History of New York Flora
When the European colonists arrived on North American shores in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they brought with them – both intentionally and accidentally – numerous plants that rapidly colonized the land. Wherever they and their domestic animals walked, it seemed, alien plants took root. Indeed, the Algonquians dubbed the plantain weed “Englishman’s Foot.” Forbs and Eurasian grasses (which had migrated with the herds as animal domestication fanned across Europe from its Neolithic beginnings in the Middle East) were in the cattle feed on ships that transported both cattle and humans from Europe to the Americas. Clover and Kentucky bluegrass (a misnamed Eurasian species) were deliberately sown together by English colonists as an excellent forage crop; both spread across North America like wildfire.

In 1650, Adriaen Van der Donck, a lawyer turned gentleman farmer in New Netherland, made a list of “the healing herbs” he found here. His jumbling of Latin and common names makes it difficult to identify a few of them, and a number of them are not native at all, indicating that they had quickly naturalized. Native herbs he listed included
sweet flag, Solomon’s Seal, wild indigo, laurel, snakeroot, and jewel-weed; naturalized alien plants included plantain, shepherd’s purse, and blessed thistle. He described the medicinal values of the herbs: “The land is full of different kinds of herbs and trees besides those enumerated, among which there undoubtedly are good simplicia, with which discreet persons would do good; for we know that the Indians with roots, bulbs, leaves, &c. cure dangerous wounds and old sores. . . .” (simplicia were herbal remedies).

John Josselyn, who visited New England in the seventeenth century, found the familiar weeds he knew back home, including
dandelion, sow-thistle, shepherd’s purse, nettles, nightshade, plantain, mayweed, mullein and wormwood.

In the early 1800s, Samuel Mitchell, physician and surgeon-general of New York State, amassed a private collection of wild plants in the New York City region, listing their known medicinal uses. As President of the Lyceum of Natural History of New York, Mitchell was instrumental in the effort to catalogue the flora of New York City and State. A census of flora in Manhattan conducted by Major Le Conte in 1812 tallied 450 species. Botanist John Torrey collected plants within a thirty-mile radius of New York City, assiduously sorting out native from non-native plants, noting their medicinal as well as economic and culinary uses. On Manhattan, he identified many of the grasses of “meadows, parks, lawns and roadsides” as naturalized European species, including
timothy grass (Phleum pratense), fox-tail (Alopeuris pratensis), crab-grass (Digitaria sanguinalis), brome grass (various species), and bermuda grass. Other non-native plants included privet (Ligustrum vulgare), speedwell (Veronica agrestis), mullein (Verbascum thapsus), bittersweet (Solanum dulcamera), wild carrot (Daucus carota), tansy (Tanacetum vulgare), and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris). He published his catalogue in 1819. He also catalogued the flora of New York State in 1843, counting 160 plant species as introduced or naturalized. The count might have been 161 had he known that clover (Trifolium repens) was an alien; he supposed it to be a native plant because it “springs up everywhere.” Other alien plants included: Berberis vulgaris, common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum), and wild mustard (Sinapis arvensis) – a “noxious weed.” Rare native plants he listed included silk virgin’s bower (Clematis ochrolenca) and marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).

Why be concerned about invasive plants?

According to the mission statement of the Natural Heritage Program, a joint venture of the Nature Conservancy and the NYSDEC, “Invasive [plant and animal] species contribute to the decline of 46 percent of imperiled or endangered species in the United States.” The Invasive Plant Council of New York State defines invasive plants as those “that aggressively compete with and displace locally adapted native plant communities.” While many invasives are introduced species, a few are not, such as phragmites and black locust. Invasive plants hoard light, steal water and nutrients from desired plants, and may even alter soil chemistry. According to the New York Metropolitan Flora Project, under the auspices of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and directed by Steven Clemants, “besides the destruction of habitat, the greatest threat to native plants in the metropolitan region is the introduction and spread of nonnative plants” (Clemants et al, 2002). For example, the aggressive spread of Oriental bittersweet (Celastruc orbiculatus) has displaced native American bittersweet (C. scandens).

--Betsy McCully

Reading List

Crosby, Alfred. Ecological Imperialsim; the Biological Expansion of Europe 900-1900. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press/Canto, 1993).

McCully, Betsy. City at the Water's Edge: A Natural History of New York (Rivergate/Rutgers, 2007).

Useful Links

Native plants and their status in New York State are listed online at the New York State Nature Conservancy/Natural Heritage Program:


A census of flora in New York City and environs is being conducted by the Brooklyn Botanical Garden in affiliation with Rutgers University CURE (Center for Urban Restoration Ecology):

Winged sumac (native)
Black-eyed susans (native)
Bull thistle (alien)
Cardinal flower (native)
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