Winter has arrived, but gardens will still be blooming at local parks

Some plants can withstand bone-chilling temperatures, like hellebore flowers that have been planted at Madison Square Park. (Pictured) Hellebores that bloomed last winter (Photo by Stephanie Lucas)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

Despite the deep freeze that has taken over the city for the last week, local parks are still expecting flowers to be blooming during the winter months. The resident plant experts for both Stuyvesant Cove Park and Madison Square Park told Town & Village that the prolonged cold shouldn’t have a lasting impact on the vegetation in the parks and both spaces have plants that not only can withstand the chilly weather but can also bloom in the frigid temperatures.

Stephanie Lucas, director of horticulture and park operations for Madison Square Park, said that there are a number of winter-blooming plants in the park but one of the most plentiful is witch hazel, which, while more commonly-known to consumers as an astringent available at Walgreens, is also a native plant to the northeast.

Witch hazel at Madison Square Park (Photo by Stephanie Lucas)

“We have one of the bigger collections (of witch hazel) in New York State,” she said. “It’s hard to find winter-blooming things so they’re one of the big species of plants that flower during the winter. It’s pollinated by a tiny moth that beats its wings really fast to stay warm, which is unusual for a winter-blooming plant.”

Another plant in Madison Square Park that produces flowers this time of year is hellebore. Lucas said that hellebore has evergreen foliage and it usually blooms in January and February.

Lucas said the plants in the park are resilient and can deal with the “stress” of cold weather because they can still get water, but it can become a problem when the ground is frozen and the plants are unable to get water so their leaves start to fall off.

“About three years ago, it didn’t really go above 30 degrees much for about four to six weeks, and we lost some holly bushes that had been in the ground for 20 years,” she said. “We replaced them with hardier varieties.”

Even though they’re only about six blocks apart, there are different environmental considerations for Madison Square Park and Stuyvesant Cove, said Stuy Cove park manager Liza Mindemann.

“We’re a little more exposed because of the river so we have to choose carefully,” she said.

Meanwhile, Mindemann said that one of the challenges of helping plants thrive in the park isn’t necessarily due to the climate. “Native plants are highly adapted to very specific soil profiles and conditions that can be hard to recreate in an artificial setting,” she said. “We have pretty generic garden soil but because we have this altered habitat, it is possible our plants are a bit more vulnerable to extreme conditions. We do focus our planting choices on hardy, durable and more adaptable varieties because of our setting and because we are a public park, though, and the well-established plants should do just fine even in the extreme cold for this reason.”

Zizia aurea at Stuyvesant Cove Park last winter (Photo by Liza Mindemann)

Mindemann explained that “native plants” doesn’t necessarily refer to vegetation that grows naturally right in Stuyvesant Cove but that the plants are native to the state, and more specifically, this “ecoregion,” which helps the park decide what might do well here.

Mindemann said that Zizia aurea, a native plant that has been planted at Stuy Cove and that is host to the black swallowtail butterfly larva, doesn’t exclusively bloom in the winter but does occasionally offer a few bursts of color during the cold months. Mindemann said that the Zizia flowered prior to the holidays and is not actively blooming at the moment, but she expects that it will bloom again before winter ends.

Although it’s not the first thing that comes to mind in the winter, Lucas noted that the overall warming climate is actually a bigger concern for plants.

“(The cold weather) is kind of a fluke thing,” Lucas said. “Realistically we’re dealing with the temperature getting hotter.”

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