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Uli Lorimer, Native Plant Whisperer


Uli Lorimer, Native Plant Whisperer

July 25, 2013

What’s well behaved, and what’s a takeover artist? If you’re looking to add native plants to your garden, you’d be well served to spend some time with Uli Lorimer, curator of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s Native Flora Garden. I visited him recently at BBG and spotted him in a flash: The other BBG gardeners get around by truck, but Lorimer surveys his domain from atop a bright red antique tractor.

It is somehow fitting that a man who uses old-fashioned transportation would be the caretaker of old-fashioned plants. These days the tractor can often be seen near Lorimer’s newest project, a one-acre habitat that he developed with ecology-minded landscape designer Darrel Morrison.

Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Above: Uli Lorimer foraging with Brooklyn florist, Emily Thompson (read more about that adventure in 10 Tips for Floral Arrangements with Native Flowers).

Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing

Above: Uli and his tractor. The new habitat, an extension of the existing Native Flora Garden, was opened to visitors just a few weeks ago. It contains about 150 species, many of which Lorimer grew from seeds collected in New York City and environs, including New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut and the southern part of New York State.

The original garden had grown so lush over the years that it had become a shade environment, so a new place was needed for sun-loving natives. Morrison created a space dominated by pine barrens, based on a remote, boggy area in southern New Jersey, and a meadow inspired by the Long Island’s Hempstead Plains, a rare East Coast prairie that once covered more than 30,000 acres and is now mostly home to miles of housing developments and shopping centers. The new garden will be a showcase for sustainability. The plants will be largely left on their own because Lorimer does not intend to use fertilizers or pesticides.

Photo by Jeanne Rostaing

Above: Lorimer is proud of the fact that BBG is thought to be the first botanic garden to ever develop and maintain pine barrens (shown here: pitch pine).  Once the plants are established there should be very little need to irrigate.

Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Above: You might expect a man who spends his weekends tromping around swamps and construction sites looking for rare and endangered species to be a purist when it comes to advising home gardeners. Lorimer, however, has a remarkably practical attitude: While he advocates using native plants wherever possible, he also believes plant selection is personal and should be based on your connection with your own garden. That said, he was happy to walk around and point out some of his favorites and why he recommends them.

Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing

Above: Opuntia in the new pine BBG barrens. For sunny spots with good drainage, Opuntia, the native Prickly pear cactus, is a good choice because it is extremely tolerant of drought and poor soil. It is also highly decorative with bright yellow flowers when in bloom. A packet of Opuntia seeds is $2.00 from Prairie Moon.

Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Above: Native sheep’s laurel (Kalmia angustifolia) also thrives in pine barrens. The ‘Poke Logan’ cultivar, native to Maine, is available for $30.00 from RareFind Nursery.

Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing

Above: Sweet fern (Comptonia peregrine) is another pine barrens habitue. It’s actually not a fern but a low-growing shrub that likes sun and tolerates some shade. It thrives in sandy soil and puts on a dazzling show of fall color. A 4-inch pot of Sweet Fern is $8.49 at Prairie Nursery.

Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing

Above: Tall pink-flowered Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate) attracts beneficial insects, such as bees and butterflies, and prefers a moist environment. Swamp Milkweed is available for $4.50 at Butterfly Bushes. N.B.: Swamp milkweed is not to be confused with Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), which is often seen running rampant on roadsides and in vacant lots. It is described by Lorimer as “a bit of a thug” and is best avoided, lest it commandeer your entire landscape.

Pond in the rain

Above: Photograph by Jeanne Rostaing.

Above: There are a number of grasses in the new garden, which is in its infant stage. Lorimer recommends purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) which grows in ground-hugging clumps and produces delicate blooms that form a ethereal purplish haze. It spreads by rhizomes so it can be a good ground cover in a sunny well-drained spot. A purple love grass plant is $7.99 from Spring Hill Nursery.

If you are looking to replace your labor intensive, water guzzling lawn, Lorimer suggests Pennsylvania sedge (Carex pennsylvanica). Deer don’t like it and grows well in dry shade. A flat (32 plants) of Pennsylvania Sedge is $43.20 from North Creek Nurseries.


Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Above: There are plenty of other appealing local choices, including native honeysuckle. A pot of red trumpet honeysuckle is $19.95 from Gardener Direct.

Photograph by Sophia Moreno-Bunge

Explore the new Native Flora Garden extension at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden; it’s open Tuesday through Sunday.

For more local news, check out 10 Tips for Native Floral Arrangements with Brooklyn Florist Emily Thompson, The Bronx Goes Native, and How to Make the Most of Your Urban Garden.

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