Native Plants at the Center for Distance Learning

SUNY Empire Online, located at 113 West Avenue, is a certified Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver building. The certification means the building design meets criteria set forth by an internationally recognized green building organization to be energy efficient and have low impact on the environment. The SUNY Empire Online building met the criteria by incorporating environmentally friendly practices such as recycling the construction and demolition debris and installation of a geothermal heating and cooling system. The building received 39 points on the LEED criteria checklist, giving it a rating of Silver. One of the points that Empire State College was not awarded was for protecting or restoring the natural or adapted habitat of the area; a point the college’s Environmental Sustainability Committee would like to work towards five years after the building has been completed.

Drew Monthie joined the committee in 2012, “I knew before I joined the committee replacing the invasive plants with natives was a project I wanted to take on” states Monthie. “At my first meeting I brought the idea to the committee chair and found support.”

Sadie Ross, director of environmental sustainability and co-chair of the committee was excited to work with Monthie on the project. “I discovered that Drew was not the only one on the committee that wanted to be involved in this project. A few of the other committee members said they would like to put in the work that it would take to replace the plantings.”  Ross got the director of facilities on board who agreed to provide tools for the project and maintenance of the new plantings. Tom Mackey, Dean of SUNY Empire Online, was interested in learning about native plants and enthusiastic about moving the building in the right direction. A crew of 4 committee members got to work on pulling up a section of invasive species in the front of the building. “We wanted to start at the front to show people how beautiful native plants can be and how easy they are to maintain. Once we prove the benefits of replacing the invasives with natives, we’ll come back and take out the other vines that have the potential to spread” says Monthie, who is not only a part time faculty member at SUNY Empire Online but also owner and designer of Ecologic Consulting, LLC and alum of Empire State College.

According to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), invasive species are “non-native species that can cause harm to the environment, the economy or to human health”. Most often they are planted for aesthetic reasons before they are recognized as an environmental threat. It is only after they have proven their capability to outcompete native plants and change the local habitat that they are classified as invasives. For this reason, it is important to be proactive about not planting species that are on the DEC watch list found at

“We thought since the building itself makes a small environmental impact, the outside of the building should do the same” says Sharon Neeley, Assistant Area Coordinator for SUNY Empire Online and committee member. The committee members working on the project were done quickly and are eager to watch the new plants grow this summer. “It felt good to do something for the environment and at the same time it was fun to work with my colleagues on this project. I was surprised how easy it was and how little time it took to make an important change” said Dareth McKenna, Secretary I in the Office of Academic Review.

New Plants at 113 West

Woody Plants

Striped Maple, Goosefoot maple, Whistlewood (Acer pensylvanicum) Striped maple is a small tree found in the forest understory, typically growing from 12 to 24 feet in height. This tree tolerates full shade or part sun. The leaves are shaped like a goose’s foot. The twigs of this tree are hollow and were used as whistles by Native peoples. The bark is striped white and green. The striations become more prominent during the cold season. New spring buds are typically pink to red in color. Striped Maple grows very well under taller trees.  Many birds and small mammals feed on the seeds or samaras.

Sweetshrub, Carolina Allspice (Calycanthus floridus) is native from the mid-Atlantic south to Florida. It grows from 3’-7’ tall. It will grow in full sun or full shade.  It is remarkably pest free and the leaves remain attractive throughout the growing season.  Both the flowers and bark are aromatic: The flowers smelling similar to strawberries are produced in summer, while the bark smells somewhat like cinnamon. Flowers are typically red, although there is a white form “Athens”. Fall color is yellow. Flowers are pollinated by beetles.

Herbaceous Plants

Bugbane, Black Cohosh (Cimicifuga racemosa) This tall native perennial produces fragrant bottlebrush flowers in June and July. This is an important plant for pollinators in summer.  The plant was used by Native peoples to treat arthritis.  It contains a terpene called 27-deoxyactein that promotes the production of estrogen and is used today to treat menopause.  Due to its complex chemistry, which makes it distasteful, it is seldom browsed by deer or other mammals.

Canadian Ginger (Asarum canadense) is an herbaceous perennial of Northeastern forests. The fuzzy leaves hide the fuzzy maroon flowers that appear in late April and early May. It prefers full shade or part sun. The foliage dies back to the ground in the Autumn. The flowers are pollinated by small flies and the seeds carried off by ants that disperse them into the larger landscape.  Candied ginger root was often served as a dessert in Adirondack Logging camps of the 19th century.

Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) This larger form of the species grows 1.5’-3’tall and prefers full to part shade. Small bell shaped flowers that hang from the undersides of the leaves appear in May and June.  These flowers are a favorite of returning hummingbirds.  The common name Solomon’s seal is derived from the shape of the rhizomes which resemble a royal seal. The Genus name Polygonatum means many knees also referring to the shape of the roots. The roots were used by Native peoples and European settlers to make poultices for skin disorders

Maidenhair Fern (Adiantum pedatum) This rather delicate looking fern of the Eastern U.S. is actually quite tough.  It grows 10”-16” tall.  It will grow very well in full shade, but tolerates sun with sufficient moisture. The foliage remains attractive from spring to fall. Native peoples made a tea from the foliage to treat respiratory disorders. Most ferns have high levels of tannic acids in the mature foliage which discourages browsing by mammals.

Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra) This common perennial of the northeast has showy bottlebrush shaped flowers in May and June followed by bright red berries in summer.  The berries are distasteful to humans, but widely utilized by birds and small mammals. A related species Actaea pachypoda has white fruit and is often called Doll’s eyes.

Robin’s Plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) This member of the Fleabane family is distinctive because it grows as a groundcover.  Small violet daisies are produced in late spring and last for several weeks.  These flowers attract butterflies.  The species name pulchellus means pretty in Latin.

Photos by Drew Monthie