The Native Flora Garden

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Native Flora Garden, BBG’s first specialty garden, turns 100 this year. Comprising only plants native to New York City and the surrounding area, it provides a glimpse of what Brooklyn could be like in its most natural state. In 2011, BBG commemorates the Native Flora Garden’s remarkable history with a yearlong celebration of natives. In doing so, the Garden hopes to bring awareness to an issue that will affect the next generation’s ability to enjoy the beauty and environmental benefits of plants that are uniquely qualified to thrive in New York City.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s stewardship of natives began with the 1911 opening of the Local Flora section, designed by BBG’s first curator of plants, Norman Taylor. Taylor brought to the project a wealth of scholarly and field research on native plants, and he spent much time and effort seeking out species within a 100-mile radius of New York City that were “rare and difficult of cultivation.” Some examples listed in BBG’s records include wake-robin (Trillium species), goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), and may-apple (Podophyllum peltatum).

The garden was redesigned in 1931 by Henry K. Svenson. He envisioned a more organic woodland retreat, with plants arranged into communities, as they would be found in nature. This plan yielded one of the first ecologically themed native plant gardens of its kind in the United States. Native Flora Garden curator Uli Lorimer said of the design, “Few visitors realize that nearly every tree and shrub was intentionally planted in this garden. The natural aesthetic is carefully cultivated to give the illusion of wildness while giving the visitor an opportunity to learn about local plants, their habitats, and the web of relationships that lend regional character to the northeastern United States.”

The variety of plants found in today’s Native Flora Garden has been greatly enhanced and expanded in partnership with BBG’s Science department. Over the past two decades, through the New York Metropolitan Flora Project (NYMF), scientists at BBG have been mapping plant species distribution in every county within a 50-mile radius of New York City. NYMF currently provides distribution details for more than 3,000 native and nonnative species. Park and garden professionals use this project’s findings as a guide for conserving native species and remediating habitats in the city’s public spaces and gardens.

BBG’s Native Flora Garden. Photo by Rebecca Bullene.

“Yearly joint field trips into varied habitats bring in new species and add valuable cultural information about the plants found in the region,” said Lorimer. “This garden’s intimate relationship with NYMF underlies BBG’s ongoing and continued support of native plant conservation and biodiversity in the New York City area.”

As part of BBG’s celebration of native plants, this summer’s interpretive trail, Native New Yorkers: Know Your Neighbors in Nature, will draw attention to indigenous species throughout the Garden. Highlights of the trail include ideas for container plantings with natives, an area dedicated to native cultivars, a special children’s brochure, and a gallery exhibit that showcases the beauty of local plants. “I hope that as visitors explore this trail, they will come to appreciate why natives are important and maybe even recognize a native neighbor in their own backyard,” said director of Interpretation Sonal Bhatt.

In 2012, BBG’s commitment to display and preserve native plant communities will be strengthened as the Native Flora Garden undergoes a two-acre expansion, reintroducing two important ecosystems—a coastal plain meadow and a pine barrens habitat—whose sun-loving plant communities have been crowded out by the increasingly dense canopy of trees. Both habitats will be planted using as many wild-collected specimens as possible, which—particularly in the case of the pine barrens—will make them unique among public gardens in the region.

“Imagine how prescient our founders were to have planted the Native Flora Garden 100 years ago, before urbanization threatened numerous native species with local extinction,” said BBG president Scot Medbury. “This garden gives visitors uncommon access to the environmental heritage of a city that so many of us call home. We are thrilled to be able to celebrate this garden’s remarkable past while planning for its future.”


Alison Weeks is the Membership associate at BBG.


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