The Soapbox: A plant is not just a plant

Regular park angel volunteers: Orlinda Calmeid, Tom Eccardt, Maria Pia Belloni and Barbara Bienenfeld (Photo by Liza Mindemann)

Regular park angel volunteers: Orlinda Calmeid, Tom Eccardt, Maria Pia Belloni and Barbara Bienenfeld (Photo by Liza Mindemann)

By Liza Mindemann, Stuyvesant Cove Park manager

As many of you already know, Stuyvesant Cove Park is a native species plant park. When we have school groups one of the first questions I ask is, “can anyone tell me what a native plant is?” It’s a harder question to answer than one might think, but the simple answer is that native plants are those species that naturally occur in a region and have evolved and adapted over many thousands of years to the specific conditions of that geographic area.

Many of us don’t think of gardens as having any purpose outside of providing beauty, or perhaps growing food to eat. But today, our gardens are actually one of the last chances we have to preserve the diverse species of plants, insects and wildlife that once prolifically populated our region. Due to urban development, NYC has already lost 30 percent of its native plant varieties. This brings me to the second question I usually ask school groups, “Does anyone know why native plants are important?” Native plants are important for many reasons, including the role they play in sustaining our ecosystems by reducing erosion and flooding, cleaning our water and air and by providing food and habitat for all the insects that our farms depend upon. Interestingly, native plants are not just food to any and all insects that pass by; often, they are food to only one particular insect.

The Monarch butterfly is a great example of what we call a specialized relationship. Monarch caterpillars eat milkweed, a plant that is poisonous to most other insects. By developing immunity to the toxins in milkweed, monarch caterpillars enjoy limited insect competition for food, but they have also specialized to that one particular plant so that they are not able to eat anything besides milkweed. If milkweed disappears from our yards and gardens, so will the monarchs; this specialized relationship proves true for nearly all butterflies so if we lose one of these special native plants, we also lose that special butterfly.

Not all insect/plant relationships are specialized, but it is true that native plants support a greater number of insects than non-native plants. For example, one of the most popular street trees is the gingko; I see them all the time as I walk through the city. There have been four caterpillars reported as using the gingko for some part of their life-cycle. Compare that with the 557 varieties of caterpillars supported by our native oaks and it becomes clear that native plants are playing a very important role in supporting insect life and thus the ecosystem particular to their natural habitat (Doug Tallamy, Bringing Nature Home). What eats insects? Birds (among many other creatures)! If there are fewer insects to eat because so many of our native plants are being replaced with non-native varieties, we can also imagine what that does to the creatures in the food chain that rely on insects for food, such as birds and so on up the food chain.

At Stuyvesant Cove Park we have over 100 different varieties of native plants, and we continue to work to expand our biodiversity each season. This spring we made a very exciting and important addition to our park. A species of flowering plant called Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae, also called New England Blazing Star, used to grow wild on Long Island and is now extinct there. ArcheWild Native Nurseries, a supplier to the New York City Park system, gifted this beautiful plant species using seeds from a sustainable source.

We are very excited to be able to provide a little section of reclaimed territory for this rare native plant in a location within its natural EcoRegion (an EcoRegion is an ecosystem specific to a geographic area). We hope the seedlings thrive and that we too can be a source for further seed collection and have a hand in re-populating the region with this special flower.

It is easy to forget that we humans are a part of this ecosystem as well. We rely on plants for many things, and we have a huge impact on the delicate balance of this bionetwork. We rely on plants for oxygen production, the filtering of our air and water, erosion prevention and buffering from floods and extreme weather systems. Carbon is one of the major pollutants in our environment, and it is something we as humans produce a lot of, in fact it is the primary greenhouse gas we emit (EPA). Plants sequester carbon, which means they store carbon in their tissues thus removing it from the atmosphere. Basically, plants do a lot for us and we rely on them more than we even realize.

There are many things we can do to help support our local ecosystem, and planting native plants is one great way to get involved. I hope you will stop by the park and find out more about the plants we have and how you yourselves can start your own native plant gardens, or help us to maintain ours! As serious as all this sounds, it is really fun to dig in the dirt, plant and water and enjoy being outside. The first step in creating future stewards of the environment is just the enjoyment of being outside and appreciating the green spaces we have. Our next volunteer day is June 18 from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and we will have a pizza lunch compliments of the Stuyvesant Cove Park Association. For questions or further inquiries, please email liza@solar1.org.

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