Going Native

For those of you who have never been, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a wonderful place to visit and an oasis of nature in the middle of this bustling borough. Alongside the flowering cherries, peonies and bonsai displays - nestled in between Flatbush and Washington Avenues - the BBG has the country’s first Native Flora Garden. This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of the garden and to honor this special event, BBG is offering guided tours with the curator. When my wife Nancy saw this she knew I would be first in line and signed us up. Luckily we had a beautiful day and the gardens were looking spectacular. The Native Flora Garden was first planted as a wildflower garden in 1911 and was redesigned in 1931 by Henry K. Svenson to become a sanctuary for plant and bird-lovers. It was the first ecologically themed native plant garden of its kind in the U.S. and it was Svenson’s vision that only plants and trees native to New York City and Long Island be included in the display. The garden is allied with BBG’s Science Department, which over the past two decades has mapped plant species distribution in every county within a 50-mile radius of New York City through the New York Metropolitan Flora Project (NYMF). NYMF provides detailed information of more than 3,000 native and nonnative species and is used by parks and garden professionals as a guide to conserving native species and managing habitats in the city’s public spaces and gardens.

Curator Ulrich Lorimer led the tour and explained to us how the garden has evolved  over the years and it was clear how much attention and care he provides to keep this national treasure maintained. It is his hope that the garden will help home gardeners by modeling how native plant communities sustain themselves and support local wildlife. “Planting native plants makes good garden sense,” said Lorimer. “Because they adapted over thousands of years to the climate and soil conditions of this region, native plants are particularly economical and sustainable.”

The Coastal Plain section of the garden was the part I was most interested in. Here is where I found the types of plants that are native to Long Island and the North Fork. As a student of Long Island terroir, I’m always fascinated by how the natural flora of our region manifests itself in the wines I make. I’ve always felt that local wines exhibit aromas and flavors that are found in many indigenous plants as well as the native soils they grow in. It’s the main reason I’ve embraced our own wild micro flora in the vineyard and cellar - to allow our wines to ferment naturally so they can truly express the taste of the North Fork. After all, that is what terroir is all about!

More than one wine writer has told me that North Fork wines remind them of our fragrant, freshly tilled soils. To me, I always get a faint sea breeze coming from local wines – especially the whites. If you ever smell beach stones when they are wet you will know what I mean. In any case, the characteristics of many native plants and flowers are captured in local wines. For whites, these can be honeysuckle, fragrant sumac, primrose, goldenrod and beach grass. For the reds, I can find aromas and flavors reminiscent of huckleberries, wild strawberries, cranberries and beach plums as well as violets, cedar and maple.

The northeastern coastal region has some of the most diverse communities of wild flora in the country. Here are few more photos of my tour and some of the beautiful plants that make up both this garden and the wonderful natural landscape of the North Fork. And the next time you’re enjoying a glass of Long Island wine, close your eyes and try to imagine all the aromas and flavors you are experiencing. You might be surprised to find yourself at the beach - or surrounded by native flora...