Native Plant Resources for Central and Upstate NY

– Posted in: Book reviews, Habitat gardening, Native/Invasive

In 1878, Sherman Stowell sold to Elizabeth Brockett 30 acres of land which he had earlier purchased from George Jennings. I now live and garden with my family on some of that land, which Jennings or Stowell, or perhaps Ms. Brockett, had cleared of trees to make pasture. The forest is growing back, but it’s not the same forest. For one thing, several invasive plants are now growing here, everything from Rosa multiflora to Lonicera tartarica. And where are the trilliums?

Call me a romantic or call me ecologically correct, but I’d like to restore the native flora to my parcel of land, land that was sown to timothy and grazed by cows. How does one go about such a restoration? For starters, you have to know what plants were originally growing there. I’ve taken an informal survey of our property and catalogued all the natives I’ve found. I mention trilliums because they bloom along the roadside further down our country lane. What will it take to grow them here?

Native Plant Reference Books: Compare and Contrast

I recently read three reference works on native plants, trying to find the answer to that question. For each of them, I looked up all the natives growing on our land in them, and compared it to my own experience of those plants. I also checked to see what they had on trilliums. Here’s what I found.

Native Plants of the Northeast: A Guide for Gardening and Conservation by Donald Leopold (Timber Press, 2005). Leopold’s book covers all types of plants: ferns, grasses, wildflowers, vines, shrubs, and trees. He has a nice discussion of regional plant communities and makes the distinction between planting native species and re-establishing a natural community. (The latter is a lot more difficult.) He doesn’t cover hybrids but does include selections of species. His plant descriptions stick to the facts and are pretty much devoid of anecdotes. Propagating information is included with each entry. Lists of plants suited for specific conditions and an extensive bibliography are in the back. Of the wildflowers growing on my property, this book was missing four: Anemone virginiana, Adlumia fungosa, Polygala paucifolia, and a Spiranthes species that only showed up once several years ago and I never managed to identify.

Growing and Propagating Wildflowers of the United States and Canada, and Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines: A Guide to Using, Growing, and Propagating North American Woody Plants, both by William Cullina (Houghton Mifflin, 2000 and 2002 respectively). In the wildflower book (reviewed in more detail here), Cullina, like Leopold, has a discussion of plant communities; in both volumes Cullina discusses what he means by ecological gardening. (Cullina purports to cover plants from all of temperate North America, but I can’t evaluate his coverage of the plants of other North American regions, having lived in the Northeast all my life.) He gives the same factual information that Leopold does, but often adds personal observations or anecdotes to his profiles. In addition to brief propagation instructions for each plant, he goes into much greater detail on propagation in the back of both volumes. The back of the wildflower volume has a list of wildflowers for various sites, sources, and native plant societies. The back of the tree, shrub, and vine book has those three lists plus a list of alternatives to invasive plants and a list of public gardens featuring native plants. Two flowers missing: Adlumia fungosa and Polygala paucifolia.

Armitage’s Native Plants for North American Gardens by Allan Armitage (Timber Press, 2006). Armitage includes hybrids, which neither of the other two authors includes, but he is more restrictive in terms of plant type: herbaceous perennial native plants are profiled almost exclusively, with a few annuals and bulbs thrown in. He has the most quotable introduction (“cultivars are the gardeners’ candy store”), but doesn’t discuss habitats at all. To his mind, his book is about growing native plants in gardens, not about restoring habitat. Armitage is chattier than either of the other two authors, and less precise. He will tell you his personal reaction to each plant, but sometimes neglect to give the height and width of it. His back-of-the-book lists include nurseries, plant societies, internet sites, and books, and the requisite plants listed by use. No Eupatorium fistulosum or Polygala paucifolia, but he did have Adlumia and Spiranthes.

None of these authors told me what I really wanted to know about Trillium grandiflorum, which is, what would make it happy enough to reproduce and form colonies? Leopold says moist circumneutral soil, part sun to part shade. Cullina goes a little further and says Sugar Maple-Beech woodlands. Confusingly, in his introduction to the genus he says they like lime, but when profiling the species says it grows in neutral to acidic rich woods. Armitage also recommends lime but is otherwise unhelpful. What I would really like to know is if there are marker plants that would clue me into the best place to plant trilliums. Something along the lines of, “if you see plant x growing in a certain spot, you can be sure trilliums will do well there, too.”

If you could get only one book, I would pick Leopold’s, because it is more focused on our region and profiles all sorts of plants, woody and herbaceous. For a second book, it depends on what your goals are. You are more likely to find the plants Armitage mentions in a garden center; if you are more interested in restoring habitat, or in propagating your own, Cullina’s books would be more helpful. Ideally, of course, you’d have them all.

Other Native Plant Resources

Wildflowers of New York in Color by William K. Chapman, et. al. (1998, Syracuse University Press, ISBN 0-8156-0470-X). Excellent photos, but makes no distinction between natives and exotics.

Weeds of the Northeast by Richard H. Uva et. al. (1997, Cornell University Press, ISBN 0-8014-8334-4). Believe it or not, some native plants are sometimes considered weeds. Includes photos of seedlings and seeds for the natives it does cover.

The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats of the Eastern United States by Janine M. Benyus (1989, Simon and Schuster, ISBN 0-671-65908-1). A good overview of common habitats, what animals and plants you will find there, and why.

Native Alternatives to Invasive Plants (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide) by C. Colston Burrell (Brooklyn Botanic Garden, 2006 ISBN 1889538744). A good introduction to many of the showiest and most garden-worthy native plants.

Stewardship Garden published by Janet Allen, founder of the central NY chapter of Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization. Her website is an excellent site to get started learning to create a habitat that supports native plants and wildlife.

Leopold vs. Cullina in person

On April 1, 2006, I had the opportunity to hear both Don Leopold and Bill Cullina speak at the 12th Annual Gardening Seminar put on jointly by the Men’s Garden Club of Syracuse and Phoenix Flower Farm.

Don Leopold was funny. Bill Cullina was funnier. He started out by saying, “I’ve decided to deviate from my usual program and tell you about the latest in begonia breeding.” You can hear little murmurs going around the room as people say, “Begonias! I paid to hear about native plants.” Then, as the slides and names got ever more outlandish–a spotted begonia labeled Begonia x hybridus ‘Chicken Pox’, others with legitimate and not-so-legitimate sounding names, leading up to a blue “begonia” that looked an awful lot like a Meconopsis to me (but then, I’ve only seen photos of them). Finally, ta-da! April Fools! The audience laughs and applauds with relief. Frankly, I had forgotten what day it was, so he got me pretty good.

Both men knew their subject well, and introduced me to native plants I hadn’t come across before. But Don Leopold, a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, had an intimate knowledge of Syracuse habitats and plants, especially those that do well on limestone soils. There are some unique wetland habitats in the greater Syracuse region, and Don has studied them extensively. From him I learned that bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) grows in Clark Reservation, and pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is native west of Rochester.

This article originally appeared in the May 2007 issue of Upstate Gardeners Journal in a slightly different form. Elizabeth Licata’s recent post put me in mind to reprint it. While it does focus on native plants in my area, most of the books mentioned will be helpful to anyone in the Northeast.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Jim K March 17, 2008, 12:35 pm

I just discovered your site here and I am really enjoying reading all of the back articles. As a former upstater (Rochester, Syracuse, and many summers as a guide outside of Tupper Lake), it is great to read about *home* again. Thank you.

Now living in central Kentucky I’m fighting the same battle against invasives, in particular Bush Honeysuckle . Its my only deviation from strict organic gardening. I cut it close to the ground, carefully paint the stump with RoundUp , and in a few years a good kick usually knocks the remaining stump our of the soil. Any other treatment, such a cutting down the bush and grubbing our the stump is next to impossible, since the tiniest bit of root left in our rocky soil means hundreds of new sprouts in just a few weeks. Luckily, the paint-on application prevents much “drift” of the herbicide to the surrounding soil, and RoundUp degrades in a few weeks. Short term damage for long term gain, I hope, as I’m replanting with native understory shrubs like sourwood, dogwood, redbud, and pawpaw.

rualway March 10, 2008, 6:06 pm

When we first relocated to Upstate New York from California I was surprised that many around here never considered native plants as garden-worthy. In California many belong to the cult-of-native plants. They are so well adapted to growing there, that it makes the most logical sense to grow natives. The left coast is so intune to habitat-as-gardens, that not growing natives is considered odd. In our corner of eastern Otsego county, we border state land. The woodland across our road (south facing) is a blaze with Trillium in the Spring as well as other Spring etherals. Craig took a lot of photos last year and we played hop-scotch trying not to step on any while he took pictures. The area boasts dappled sunlight and large boulders. The trees are mostly oak, birch and maple. The area has been state land for many years and remains largely untouched.

Don March 5, 2008, 3:53 pm

Kathy… a VERY interesting (and horribly complicated, incompletely understood) topic. As I work with a volunteer organization here that is attempting to save and restore natural areas, this is something we have to deal with a great deal. T. g. is one of the more amenable trilliums, but here in Iowa often associated with basswood-sugar maple-red oak mesic forests with limestone outcroppings. You might find this site useful for New York:

Gail March 5, 2008, 10:37 am

Posts like this resonate deeply with me. I believe that natives make sense on so many levels…and to know your land’s history that is fortunate. Just recently I found out the clerk who works in the dry cleaners grew up in my neighborhood. She was able to confirm my belief that this land had been forest before it was suburbanized…I knew this but talking with her about her experience exploring the woodlands was touching.

Apple March 5, 2008, 7:54 am

I love trilliums and was thrilled to find the woods here filled with both red and white ones. I haven’t tried to move any, they seem quite happy where they are.

I have read the abstracts of several of my houses.

In 1870 Sherman Stowell, farmer, is listed just before Ira Brockett on the census so they most likely had adjoining property. No Elizabeth shown.

In 1880 Ira is listed with his wife Elizabeth and his father-in-law Richard Hotchkiss. Why Elizabeth bought the land instead of Ira is anybodys guess.

I’m not sure just from looking at the census if Ira & Eliz were living on the same 30 acres in 1880.

Kathy Purdy March 4, 2008, 9:02 pm

Jim, I don’t think growing the white trillium is that difficult, as long as it has a soil rich in leaf mold and a partly shady site. It’s the propagation that’s difficult. It takes many years to get from seed to blooming size.

And Craig, you are right about the soil. I was once given rescued trilliums. They were on land owned by a gravel pit, which might have never been disturbed but was soon to be dug for gravel. The soil around the roots was entirely humus, and made me realize how unsuited my soil really was for these woodland emphemerals. I try to mulch heavily with leaves, but the trilliums I have planted in the woods survive more than thrive. They do better in my amended garden soil on the shady side of the house.

Jim March 4, 2008, 8:42 pm

It’s funny you mention trillium. I remember as a kid going out into the woods by our house in Binghamton and seeing trillium growing in the woods. We’d pick ’em for my mom. It’s the first flower name I ever learned. I’ve been tempted to buy some from the catalogs to see if I can get them to grow in my yard now. I’m told their tough to grow. That is one plant that has strong associations for me.

Ellis Hollow March 4, 2008, 8:25 pm

I started some Adlumia from seed a few years ago. If I recall, it’s a biennial and it was really nice the second year. I was hoping it would reseed. But I haven’t seen any since. I’ll have to try it again.

I like the idea of growing natives and restoring communities of plants. But that involves more than growing plants. It means restoring native soils, which is a job that takes centuries.

wiseacre March 4, 2008, 8:07 pm

Nice selection of books. I think I’ll add Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines to my collection.

Good luck with the Trilliums. I have them in the hedgerows between hay fields and they’re one of my prized “possessions”

Kathy Purdy March 4, 2008, 7:39 pm

Thanks for stopping by, Rees. I bet you have different invasive plants in Florida than we have here.

Carol, the chain of title was given to us at the closing and it was several years before I realized what I had. None of the documents mention the house, so I can’t pinpoint when it was built. “One of these days” I’d like to research those early settlers to see if there was some relationship between them. Could Elizabeth be the married daughter of Sherman?

Carol, May Dreams Gardens March 4, 2008, 6:57 pm

I am impressed by your research and your desire to improve your land by bringing back the native plants. I am also impressed that you know who owned the land before you and that a woman once owned it in the 1800’s. That had to be unusual!

Rees Cowden March 4, 2008, 3:29 pm

I applaud your efforts to restore the native habitat. Envasive plants are playing havoc here in Florida and other southeastern states and in some cases we are winning and others not. You’re fighting an uphill battle but it’s a good fight to fight.
Rees Cowden
No Brown Thumbs