The Role of Native Plants

Native plants are a a vital component of the ecosystems of the northeast. These ecosystems include plants, animals, insects, fungi, and microbes. When one component of an ecosystem is in decline, the entire ecosystem is threatened. Our native plants provide shelter, food, and breeding sites for our native mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and insects. Once abundant throughtout the northeast, many native species are now increasingly hard to find in the wild. Loss of habitat due to development, and the explosion in deer population since the 1930s are both major factors in the decline of our native plant species. To some degree, birds and animals have had to turn to alternate sources of food and many populations have declined - some drastically.

Another consequence of decreased diversity and abundance of our native plants is that the door is left open to opportunistic invasive plants, now transported around the world more easily than ever. Invading plants often take over precious habitat and ourcompete native species due to lack of native predators. Disturbed sites are especially prone to colonization by invasive weeds.

One of the best things we can do for the health of our entire local environment is to increase the population of native plants, while trying to eliminate invasive species. Each native plant is associated with a particular group of animals which make use of it for food, shelter, or breeding. An excellent list, broken down by plant and animal species can be found HERE. Thus, if you are very interested in butterflies or hummingbirds, you can search out the plants that attract those species. Overall, the best approach is to attempt to establish a diversity of plants which will attract a diversity of wildlife.

Invasive Species

Some highly invasive spedies have ornamental qualities and are still sold in nurseries in NY (though they are banned in other states). These include Barberry and Burning Bush, which should be avoided completely. Other notable invasives to look for on your property include wild rose, Japanese knotweed, phragmites (a tall marsh grass), and Japanese forest grass.

More information about birds, butterflies, aquatic wildlife, coping with deer, and creating the most diverse and abundant garden is provided in the links on the left of this page. More information about invasive species in specific regions can be found HERE. Information about species distribution and habitats can be found HERE.

What do we mean by "native"?

It may have occured to you to wonder what people mean by the term "native". This is a good question, and in fact has no definitive answer. Some people consider that any plant that naturally grows in the United States or North America to be a native plant. Other people only consider a plant to be truly native if it has been found growing in their particular town, county, or state. Our own preference when talking about native plants is to consider any plant that naturally grows east of the Mississippi and can thrive in our climate, to be native. This is based on our natural history and the way seeds are dispersed. The main avenue by which seeds are dispersed over long distances is via animal migration, and especially bird migration. Migrating birds have a nearly exclusive North-South migration pattern, from Florida up to the tundra of Canada. Few, if any species traverse the continent east to west. Because the east and west coasts are separated by a vast expanse over which seeds migrate only very slowly, these areas have historically developed distinct populations of plants. Thus, we don't consider species native to the west coast to be native species in our area. We would allow, however, a species more commonly seen in the mountain of South Carolina to be considered native, as it is feasible that the seeds of such could be carried by migrating birds and establish here on their own. This is historically how all the plants of the Northeast came to be in the first place. 10,000 years ago this region was covered by glaciers and stripped down to bare rock. When the glaciers receded, all the plants that repopulated the area were carried from further south, beyond the reach of the glacier.

Having said this, it must also be noted that the East Coast is broken up into a number of distinct ECOREGIONS, with a unique set of environmental and soil characteristics and a unique set of flora and fauna. For the most part, plants will perfer to live in a particular ecoregion, and some plants will be happy to live in a number of differnet ecoregions. In general, it is a good idea to focus on plants that historically grow within your local ecoregion, as you know they are generally suited to your area. It is imperitive to realize that most all plants also perfer a specific microclimate, which will vary greatly, even across one property. For this reason, we allow consideration of plants from other ecoregions to be used in our native designs if their native microclimates correspond closely to microclimates found on the design site, and they do not show invasive tendencies towards the more common plants of our ecoregion.

Information about and a map of our 182 North American level III ecoregions designated by the EPA can be found on the pages listed below. You may want to locate your local ecoregion and do a google search of that name to find more specific information. In general, there are 3 main ecoregions which pass through our local area. The region running along both sides of the Hudson and extending away from the river somewhat, are part of the Eastern Great Lakes and Hudson Lowlands ecoregion. Further west and east - into the Hudson Highlands, Shawangunks, and Catskills - we pass into the Northeastern Highlands ecoregion. South of route 17 we get into mountainous land which was never touched by glaciers, known as the North Central Appalachians ecoregion. To the south we may also experience extensions of the Ridge and Valley ecoregion, and driving west through the Southerntier we will pass through the Northern Appalachian Plateau and Uplands ecoregion.

The Nature Conservancy Map of NY Ecoregions is slightly different, but similar.

Another widely used and informative classification system is the Potential Natural Vegetation Groups (PNV) (aka Kuchler Plant Associations) system, which maps the potential climax plant communities of North America. Again, you can locate your PNV zone and do further research into the associated plant communities. A good map showing regional scale zones can be found at the the following site:

From the above map, we can see that our area is dominated by the Transition Appalachian Oak - Northern Hardwood group(green) with the scattered Mixed Mesophytic Forest group (light blue) also being common. Less common are scattered patches of the Northeast Oak-Pine group (turquoise), Northern Hardwoods-Spruce group (dark green), Northern Hardwoods group (yellow), and Mosaic Bluestem/Oak-Hickory group (very light blue). Northern Hardwoods is aka Beech-Maple Forest.

White Pine is currently quite prolific in the Catskill region - a fact which is not represented directly in the PNV. This is because white pine is a mid-successional species, which, in our climate will eventually give way to a hardwood forest if left undisturbed. Other areas of unique climax vegetation such as mountain plateus of stunted pitch pine, common at some higher elevations, also do not appear on the map as their populations are too localized to be noted on a large-scale map.

A highly detailed, localized, and interactive map of current land use and existing vegetation types and ecosystems can be found at this USGS site:

A complete tutorial on how to use this map to locate detailed information on your own local ecosystem is available on this website.

A good list of plants native to the Catskill Region can be found at the Catskill Native Nursery website listed here:

Pictured Below: Wild Tiarella and Azalea

FernCreek Design * Olivebridge, NY 12461
(845) 657 - 0324 *
Serving the Catskills, Shawangunks, and Hudson Valley including Ulster County, Dutchess County, Kingston, New Paltz, Woodstock, Saugerties, Phonecia, Wawarsing, Accord, Marbletown, Naponach, High Falls, Rosendale, Stone Ridge, Tillson, Gardiner, Hurley, Shokan, Rhinebeck, Rondout, Port Ewen, Hillside, Lincoln Park, Connelly, Eddyville, Bloomington, Esopus, Pine Bush, Boiceville, Olivebridge, Krumville, and surroundng areas.