Planting the Past

A gardener revives Manhattan’s native plant species

The garden that will bloom this spring at New York University will be unlike any other in Manhattan. That's because it was planted entirely with varieties that were native to the island four centuries ago.

George Reis, supervisor of sustainable landscaping at the university, prepared a 2,200-square-foot plot near the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library and filled it with 37 indigenous species no longer common in the city. "I wanted to create a garden that gives a sense of place by using native plants in a beautiful way," says Reis. "People think native species are not attractive, that they are weedy." But this small snapshot of Manhattan's agrarian past will undoubtedly be beautiful.

Reis wasn't always a preservationist—or a horticulturist, for that matter. He came to gardening in 1995 after answering an ad that New York University placed in The New York Times. ("I wanted to study Portuguese literature," he says, "and the job came with free tuition.")

2010 Green Issue IconUnexpectedly, his interest in horticulture grew, especially after he attended a lecture by Darrel Morrison, a landscape architect known for his creative use of indigenous plants. Morrison's philosophy that native vegetation plays a role in landscape design and restoration work inspired Reis.

When the class of 2008 began considering a $25,000 legacy gift for the university, Reis suggested the garden. Morrison was hired to help design it, relying on research by the Mannahatta Project—a program of the Wildlife Conservation Society studying the ecology of Manhattan at the moment of European settlement in 1609. With a species list in hand, Reis and Morrison searched the country to locate the plants, finding serviceberry in Ohio, for example, and bloodroot in Maryland.

Part of the fun, Reis says, was discovering the history behind some of the species' common names. For instance, Dutchman's breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) was named for the flowers' resemblance to settlers' pants, and a blooming serviceberry (Amelanchier) indicated to the early pioneers that the ground had thawed enough to bury those who had died over the winter.

Reis hopes the garden will provide a lesson in reviving native habitats and plant species: "The aim is to draw a person in with something that looks attractive, and hope it motivates them to support efforts in preservation and conservation."

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