Many plant species native to New York also grow in climates that are drastically different from ours. For example, wild bergamot's ( Monarda fistulosa) native range extends through Canada and nearly every state in the continental US. In Mississippi, nursery growers found a population of wild bergamot with a rich petal color and sturdy habit. They propagated plants from this population, trialed them, and marketed them for their resistance to powdery mildew – a fungus that leaves an unsightly white coating on foliage. This variety, M. fistulosa 'Claire Grace', has become very popular with gardeners and, in subsequent trials, has continued to show resistance to powdery mildew. However, in northern regions with extremely harsh winters 'Claire Grace' does not always demonstrate the same cold hardiness expected from wild bergamot.
Genetic differences among plants of the same species make the species more resilient. Such genetic diversity means that some populations and individuals can overcome threats that others cannot. How then can we promote genetic diversity? In addition to protecting wild habitats, we can also collect seed from local ecotypes, as Uli Lorimer did for the Native Flora Garden at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Lorimer says, "We need to recognize that seed is as precious a resource as timber or oil." Every seed contains a wealth of genetic information and the plant that grows from it will be slightly different from its neighbors. For instance, an individual may have a flower shape that is more conducive to pollination or produce stronger defensive chemicals to protect itself from insect pests. Such diversity is the foundation for evolutionary fitness.
Many nursery growers are passionate about native plants and aware of the importance of preserving the traits of local ecotypes. However, collecting wild seed is more laborious and time-consuming than other methods of propagation. In an industry with notoriously tight profit margins, most nurseries cannot afford to propagate from wild-collected seed unless there is a high demand from customers for plants produced in this manner. Luckily, in New York City we have the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, a facility of the NYC Parks Department that not only supplies the parks system, but also donates plants to community and school gardens. The nursery grows all its plants from seed collected by Heather Liljengren and her team. Liljengren loves "collecting seeds from really tough urban areas like a vacant lot or polluted waterway; sampling from those plants feels like you are capturing the superpowers of survival for a species."
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