Gardening in the Sky: Removing Noxious Weeds and Protecting Our Ecosystem

The self-seeded landscape that runs above the High Line at the Rail Yards gives visitors a chance to see what the High Line looked like before it became a park. During the structure's years of disuse, an assortment of wild plants took hold in the gravel ballast. In the Western Rail Yards section of High Line, these plants have been left undisturbed.

With a few exceptions, the horticulture team does not maintain this area, which consists of a mix of plants that are roughly half native and half exotic. Though not all exotic plants pose an ecological threat, many of the plants that showed up on the abandoned train tracks and thrived in those tough conditions possess the qualities – drought tolerance, low nutrient requirements, and abundant seed production and proliferation – that make them particularly formidable in the botanical battle for territory. One of these pernicious plants is Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus). First introduced as a garden specimen prized for its brilliant red-orange berries, this beautiful vine can now be seen choking the trees along many of our local roadways.

Listed as a Noxious Weed in 46 states, Asiatic bittersweet poses a serious threat to some of our local ecosystems. For this reason, FHL gardeners cut the vines down to the base before the berries have a chance to ripen.

Here, a volunteer removes Asiatic bittersweet from the Self-Seeded Landscape.

This prevents the seeds from being dispersed by the mockingbirds, jays, and starlings that eat the berries. While ideally, we would like to leave the self-seeded landscape to evolve on its own, as environmental stewards we have a responsibility to limit the spread of this highly aggressive vine.

The Asiatic bittersweet that found its way onto the abandoned tracks did however provide the inspiration for including a cultivar of our native bittersweet (Celastrus scandens 'Bailumn') in the High Line's garden design. In the fall visitors can enjoy the beauty of this native vine's bright fruit – a sight that is becoming rarer in the wild, where Asiatic bittersweet is out-competing its native relative.

American bittersweet, an early fruit of the Autumn Revolution, is growing on the Vegetal Screen near West 18th Street.

Early fruit of the Autumn Revolution™ American Bittersweet growing on the Vegetal Screen near 18th St.

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