Nature Notes: Long Island’s Grasslands

Most of Long Island’s flora is relatively recent, 15,000 years or so old
In Montauk County Park at Third House, you can still find a native wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum, or two blooming in July. Victoria Bustamante

North American “life zones” as defined by Clinton Hart Merriam in the early 1900s are equivalent to the world’s biomes. They are deserts, northern coniferous forests, or taigas, temperate deciduous forests such as those occupying Appalachia, alpine forests, evergreen tropical forests, and rain forests, and the tundras of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia, and Siberia, and grasslands. Biomes tend to keep their identity for millennia.

The grasslands include our own tall-grass and short-grass prairies of the Midwest, the steppes of Eurasia, much of Patagonia, the savannas of Africa, part of the Gobi desert in Asia, and some parts of Australia. In a way, salt marshes dominated by Spartina grasses, spike grass, and other grass-like species are akin to prairies.

Most of Long Island’s flora is relatively recent, 15,000 years or so old, i.e. beginning with the recession of the last glacial occupation. Nonetheless after the glaciers receded, Long Island was invaded by plants from the west and south, some from Appalachia, some from the coastal plain of New Jersey, some all the way from the Midwest. Grasslands were among the largest floral units on Long Island as they, like “old fields” left by farmers, develop rather rapidly compared to woodlands.

As far as we can tell, the largest of Long Island’s grasslands is (was?) the Hempstead Plains. It was more than 60,000 acres in size and up until the late 1800s sported several plant species now considered endangered or threatened in New York State as well as animal species long-extirpated from the Northeast, including the heath hen, a prairie chicken.

Perhaps the second largest grassland on Long Island in pre-settler times was most of Montauk. The land between Montauk Point and Lake Montauk was all grassland, save for the Point Forest just southwest of Camp Hero and a dwarf forest stretching from the Point to Fort Pond, called the “moorlands” because of its resemblance to the extensive moors of Scotland, Ireland, and parts of England. When Norman Taylor published his work “The Vegetation of Montauk” in 1923, the land east of Fort Hill on the northeast side of Fort Pond was native grasslands all the way to the Point. In fact, one of East Hampton Town’s species on the government’s endangered species list, the sandplain gerardia (Agalinas acuta), covered that entire area from the ocean bluffs to Block Island Sound and Fort Pond Bay with its pretty pink flowers in late August and September.

Hither Woods, occupying the western part of Montauk, was also largely grasslands at the turn of the 19th century, but was beginning to grow up into eastern red cedars and deciduous hardwoods as grazing of livestock, so big in the 1700s and early 1800s, had largely petered out. Already in the late 17th century, lumbering deforested most of Hither Woods and grasslands sprang up in the trees’ absence. Thus, those “maritime” grasslands were not original, but second growth in nature.

A third largish Long Island grasslands was topographically like the Montauk ones east of the lake and stretched from Southampton Village to what is now the Shinnecock Canal. Even as late as 1974 when I came back from Oregon to teach at Southampton College, the Shinnecock Hills still had some large grassland patches and the original native species to go with them, such as the silvery aster, Aster concolor, now on the state’s endangered species list and still hanging on by its fingernails south of County Road 39 where it cuts through the hills.

The Hempstead Plains have been reduced to about 17 acres still in their natural state and those 17 acres still have bird’s-foot violets and several other true grassland species. Artificial grasslands have sprung up here and there. Gabre­ski Airport in Westhampton Beach is one of the largest of these, but if you examine the grasses and the forbs there, you mostly find species from Eurasia dominating the landscape. In Sayville, 100 acres of maintained grasslands, formerly the property of the German company Telefunken, once owned by the Federal Aviation Administration, is now part of the 6,000-acre United States Fish and Wildlife Refuge, or Wertheim Refuge, off the ocean to the east. This grassland also has sandplain gerardia and other rare plants.

Old fields are grasslands of a sort, but almost all of them in East Hampton have gone to seed, in other words given way to eastern red cedar, pitch pine, sassafras, exotic autumn olive, and Tartarian honeysuckle. It is in the Bell Estate III subdivision’s bylaws that the old field on the south side of Barnes Hole Road near its end in Springs be maintained as a grassland and that condition has held since at least 1987 when the map became final. It has lots of nice grassland species including orange milkweed and broomsedge.

The grassland at the East Hampton Airport is second in size to the one in east Montauk. It is maintained by periodic mowing and since the airport’s inception on hardscrabble land just after the close of World War II and still comprises mostly native grassland species. It is one of the three spots in East Hampton where grasshopper sparrows procreate and, since 1988, a great eastern bluebird breeding area. Native lupines, false foxglove, Agalinis tenuifolia, a sandplain gerardia look-alike, and little bluestem grass are among those grassland species at the airport.

Golf courses can make great grasslands, especially those that had a natural grassland base to begin with. Thus, Shinnecock Hills and Montauk Downs are two courses where you can still find more native species than exotics if you get down on your hands and knees to look.

But the history of Long Island shows that if grasslands are developed over or left unmanaged, they grow up into shrubby savannas that later on, in the absence of brush-cutting or wildfires, become small treed landscapes. Thus was the fate of Ram Level in Hither Woods, in that part of the woods owned by Suffolk County and now called Koppelman Woods, once the home of the largest population of the bushy rockrose, Helianthemum dumosum, also on the state’s threatened list. In 1983 there were at least five acres of prime grassland in the center of the woods replete with blooming rockroses. Last year when I looked, the grassland had turned to savanna and there were none. In a few more years under Suffolk County’s apparent laissez-faire guidance, Ram Level will surely become a young forest.

Another prime grassland managed by the county is the one easily seen north of the exit from Sunrise Highway to County Road 111 in Manorville. It is sadly growing up into pitch pines and a bunch of shrubs and eastern red cedar. It was once all tall native grasses. The upland sandpiper, a rarity on Long Island, frequently visited it and may even have bred there. But that species is not as fussy for its native homeland as one might think. You can also find it at Zabreski Airport along with a few other grassland species including the vesper sparrow and field sparrow during the breeding season.

The Montauk County Park grasslands at Third House are still large, but the shrubs and trees in the absence of active grazing and human maintenance are disappearing at a fast rate. You can still find a native wood lily, Lilium philadelphicum, or two blooming in July if you scour the area, but how long will it hold out there? Probably not more than another four or five years.

By and large, Long Island is losing its grasslands, and the rate of loss is accelerating. Trees and nonnative shrubs are filling in the spaces. Let’s see what happens in the next few years to that wonderful field known lately as “555,” a doomed development in Amagansett that was recently purchased by East Hampton Town.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at