Michael Hagen is Curator of the Native Plant Garden and the Rock Garden at The New York Botanical Garden.
NYBG is a founding member of the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC), a network of now more than 50 leading botanic institutions and conservation partners. Working collaboratively since its founding in 1984, the network’s aim is to prevent the extinction of the imperiled native plants of the United States and Canada, with the only coordinated national program of off-site (ex situ) conservation of rare plant material, the National Collection of Endangered Plants. Believed to be the largest living collection of rare plants in the world, the collection contains over 1,400, almost one third, of America’s most imperiled native plants.
As an important conservation resource, the Collection is a backup in case a species becomes extinct or no longer reproduces in the wild, with live plant material collected from nature under controlled conditions and then carefully maintained as seed, rooted cuttings or mature plants. It is also a valuable resource for the scientific study of these rare plants, their life cycles and seed germination requirements.
While spring might still feel several long weeks away, the first cheerful blooms of the season have already made their debut in the Rock Garden! We’ve been hard at work cleaning beds, raking leaves, and removing the last of the winter debris in order to open the garden as soon as possible for everyone to enjoy. And now we’re ready.
The very first heralds of spring, the winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are still in bloom where they were covered until the last snow to melt, and along with our other early bloomers like snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), snow crocus (Crocus tommasinianus), and winter cyclamen (Cyclamen coum), they’re still putting on a great display. This past week they’ve also been joined by even more early bulbs—netted iris hybrids such as Iris ‘Pauline’, ‘Harmony’, and ‘Katharine Hodgkin’; alpine squills (Scilla bifolia); spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum); and glory of the snow (Chionodoxa sardensis).
Summer’s definitive arrival has brought bold sweeps of color across the Native Plant Garden’s Meadow, and with so much in bloom it might be easy to overlook one of the gems of the garden, the delicate pink and white open blooms of Plymouth gentian (Sabatia kennedyana).
By its flower alone, with its delicate rayed petals and yellow and red central markings, you might mistake this flower for an unusually colored Coreopsis or perhaps a daisy, but when you see its tall, upright stems growing where it’s happy—along the wet edge of the pond next to the Boardwalk, or in among bachelor’s buttons (Marshallia grandiflora) and pitcher plants (Sarracenia sp.)—it’s hard not to realize that this beauty is something very special.
Plymouth Gentian has a patchy distribution in the wild, and can be found in just a few sunny spots in wet, open ground along the sandy and peaty shores of coastal streams and lakes from Nova Scotia to South Carolina. It is one of the few species of Sabatia that is reliably perennial among the 18 or so mostly annual or biennial species that are native to North America.
Asking a curator to pick a favorite plant is akin to asking a parent to tell you their favorite child—surely an impossible choice. Nevertheless, there are moments when, with plants and children alike, they do something that gladdens the heart and captures otherwise divided affections.
Such a moment is upon us in the Native Plant Garden. A visit this week will reward with the sight of spectacular drifts of the native wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Their delightfully fine-textured, almost fern-like foliage is a perfect backdrop to the sprays of delicate, red-spurred flowers, with just a light flush of yellow on the petals and a cluster of exerted yellow stamens. A not insignificant bonus is that they are pollinated by Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and this generous display is sure to offer a welcome sight to any migrating birds that make their way through the garden.