Gardening How-to Articles

An Adventure into Harriman State Park

As part of a two-decade-long study of the native flora in natural areas and parks within the New York metropolitan region, BBG’s Science and Horticulture departments and the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a NYC Parks Department nursery whose mission is to provide wild collected seed to support restoration efforts, often head out together in search of flora found in the various habitats of the region.

Recently I set out with seed taxonomist Heather Liljengren and Horticulture intern Jean Hurkin-Torres to Harriman State Park in Rockland County to look for populations of Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge).

The first site we visited was between Upper and Lower Twin Lakes. I had heard that on the banks of a small stream connecting the two lakes there was a large population of Appalachian sedge, but after scouting around for 30 minutes, we could only find a few dozen plants.

While it would have been nice to take those easy-to-reach samples, seed collecting in the wild must follow state guidelines and permits—and also ethical principles.

If a plant population is sufficiently large, you can collect up to one third of all ripe seed on any given plant. To ensure that the population can continue to grow for years to come, never take all the seed. It’s best to take samples from as many individual plants as possible for maximum genetic diversity.

If there aren’t many individuals at a site, move on and try to find a bigger population somewhere else. Sometimes it’s like finding a needle in a haystack—you can search all day and only find one plant! Other days, you might find a huge population quite unexpectedly. Of course, the more time you spend looking for plants, the better you become at predicting what types of habitats are likely to support the plant species you’re seeking.

We concluded that our first site was a bust and decided to search elsewhere in the park, where we would hopefully find exciting botanical jewels. We set off for the Pine Swamp Mountain Loop, about 20 minutes by car south of the first site off Seven Lakes Drive. In the end we didn’t collect anything from this part of our hike, but it proved to be a valuable scouting trip: We found several large populations of sundews (Drosera intermedia), which the Greenbelt Native Plant Center has been looking for as part of its Seeds of Success program. A short hike to the top of the ridge rewarded us with a sweeping view of Lake Skannatati and Lake Kanawauke as well as a sweet little colony of frostweed (Helianthemum canadense).

As we descended the backside of the ridge, the trail took us through cool dark sections of mature eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) and eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), with clouds of blooming mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) underneath. Nestled in between two ridges was the pine swamp, a low wet area with large sheets of sphagnum moss, interesting fungi, and sundews growing in it. Of the two species of sundews we found, the spatulate-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia) was most abundant and would make for a good collection site once the flowers were finished and the seeds were ripe. Heather made note of the location with her GPS, and we continued down the trail.

Harriman State Park boasts a rich history of mining for iron ore; the area had more than 20 mines in operation during the 1700s. Most of what was produced here was shipped over to England; once the Revolutionary War started, the mining came to a halt. The Pine Swamp Mountain trail goes right past one of the largest of these iron mines, which has several massive entrances. Piles of rock and debris are still evident, although the forest has reclaimed much of the land over the years.

Although plants are always our main focus on our collecting trips, any hike into the forest is bound to yield other life. We encountered two large beetle species on the trail back to the car, my favorite being the carrion beetle, with the appropriate Latin name Necrophilia americana. When a lovely slender blue flag iris (Iris versicolor) caught our attention, I was pleasantly surprised to find a very young and small American toad (Bufo americanus) hiding in the moss nearby. Amphibians are great indicators of good water quality and intact ecosystems, something rarely seen in urban habitats.

As the sun began to set, we headed back to the city, disappointed not to have found the sedges we were looking for but happy to have had such a great day of hiking amid sundews, abandoned mines, carrion beetles, and American toads.

Uli Lorimer is director of Horticulture at Garden In The Woods, in Framingham, Massachussettes. Previously, he was curator of BBG's Native Flora Garden.

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