“There are plenty of practical reasons to grow native plants,” says Michael Hagen, curator of the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG)’s Native Plant Garden. Since by definition they’ve evolved locally, natives typically cope well right where they’re growing, even in areas of climatic extremes, such as seasonal drought or frigid winters. As a result, they’re economically and generally low-maintenance—requiring less irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticides than nonnatives. What’s more, research suggests that they are superior at fostering native pollinators and other types of wildlife that are endangered in our increasingly developed world.
But it is the special beauty of native plants that is the theme of this garden. With the help of a $15 million gift from the Leon Levy Foundation, and along with the renowned landscape-architecture firm Oehme, van Sweden, and Associates, the NYBG has created a garden that overturns every negative cliché that has kept native plants out of the horticultural mainstream. It marshaled some 75,000 plants into boldly intermingled sweeps of color over 3.5 acres. Centered on a grand water feature—a biofiltered canal with waterfalls and a sustainably harvested black-locust boardwalk—the garden is irresistible in any season, from the first burst of woodland ephemerals in spring to the russeting seed heads that fill the landscape with birds in fall.
One beauty secret of this garden was the controversial decision to include cultivars—nursery-selected clones—of native plants. Wildflower purists may insist on using only wild-type, seed-propagated plants, but because the NYBG was intent on captivating its visitors as well as teaching them about native flora, it made exceptions for a few glamorous or robust clones. For example, growers of wildtype shadbush (Amelanchier spp.) usually do not enjoy this shrub’s fall color, because fungal diseases strip it of foliage every summer. Instead, NYBG gardeners selected the disease-resistant cultivar Amelanchier ‘Autumn Brilliance’; this hybrid of two native species keeps its leaves intact and turns an incandescent red in autumn.
The best example of the garden’s overall strategy is found in the four-season native border at the garden’s southwestern corner, where natives have been assembled into a glorious traditional perennial border. The idea was to create a feature that visitors could translate to their own landscapes, thus endowing their yards with a genuine sense of place.
Hagen happily describes the Native Plant Garden as “sticky,” meaning that visitors arrive in crowds and tend to linger. When they do go home, they take inspiration with them. That’s the true measure of success for this new kind of native-plant garden.