Plants & Gardens Blog

Get to Know Your Native Plants

A “walkabout” is an Aboriginal term for a journey into the wilderness, along which the wanderer would reconnect with stories passed down from ancestors. In the coming weeks, we will be venturing into the wilds of BBG’s Native Flora Garden on a series of Wild Side Discovery Walkabouts for tweens. While we won’t be disappearing into the Australian outback, we will be rediscovering an important part of our own heritage—the amazing stories of our native plants. In both the newly opened Native Flora Garden expansion and the historic wooded section, we’ll get to know some of the secrets of the plants around us. We’ll reveal their quirky survival strategies and their historic uses as love potions, snacks, bug repellent, and breath mints. We’re excited to introduce young botanists and explorers to these incredible stories—below are a few of my favorites.

Sweet fern

Sweet Fern at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Comptonia peregrina leaves have been used for everything from mattress stuffing to pain remedies. Photo by Sarah Schmidt.

It’s pretty easy to tell where sweet fern got its common name—its leaves smell incredibly sweet. That’s why it’s one of my favorite plants to brush past on a hike. Colonists used these fragrant leaves to stuff their mattresses, making for pleasant dreams. Many Native American tribes used the leaves medicinally, as a treatment for everything from toothaches to childbirth. The Penobscot Indians called this plant “ant plant” because of its tendency to grow near anthills, but it can also be planted to repel red ants. Today, sweet fern is threatened or endangered in several states.


Jewelweed at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Impatiens capensis blooms in the Native Flora Garden. Photo by Dave Allen.

Jewelweed is easy to find in local parks. It grows in large stands and produces yellow-orange flowers throughout the summer. Its name comes from the fact that it expels excess water overnight, so that in the morning, its leaves are often covered with beads of water that look like diamond “jewels.” It has also earned the common name “touch-me-not” because of its ballistic seed dispersal—its seedpods are coiled like a spring, and when touched gently, they launch the seeds out at rocket speed, allowing the plant to reseed and spread rapidly. Jewelweed is a great plant to learn to spot, because the juice inside the stems is said to prevent a poison ivy rash if you rub it on your skin after contact. Conveniently, jewelweed often grows right alongside poison ivy plants.


Sundew at Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Drosera intermedia found during fieldwork at Harriman State Park. Photo by Uli Lorimer.

The sundew is a carnivorous plant that carpets local bog habitats in New Jersey and Long Island. It has adapted to nutrient-poor soil by supplementing its diet with a rather gruesome form of insectivory. Sundew leaves are covered with tiny tentacles, each topped by a droplet of shiny, sticky “dew.” Insects mistake this gluey liquid for nectar and are instantly trapped when they land. The leaves then slowly coil up around the struggling insects and digest them with acidic juices.

Visit Wild Side Walkabout for Tweens for details.

Ashley Gamell is a freelance writer and consultant. After a decade on staff at Brooklyn Botanic Garden, she now pens her posts from the Hudson Valley.

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