Western New York Tribe Going All Natural with Plant Species

gardenWestern New York’s Seneca Indian Nation has decided to get in touch with its roots — literally.

Believed to be the first ones in the country to officially formalize the practice, the tribe has fully committed to using only indigenous plants and trees for public landscaping within the area. As a result of their decision to go native, tribes throughout the rest of the country are following in their footsteps.

The first step in any landscaping design is to take a site inventory and soil analysis, study the drainage of the area, climate conditions, and existing vegetation. But this time, the existing vegetation from before America introduced Austrian pines and Japanese maples will be used.

Trees such as balsam firs, sugar maples, and white ash trees will now shade Seneca schools, office complexes, and other public buildings. Shrubs such as wild bee balm, cinnamon fern, and butterfly weed were once the dominant species in the area, and will once again have the chance to flourish as a result of these landscaping efforts.

Plant materials generally have three major functions in a landscape: Aesthetic appearance, structural support, and utilitarian uses. Tribal leaders have been discussing how the current landscaping designs do not benefit the environment, they are only for aesthetic purposes.

“The lawn is a European concept. Grass does not serve any function,” said Ken Parker, Seneca’s native plant consultant. “There no habitat for wildlife. It doesn’t feed any butterflied or do anything for the bees.”

Just as some universities around the state have opted for a “natural garden” instead of a manicured lawn, wild honeysuckle and sweet fern will not be impeded to grow at their own will within their garden beds.

“People plant plants around because they look nice and don’t care where they’re from,” said Seneca President Barry Snyder. “We were starting to lose that part we had centuries ago when the native were here and they had all these things in front of them.”

This movement branched from the initial push from the tribe to promote a healthier lifestyle by planting vegetable gardens. Tribal leaders hope to educate the public about the importance of re-introducing native plant species back into the environment and that the idea will eventually take root at private residences.

“Local plants are more adaptable to the local weather, and fit better to the local environment,” says Pete Cast, Owner at Greenside Up LLC. “Consequently, these plants are much easier to take care of and thrive more naturally in the landscaping.”

Not only will this landscaping help stabilize the natural environment, but it will benefit those who live on the reservation by providing an additional food source. For example, planing juneberries will allow families to made jam, witch hazel can be used as an antiseptic, and bayberries can be used to create candles.

“We need to show our regional look,” Parker said. “We need to educate our children about what is the look of the region.”