Amorpha canescens, also known as leadplant, is a deciduous shrub in the pea family (Fabaceae) that is native to the prairies of North America. Though the shrub is found throughout the High Line, it is not common to find this shrub in other parks in New York City. This is one of the reasons it’s my favorite plant in the park.
Part of the beauty of the plant comes from the long, bluish-purple flowers blooming along the top parts of the stems. The stmens are a contrasting orange and extend past the petal. Pinnately compound leaves are covered in dense silver grey hairs. The fruits are small pods that contain one smooth brown seed. Amorpha canescens will spread by self-seeding.
The common name “leadplant” refers to these silver grey hairs on the leaves which appear “leaden.” According to an old wives tale, another source of the common name was that the plant was an indicator of the presence of lead in the ground.
Native American tribes used leadplant in many ways. The leaves of the shrub were often smoked or used to make tea when combined with buffalo fat. In addition, the leaves were used as a medicine to treat open cuts and wounds as well as ailments such as eczema and rheumatism.
Amorpha canescens is often planted for erosion control because it has a deep branching woody root system. These deep roots have been known to help the plant survive wild fires. It’s an ideal ornamental species due to its showy flowers and its adaptability to grow in drought conditions and in sandy, dry and poor soils. It grows best in full sun. Leadplant also forms nodules on its roots to fix nitrogen and can be used for prairie restorations. There are no serious insect or disease problems, though there is some susceptibility to leaf spots, rust and powdery mildew.
A larger, shrubbier species, Amorpha fruticosa, is located at 10th Avenue Square at West 17th Street and the Eastern Rail Yard at West 30th Street.
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 500 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. Every week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.
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TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.