Saturday, March 1, 2008

Brooklyn Native

A comment posted recently by The Flatbush Gardener got me thinking about native plants. His question, "I'm looking for sources [of seeds] for ecotypes local to or near NYC and Brooklyn, Including Long Island, Any recommendations?" But my resources were old, and in books. So I hit the internet and realized quickly that native is used quite broadly.

When we say "native" to Brooklyn, do we mean native to North American, Eastern, Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic coastal, coastal woodland, coastal wetland, etc. etc? Ten or twenty thousand years ago, Long Island was non-existent to just formed from retreating glaciers. The Flatbush Gardener and I both live on the out wash plain immediately south of the Harbor Hill Terminal Moraine. Any plants that found their way here did so from the mainland and no doubt populations of plants shifted as temperatures were on the rise and the ocean advanced inland. If 10,000 years ago plants were colonizing the Long Island land mass, what were they?

Brooklyn may have a specific geopolitical identity, but it does not have a highly specific identity with regard to its native plants. Those growing here may be the same as those native to parts of New Jersey, Connecticut, Eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Delaware, the Hudson Valley and further. The Nature Conservancy's EcoRegion Map describes our region as North Atlantic Coast. Yet I would feel comfortable saying that Brooklyn has much crossover with another of their named regions, the Lower New England Northern Piedmont.

The benefits of this are great when it comes time to plant natives in our gardens! We can choose from a wider range of plants than if we were planting natives for very specific ecosystems, like the Pine Barrens of Long Island or New Jersey. And this is a boon, because sources for native plants of the Pine Barrens are limited, but sources for natives of the greater region are plentiful.

But how do you know the plants or plant seeds that you are about to purchase are native to our area when they are labeled simply as "native"? Its wise to look to the experts.

For those of us in New York City, we can start with NYC Parks. Visit the Native Plant Center in the Greenbelt on Staten Island (I plan to do so this spring). Check out the Native Flora Garden at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Peruse the Audubon Society's book titled Eastern Forests. The New York Flora Association has an atlas of NY flora that will be useful in determining natives from non-natives. Also check out the NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation site which includes rare native plant listings for New York State. This book LONG ISLAND NATIVE PLANTS FOR LANDSCAPING: A SOURCE BOOK, by Karen Blumer published in 1990 by Growing Wild Publications should be awfully useful if you can find it (used at Amazon).

From these listings and display gardens you can cull true regional natives that work for your particular garden environment as well as the local ecosystem. Jot down specific plant names and then move on to places that sell native plants or seeds.

Locally, we have the Westchester Community College Native Plant Center. They have a plant sale in early May. As I mentioned in a previous post, you can order native plant seeds from the New England Wildflower Society. A group called Plant Native has an excellent website with listings of native plants by region as well as listings by region of nurseries that sell native plants.

Once you know the botanical name for the regional natives you want, you can also go to your favorite nurseries or catalogues to seek them out. Here is a list of some regional native plant suppliers:

Fort Pond Native Plants
Toadshade Wildflower Farm
Environmental Concern - all the way in Maryland but a great service
Partnership for NJ Plant Conservation - a listing of NJ nurseries that sell natives

For a good dose of info on ecotypes, visit Wild Ones.
For more information on the New York Bight Watershed .
More on the New York Bight and Atlantic Coastal Plain .
Another on the geology of our region by the USGS.


  1. Great job! Thanks for this.

    I bought Blumer's book years ago, when it was new. It was an inspiration to me. I especially value her writeup of ecological gradients. "Native" is always relative to the location and purpose.

    And now, also, time. As we slide every deeper into the Anthropocene era, we can't count even on historical "nativeness" to guide us. I'm looking more and more to the Mid-Atlantic, further down the Atlantic Coast, for guidance as to what will do well here in the long-term. Climatically, NYC will migrate to somewhere between D.C. and Savannah, GA later this century, and it won't stop there. Selecting plants that are already at the southern extent of their natural ranges is no longer a sustainable choice.

  2. Choosing plants with a greater temperature range limits the types of plants we can work with here. We need both cold hardiness and future heat hardiness. Southern Piedmont and Coastal plants may not need to survive too much cold and are heat hardy. But we need both currently. I think the issues around native are sticky and will get stickier as we heat up.

    We have people already experiencing greater soil temps in NYC. My garden soil rarely freezes due to a variety of factors. Out in Suffolk County where I grew up, our soil would be frozen solid for many weeks in January or February, most years. The natives that I plant (I have a few) tolerate this, don't appear to mind the lack of deep freeze. But another 5 degrees on top of this may be a different story in summertime. I plant for zero watering. The concrete and the brick foundation behind the garden will amplify the hot sun even further and I may see the plants begin to suffer in summer. My gut feeling is that our natives will tolerate warmer winters but will fare worse in hotter summers especially in micro-climates that push the limits.

  3. thanks for this - just the information I was searching for

  4. Anyone who wants to grow healthy plants should know that location is one of the most important factors that governs successful growth of plants. Most people buy a plant, go out into the garden, dig a hole somewhere, and place the plant in the soil: and when the plant fails to grow, they blame the nursery or soil. Site selection is vital if you want your plants to grow and thrive. Choosing the best site can save a lot of frustration and headaches. native plants tree nursery


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