Native Plants

at GNPC of NYC

I write to you today from my cabin in Maine after a tumultuous month. Between finishing my class for the semester, getting my second dose of the Covid vaccine, changing jobs, and relocating, I haven’t prioritized writing…which is why this hastily assembled newsletter is coming at you in the last hours of the last day of May.

One of the final outings I took in New York City this spring was an incredibly educational visit to the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. This greenhouse/nursery/seed banking complex is currently part of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Their website contains so much information about the center’s history, services, and programs that I won’t go into all of it here, but please do check it out if you’re curious.

The facilities themselves look very much like an aging farm kept running by a scrappy team of staff and volunteers that is underfunded and overbooked. In fairness, early May is not the most flattering season in any garden, especially in the Northeast where the race to get a jump start on the season’s planting usually supersedes a much-needed spring cleaning. Having grown up on a ranch, I felt right at home in the dusty barns full of farm equipment covered in chaff. This bee was making good use of some early blooming native Columbine flowers.

My guide was GNPC’s director, Ed Toth, who has been serving NYC’s parks for decades. At the time of our meeting, he was just weeks away from retirement; I’m so lucky to have benefited from his wealth of knowledge and experience before he hung up his hat. In talking with Ed, it became clear that the center serves a unique and vital function. He explained that commercial plant nurseries, which need to make a profit to stay open, tend to stock plants that sell (makes sense), but many of these are introduced ornamentals that have not evolved alongside the native fauna. Because GNPC is funded by the government, they can prioritize biodiversity and genetic integrity in the plants they collect and produce. They also employ union workers, including 2 dedicated seed collectors whom I met fresh from a collection outing - seen here preparing to separate seeds from tree fluff.  

GNCP is currently holding about 500 species of plants, common and rare, that are native to the region. What they plant from year to year depends on project demand and the biomes they are planned for. Projects vary from public park upkeep and restoration to capital projects that incorporate green spaces in their development. The Department of the Interior contracted GNPC to help restore coastal plant species after hurricane Sandy, and the U.S. Forest Service is enlisting their help as they fight the spread of Emerald Ash Borer. Over the years they’ve worked with national and state parks, arboretums, various conservation organizations, and partnering seed banks.

As Ed walked me through the process of seed collection, cleaning, desiccation, and cold storage, he estimated that they’ve gathered up to 13,000 collections in the org’s history. A major effort in the seed saving department is the development of what they call Founder Seed: an effort to cultivate bulk seed mixes with healthy genetic diversity that can be used to rehabilitate large pieces of land. As we walked out into the field where a new generation of Founder plants was growing, he pointed to the 2,000-acre Fresh Kills landfill in the distance. In the coming years, GNPC will participate in the herculean effort to convert the former municipal dump into a public park.

As he prepares to pass the torch to a new director, Mr. Toth spoke frankly about the challenges facing this organization: limited funding, competing city priorities, leadership transitions, and ongoing natural threats (such as the sharp increase in deer populations that have greatly reduced the wild seed stock on Staten Island, or the steady northern migration of plants that can’t tolerate warming temperatures). But he also spoke optimistically about the organization’s potential to grow its seed bank and strengthen regional partnerships as threats to wild native plants increase and restoration projects become a bigger priority for our society. As a science student, I see an incredible opportunity for academic institutions and science educators to collaborate with GNPC on research projects, ecological surveys, genetic analysis, etc.

I look forward to seeing what happens at Greenbelt Native Plant Center in the coming years. If you want to learn about getting involved in the preservation of indigenous plants, be sure to check out this invaluable resource.

Sources:

Greenbelt Native Plant Center, NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

Emerald Ash Borer, USDA Forest Service and Michigan State University

Freshkills Park, The Freshkills Park Alliance

Managing Deer Impacts on Staten Island, Wildlife NYC