. Such locally extinct plants include beautiful wildflowers like white milkweed and pink ladyslipper orchid. Besides habitat protection, one of the most important ways to give nature a hand is to use native plants in the garden and landscape.

To determine whether a plant species naturally occurs in New York City, you may use a number of sources. Consult a good field guide such as Peterson or Audubon series. Visit a nearby park nature center, arboretum, or botanical garden. Or join a local native plant club; attending frequent field trips will teach you about the local flora. See the Resources section for more information.

What is an introduced plant?

Every plant species is native to somewhere. Introduced (exotic, alien, non-native) plant species hail from other states, regions, or countries. This exotic flora was moved to new areas by people for food (apples, rice) or ornamentation (lilacs, peonies, Queen Anne’s lace) or by accident, as stowaways on commercials ships or packing materials. Over the past 350 years, thousands of plant species have been introduced to the New York area. Most live peacefully with the indigenous flora that was already here.

What is an invasive plant?

Unfortunately, a small but significant number of these introduced species are out of control. They travel from where they were planted (often through bird- dispersed seeds) and run rampant through our parks, damaging local forests, meadows and wetlands. These green bullies smother our native plants, shading them from the sun and effectively starving them to death. Some invasives are so closely related to our indigenous flora that their pollens mix, producing hybrids that overwhelm the local gene pool. This alters the plant’s biology, affecting floral shape, color, or blooming time. Such dramatic change is potentially devastating for the wildlife that depends on native species. Thus invasive plants disrupt biological relationships and degrade natural areas.

Sense of place: Why do yards and window boxes across the country hold the same impatiens, begonias and mums? Most of America’s favorite garden plants hail from places like Europe and Asia. The New York area has its own regional flavor and distinct assemblage of native plants. We should seek out alternatives to hardware stores, corner delis and other outlets that offer “one size fits all”. The NYC Greenmarkets, with their emphasis on locally grown greenery, can help you cultivate a sense of home by sowing local seeds.

Ease of care: When installed in the appropriate habitat, native plants require less maintenance than the exotic alternatives. Once established, they usually need less water. They require no fertilizer and little pest control, having evolved with the area’s insects and diseases. Native plants will save you money (on supplies) and time (on garden care) and will also curtail the amount of toxins (pesticides, fertilizers) used to maintain artificial conditions.

Wildlife bonanza:

Create habitat havens for our native birds, bees, butterflies and other critters. Native plants are critical sources of food and lodging for wildlife. For many locally rare animals, native plants are essential to theirsurvival. For example, the Federally-endangered Karner blue butterfly feeds exclusively on wild blue lupine, both of which are native to New York State. As forests, wet meadows and grasslands are continually lost, gardeners can play an important role in creating habitat for our wild fauna and flora. Added beauty:

New York City has hundreds of native species, most of which would be a gorgeous addition to any garden. These attractive plants meet every horticultural need from ground covers to lovely foliage and hardy bloomers, and all plant shapes: ferns, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees. A native garden could bloom from March to November, providing year round beauty and interest.

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 homegrown greenery to your garden gives natives a chance to reclaim the landscape.

Cleaner waterways:

Native grasses and wildflowers provide excellent erosion control. Increased biological diversity encourages rainwater to enter the soil. Monocultures of groundcover such as lawn, periwinkle, pachysandra and English ivy create high levels of water runoff, thus encouraging local drought conditions and polluting waterways during storm events.

Information from: http://www.nyc.gov/parks