The High Line's planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line's rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today. This week we share one of our gardeners' current favorites with you.
Vernonia noveboracensis can't be missed in August on the High Line, standing up to seven feet tall on strong, dark-green stems. Blooms are introduced by interestingly checkered cylindrical buds that open into finely petaled flowers, which form cloud-like clusters of bright purple and last through late summer into fall. Ironweed stands out beautifully against fading blooms of the season, and unlike many other flowering plants of its stature, doesn't fall over or splay as it climbs in height. Its typically strong stems may have contributed to its common name, New York ironweed.
A root system as brawny as its stalks could've also lent ironweed its name, but so too could the rusty color of its fading blooms and the seed clusters that appear in fall. Its botanical name is attributed to the botanist William Vernon, who gathered its seeds in New York in the seventeenth century. The species name noveboracensis locates the plant as being "of New York," where it is found in abundance. Complementary in structure to Joe Pye weed, and seen side-by-side on the High Line, both plants are described by the poet Robert Morgan in his 1981 poem Purple Asters:
In the months of lavender, late summer
and early fall, you notice the first purple
puffs on the thistles, and out along
and high banks of weeds the joe-pyes
lean like giraffes above the undergrowth
into tree level…
...And in the ageing fields,
ironweed opens its bright fur to nectar moths.
Ironweed does indeed attract a bevy of pollinators and wildlife; its seeds are a treat for chickadees and other small birds, who can perch with ease on its sturdy stems. You'll even find a stamp created by the US Postal Service, in a series honoring native pollinators of the United States, which features a southern dogface butterfly pulling nectar from prairie ironweed. However, New York ironweed has bitter leaves and doesn't appeal to deer and rabbits.
Stems can become flimsy in too-rich soil; thrives in full sun to dappled shade in moist, acidic soil that mimics its native home in woods, ditches and alongside marshes. Stems can be cut back almost to the ground in early spring to reduce overall plant height.
WHERE TO SEE THIS PLANT
10th Ave Square
Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line's most important gardening projects – become a member of the High Line today!