Plant of the Week: Indian hemp

On bright days in early March, with a low yet strengthening winter sun, it's often preferable to walk the High Line from south to north to avoid glare. The crimson of open dogbane fruit throughout the Western Rail Yards, however, only reveals itself when lit from behind as one heads south toward a low angle noon light. The curled dry follicles—fruit shells—are now half-transparent as they release past season's last seeds.

Apocynum cannabinum, a native of the contiguous United States, gets its name from two strong characteristics. Apocynum refers to its toxicity, as alluded to in the common name dogbane. Cannabinum is for 'hemp-like', referred to in the common name Indian hemp, highlighting its superb fiber. It has served as raw material for highly effective, albeit primitive, craftsmanship among American people in need for ropes or twine for construction, hunting, or art throughout archaeological times.

For this purpose dried stalks of Apocynum are harvested before the fiber is weakened by winter elements. Prolonged rubbing of the stems with patient, callous hands loosens bark and woody pith until the mere fibrous tissue remains and begins to intertwine to form threads of up to two feet. These are overlapped to yield length, and combined for strength. The result of this hard work with bare wetted hands on stripped thighs is even more callus, and a string or rope to be used for weaving, fishing, trapping, clothing, or shelter. The fiber is comparable to hemp in yield strength and durability when kept dry.

The toughness of the dried fiber also characterizes the living dogbane as it holds its ground not only as a member of the original High Line flora in the Western Rail Yards, but also in sections of the park that have been replanted nearly a decade ago.


At a height of five to six feet, the plant lends itself to close inspection of its fine winter texture.


The Interim Walkway at the Western Rail Yards, near 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.

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.

TD Bank is the Presenting Green Sponsor of the High Line.

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