Native Plant Garden

A close up of a black, yellow, and white striped caterpillar on orange flowers.
Monarch caterpillars (Danaus plexippus) with a favorite source of food, butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), at Sagamore Hill's native plant garden.

NPS/Tyler Kuliberda

Creating a Native Plant Garden at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Sponsored by
Huntington-Oyster Bay Audubon Society
The Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center
New York Audubon Society
National Park Service
Cardinal perched at Sagamore Hill. NPS/Scott Gurney
Cardinal perched at Sagamore Hill.

NPS/Scott Gurney

Habitat loss and invasive plants are the leading cause of native biodiversity loss. Over the past century urbanization has taken intact, ecologically productive land and fragmented and transformed it into residential, industrial or commercial real estate or converted it to ball fields and other intensely used recreational areas. In that time the continental United States has lost a 150 million acres of habitat and farmland to managed urban and suburban landscapes. The modern obsession with highly manicured “perfect” lawns alone has created a green, monoculture carpet across the country that covers more than 40 million acres. In addition, nonnative invasive plant species have become dominant features in many of our remaining natural areas. Invasive plant species spread quickly and can displace native plants, prevent native plant growth, and create unhealthy monocultures. A healthy plant community has a variety of herbs, shrubs, and trees, which act as food sources, whereas an area that has been invaded by nonnatives becomes barren and sterile with little benefit to wildlife.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, an invasive species is one "whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health." These species have few, if any, natural enemies here and will swiftly crowd out and out-compete native plant species, altering ecosystems and causing a loss of biodiversity, thereby depriving wildlife of vital food sources and decreasing reproduction success.

Studies show that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline. The reasons include massive casualties from window collisions, habitat loss, invasive species and climate change.

Native pollinators—bees, butterflies, moths, bats and birds—play a critical role in sustaining ecosystems and provide essential services to American agriculture (estimated at as much as $9 billion annually). Yet pollinators are in trouble. More than 50 native bees are in documented decline, with 9 critically imperiled. Another iconic North American pollinator—the monarch butterfly—is in severe decline, down from a billion monarchs 20 years ago to 35 million today. Research shows that native pollinators can be two to three times as effective at pollinating agricultural crops as non-native honeybees. Bees and other insect pollinators in decline for several reasons, including habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation; non-native species and diseases; pollution, including pesticides; and climate change.
Monarch butterfly flitting through the fields of Sagamore Hill. NPS/Scott Gurney
Monarch butterfly flitting through the fields of Sagamore Hill.

NPS/Scott Gurney

Why are Native Plants So Important?
Native plants are critical because they support native insects, most of which are specialists rather than generalists and will not feed on non-natives. Insects are a critical food source for a variety of birds and other animals, particularly those raising young. Baby birds depend on a steady diet of insects for survival. Native plants support 35% more caterpillar biomass than nonnatives do. A dearth of insects means a decline in bird species. One 6-year study in Ohio determined that Northern cardinals paid a steep price when nesting in areas thick with honeysuckle: these birds reared 20% less young than did cardinals nesting in native plants. In addition, according to these studies, birds that ate the berries from these plants were artificially bright, signifying to females that they were good choices for mates. Normally male cardinals with a deeper red color are more fit because they are feeding on nutrient rich berries that contain carotenoid pigments. Honeysuckle berries contain lots of carotenoid pigments but are nutrient poor. Coloration becomes meaningless as a sign of quality in a mate with the results being that females are mistakenly choosing less fit males as mates. This can lead to population declines as less sturdy genes are passed on from generation to generation.

Our native insect pollinators have also evolved with native plants. While some pollinators are generalists and forage on many different plants, others may have evolved to use a single plant species. The iconic monarch butterfly is one of the most recognizable species of wildlife in all of America. Each year, this butterfly undertakes one of the world’s most remarkable and fascinating migrations, traveling thousands of miles over many generations from Mexico, across the United States, to Canada. The monarch butterfly is severely threatened the loss of milkweed habitat needed to lay their eggs and for their caterpillars to eat, which is having a devastating impact on their populations and the migration phenomenon. Because of this, it is critical that habitat and host plants be provided to these charismatic butterflies.

As habitat decreases, native “habitat pocket” landscaping can become critical links needed to create contiguous habitat corridors for wildlife.
A palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum) perching at Sagamore Hill. NPS/Scott Gurney
A palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum) perching at Sagamore Hill.

NPS/Scott Gurney

Why Do Birds & Pollinators Matter?
  • Birds are indicator species: an essential component of healthy, functioning natural systems. Birds tell us if things are all right in our ecosystems.
  • Birds provide us with free ecological services:
    • Consume weed plants and farm rodents
    • Help control insect populations
    • Pollinate and disseminate seeds.
    • Scavenge carrion- nature’s sanitation
  • They serve as important prey species for apex predators and keystone species
  • They help us learn about the natural biological processes that produce the resources humans need and how we can manage them to provide a sustainable future
  • They are economic goldmines: according to the USFWS ~70 million birdwatchers in the US spend over $25 billion per year feeding, watching and traveling to enjoy birds. In New York alone, bird and wildlife watchers generate $4.2 billion in ecotourism revenue.
Their beauty ranges from the understated plumage of shorebirds, wrens and gadwalls to the astonishing colors of painted buntings, Blackburnian warblers, wood ducks and scarlet tanagers. We are impressed and humbled by their athleticism and awe-inspiring feats. Migrating birds travel staggering distances annually and navigate the same course, year after year, using tools such as landmarks, the sun, the stars and the earth’s magnetic field. Many are long-distance athletes, traveling up to tens of thousands of miles during these annual journeys. Birds are talented architects and entertaining performers during breeding season. Some can survive in the harshest of climates and in the most barren of landscapes. Some spend their lives in flight, only coming to land when it is time to produce young. Some kill with deadly precision while others can fly underwater. Birds are tough, they are fascinating and they endlessly amaze us with their survival skills and athletic abilities.

Perhaps the most important role birds play is how they can connect us, no matter where we are, to the natural world in the blink of an eye. Standing at the kitchen counter, a store front on a busy street, the top floor of a high rise building, or even sitting in an idling car at a stoplight, the appearance of a bird reminds us immediately that there is another, more beautiful place beyond the day we are experiencing. Birds bring nature to us, no matter where we are, no matter how harried or hurried our day. This priceless gift is why birds matter and why we should be doing all we can to protect them. As gardeners and stewards of our land, we have never been so empowered to help save biodiversity from extinction, and the need to do so has never been so great."
Swallowtail butterfly and monarch caterpillar in milkweed. NPS/Scott Gurney
Swallowtail butterfly and monarch caterpillar in milkweed.

NPS/Scott Gurney

  • Pollinators are critical to our food supply and are responsible for the pollination of the vast majority of all flowering plants.
  • Worldwide, roughly 1,000 plants grown for food, beverages, fibers, spices, and medicines need to be pollinated by animals in order to produce the goods on which we depend. Foods and beverages produced with the help of pollinators include: apples, blueberries, chocolate, coffee, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, vanilla, almonds, and tequila. Over 150 food crops in the US depend on pollinators.
  • Plants that depend on pollination make up 35 percent of global crop production volume with a value of as much as $577 billion a year. The agricultural system, for which pollinators play a key role, creates millions of jobs worldwide.
  • In the United States, pollination by honey bees, native bees, and other insects produces $40 billion worth of products annually.
Students from Washington Rose Elementary School help plant the Native Plant Garden. NPS/Clayton Hanson
Students from Washington Rose Elementary School help plant the Native Plant Garden.

NPS/Clayton Hanson

A Partnership:
The National Park Service, Huntington Oyster Bay Audubon Society Chapter, Theodore Roosevelt Sanctuary and Audubon Center, and the New York Audubon Society are partnering to establish a native plant demonstration garden located in front of the Sagamore Hill NHS Visitor Center. The garden will be used to inform the public about native plants and their use on landscapes to improve native wildlife and plant diversity. A series of small signs will be installed to inform the passing park visitors about the project and its benefits. The addition of wooden rain barrels to collect rain water used to irrigate the native plants may be included on either end of the project area, replenished by rain water runoff from the Visitor Center building.

The project is being established in a previously heavily disturbed area as a public demonstration to educate and inform. In addition, temporary seasonal signs will be placed along the public path through the area known as the Upper Pasture on the property to identify native plants in their natural habitat. This project and the partnership it promotes are intended to demonstrate the use and benefit of native plants for landscape ecology and preservation. The mission of the National Park Service is focused on the preservation and protection of natural and cultural resources for the understanding and enjoyment of this and future generations. The opportunity to work with a community partner such as the Huntington/Oyster Bay chapter and the local Theodore Roosevelt Audubon Sanctuary of the National Audubon Society to promote and implement such an informative and ecologically beneficial project is a valuable opportunity. The new team can be twice as effective working together toward our common missions to promote natural resources awareness and education opportunities. The conservation awareness and stewardship partnership is a model that supports long term community engagement to address pressing local and global environmental issues.

Last updated: September 13, 2018

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Mailing Address:

20 Sagamore Hill Road
Oyster Bay, NY 11771


516 922-4788
Main phone line for Sagamore Hill NHS.

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