In the heart of New York, beyond the towering skyscrapers and bustling city life, lies a hidden tapestry of natural beauty that often goes unnoticed—the native wildflowers. From the Adirondack Mountains to the beaches of Long Island, New York is home to a rich array of indigenous wildflowers, each with its own unique story to tell. These vibrant blooms not only add a splash of color to the scenery but also play a crucial role in supporting local ecosystems, pollinators, and wildlife. Here, we’ll take a look at the vital role that just a few wildflowers play in preserving the ecological balance of this extraordinary state.
Western Yarrow, Achillea millefolium var. occidentalis, is native to North America. Despite its name, this also includes New York. It should not be confused with Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium var. millefolium, which is an introduced invasive species. It’s also been called Woolly Yarrow. As an herbaceous perennial in the Aster Family, it is a common wildflower that grows erect, offering a densely hairy, and lacy fernlike appearance. The white cream-colored flower heads bloom from May through September. Not only is it incredibly drought tolerant, but it also exhibits survival among a wide range of soil compositions.
Habitat: Western yarrow is a common component of ecological sites that are shallow, silty, gravelly, or steep.
Establishment: Western yarrow is non-dormant and readily germinates during spring (when planted at a shallow depth). It’s less competitive during early development but increases in competition the older it gets. It produces few flowers during the first year. Yarrow is moderately rhizomatous and maintains a semi-green evergreen state even when dormant.
When seeding, yarrow prefers full sun (to avoid leggy stems) and requires well-drained soil. If starting indoors, seed 6-8 weeks before the last frost date. If direct sowing outside, do so after the last frost date has passed. Remember, yarrow needs light to germinate and does not tolerate rich soil. Seed should germinate in 20-45 days.
Conservation: It’s pollinator-friendly, low maintenance, and used in many naturalized landscapes. It is used to rehabilitate disturbed rangelands, mine lands, roadsides, park and restoration areas, and prairie reconstruction projects.
Forage: Bighorn sheep, deer, and pronghorn antelope enjoy grazing on this flower. Sage grouse, particularly chicks, and other upland birds heavily rely on western yarrow foliage as a food source. Domestic goats and sheep find it to be a valuable forage, while horses and cattle mostly graze the flower head. **Keep the amount of western yarrow minimal in forage to avoid reaching toxic levels.
Ethnobotanic: Native Americans used western yarrow as a tea for stomach ailments, a poultice for infected wounds, and to repel mosquitos.
Eastern Red Columbine
Eastern Red Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is native to the eastern United States. It’s a downward-facing herb part of the Buttercup Family. Even though it is a perennial, it is short-lived (3 to 5 years). Eastern red columbine is also called wild columbine, wild honeysuckle, red-bell, Canada columbine, and American columbine. It can survive wildfire disturbance and is sometimes browsed by deer. Though, it is unpalatable to livestock.
Habitat: Eastern red columbine is often found in dry to mesic regions along borders or clearing of oak-chicory, oak-maple, black-oak savannas, cedar glades, pine woods, and mixed conifer hardwood forests. It enjoys rocky hillsides, bluffs, cliffs, outcrops, ledges, banks, beach ridges, gravelly shorelines, roadsides, quarries, and peat bogs. It’s quite adaptable! It does prefer USDA Hardiness Zones 3 through 8.
Establishment: Eastern red columbine prefers a 3 to 4-week period of moist stratification. It does not require supplemental lighting when started inside but must be kept moist throughout the germination period of 3 to 4 weeks. Avoid fertilization during germination: this can damage the foliage. Red columbine will not bloom during the first growing season. When starting seeds inside, germination can begin in August and go as late as November. Then outplant in the spring (April). When starting outside, seeds can be directly sown in fall or early spring.
Ethnobotanic: Eastern red columbine seeds were used to treat ailments, such as headaches, heart problems, rashes, itchy skin from poison ivy, sore throats, kidney and urinary issues, and fever. It was also used ceremoniously as a medicine, perfume, and additive to tobacco. The roots were used to treat gastrointestinal ailments.
Landscaping: Eastern red columbine is often used in gardens and landscapes due to its hardiness and the fact that it can readily reseed. It’s a useful additive for meadow and woodland plantings.
Wildlife: Hummingbirds pollinate eastern red columbine, making this flower an important nectar source. Many bee species prefer eastern red columbine as their nectar source.
Wild Bergamot, Monarda fistulosa, is native to much of North America. This aromatic herbaceous perennial is part of the Mint Family and is often called Beebalm. It has branched hairy stems, and it spreads by seeds and rhizomes. The flowers are tubular and provide a pop of lavender color.
Habitat: Wild bergamot is often found in upland woods, thickets, and prairies all over North America.
Establishment: When seeding inside, start in January and store them until you can transplant into a larger pot (about 6-7 weeks). Then transplant outside after your last frost date. Wild bergamot typically germinates in 1-2 weeks and prefers a starter fertilizer after germination. Water seedlings only after the surface feels dry to the touch. When starting outside, sow seeds in a sunny spot that is weed-free and well-drained. Seeds can be broadcast in a weed-free area from January to mid-May in warmer climates.
Economic: Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds find wild bergamot to be an important nectar source.
Ethnobotanic: The Tewa Indians cooked wild bergamot with their meat. The Iroquois used it to make a beverage. The Objibwe used the leaves to relieve headaches and to bathe infants. The flowers were then used to treat colds. The Flambeau Ojibwe gathered and dried the whole plant, then boiled it, and used it to cure bronchial affections. The Menomini steeped the leaves and inflorescences into tea. The Meskwaki used it to treat colds. The Hocak (Winnebago) used wild bergamot in their sweat baths and inhaled the fumes to cure colds. The Cherokee used it to make a warm poultice that relieved headaches. Many more tribes used wild bergamot medicinally and ceremonially.