Vegetation of the South Grand Island Bridge Shoreline Parcel
Mainland, Town of Tonawanda, Erie County, New York

P. M. Eckel
Res Botanica, Missouri Botanical Garden
October 8, 2003

The South Grand Island Bridge Shoreline Parcel, Mainland, Town of Tonawanda, Erie County, New York

by P. M. Eckel
Missouri Botanical Garden
PO. Box 299, St. Louis, MO 63166-0299

On a summer of 2003 list of "Habitat Improvement Projects" (HIPs) presented by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to the New York Power Authority and other groups, and distributed by the Friends of the Buffalo and Niagara River, there was mention of a small shoreline parcel of land just north of the South Grand Island Bridge on the Niagara River. The parcel faces the eastern, Tonawanda Channel of the Niagara River as it divides around Grand Island, and is in Erie County, town of Tonawanda in New York State.


The shoreline parcel was examined August 12, 2003. It is nestled in a thoroughly industrial landscape, surrounded by such companies as Noco Energy Corporation, the Roblin Industrial Park, Tonawanda Coke Corporation, Sun Co., Ashland Chemicals, Chemcentral and railyards of the CSXT Railroad. It lies beside River Road in the nexus of Interstate 190 and 290, the beltway around the City of Buffalo. The trees peer upward at the soaring height of the Grand Island Bridge, and the parcel is bordered on the north and south by utility company rights‑of‑way.



The Niagara River has many shorelines of different character. Drivers in the northbound lane if the Interstate 90 going over the bridge may have noticed on their right the glint of sun on water under the twiggy canopy within the shore‑woods here in early spring. These glints come from snow melt that forms two parallel strips of water parallel to the shore and to River Road. The water pools in early spring and slowly evaporates and percolates into the soil, a leaving black, sticky muck under the trees by late summer.


As the driver rises to the crest of the bridge it is easy to see that the shoreline on Grand Island, across the river, as well as the mainland, is deeply modified, so that the aboriginal character of the shore is completely obliterated. Miraculously, this little bit of shore has survived such modifications, the "arming" or ballasting of the shore, some of which surely dates from the days before the ice‑boom was built at the foot of Lake Erie at the mouth of the Niagara River between Buffalo, New York and Fort Erie, Ontario. Before the 1950's, ice would build up on the margins of the stream and scour away whatever lay in its path ‑ but no more.


Today water laps against a fine little beach of well‑sorted sand grains of mostly native minerals, rather than brown sand from blast furnaces and brick manufacturers, as along the industrialized Buffalo River to the south of Buffalo city, or great chunks of concrete, concrete walls or grand pieces of the Lockport dolomite piled up along the urbanized shores on both sides of the river.


The fine sand indicates the water has a gentle interaction with the mainland, whereas heavier stones indicate rougher water. The main erosive force of the river is deflected against the Grand Island shore opposite.


This parcel is one of the few remaining places where most of the morphological character of the aboriginal shoreline is present. There is a low elevation parallel to the river at the apex of the shoreline slope that appears to be an effective natural levee against what little force the river exerts here. The low trough on the mainland side of the levee does not appear to be broached during winter or storm periods of high water, as there is no evidence of this either erosionally or depositionally, nor does the vegetation indicate such natural disturbance. The giant old willows (Crack Willow: Salix fragilis) are the only armament on the shore and these are not native trees. The shoreline flora is relatively pristine, so that its aboriginal, natural character and structure may be observed and the patterns applied to restoration projects up and downstream on the Niagara River.


The shore morphology may be compared with that of Buckhorn Island, which is much more complex and convoluted, with water‑filled troughs that parallel or are perpendicular to the river on the island's north side, and the old inlet (Burntship Bay) and Wood's Creek meanderings on the south side of the marsh.


The South Grand Island Bridge Tonawanda parcel is evidently the only remaining bit of natural shoreline left along the New York mainland of the upper river, although some may know of others.


One significant modification to the parcel that must date back many years is a rather high, sharply defined berm covered with Fissidens taxifolius, running parallel to the trough and River Road and nearer the Road than the river. The purpose of this elevation may have been to improve drainage toward the mainland to protect early road‑building on the River Road bed, or to protect it from possibly higher river levels. It resembles a similar berm running parallel to the East‑West Park Road on the northern tip of Grand Island bisecting Buckhorn Island State Park, and also in a small natural wood near Niagara University and the property of the New York Power Authority at Witmer Road in Niagara County. These berms are associated with native wet woods and may derive from the Work Projects Administration (WPA) or Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) efforts during the depression of the 1930's, which makes areas with such earthworks even more interesting as their function may have included protection of areas of significant natural woodland character if not to protect wooded wetlands from the effects of development.


Note that the beach seems to resemble an exposed sandbar, what was initially an offshore, underwater feature, later exposed by lower water levels in the river. The ground seems to slope downward against the mainland from this elevation and is blocked by the berm and then by the modifications resulting in the construction of what is now River Road. There is other evidence in the area that this industrial section was once an extensive wetland perhaps drained by Two Mile Creek. Industrial, rather than residential construction, may be a sign of the general unsuitability of the area due to its lowness much as industry and railroads developed south of the City of Buffalo along the Buffalo River and The Flats, an extensive wetland in which the Little Buffalo Creek, now disappeared, once flowed.


Another disturbance is the presence of a 2‑track dirt area where vehicles (once?) drove parallel to the berm.






The vegetation of this parcel was observed August 12, 2003. It is organized in the following elements:


1. Closed canopy forest (shaded ground).


2. Thicket (shrub) strips and associated herbaceous species


a. along shoreline margin facing the Niagara River (this area includes large (mature) willow trees planted to provide erosional control)


b. forest margin along River Road.


c. A third strip of thicket has become established on the linear berm feature near and parallel to River Road under the forest canopy.


3. Herbaceous ground layer and associated shrub species.


a. in shade on variably wet to moist soil.


b. in open sunlight along the shoreline margin edge of boundary thickets.


The following botanical observations pertain to a walk‑through examination on August 12, 2003:


1. Closed canopy forest (shaded ground).


Whatever the original arboreal species composition of this forest was, the forest is presently essentially a monoculture of Green Ash (Fraxinus pensylvanica), a species of wet to moist forests. It is usually associated with either or both Silver and Red Maple (Acer saccharinum and A. rubrum) as well as American Elm (Ulmus americana), of which there is little or no representation (one young Red Maple, 4" dbh was observed). Ordinarily one might expect the original forest type to be the Silver maple‑ash swamp (forested mineral soil wetlands) of Reschke (19990) said to be characteristic of Buckhorn Island State Park and interior wet forests on Grand Island. However, the presence of a few specimens of Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) in the upstream boundary of the parcel is suggestive of a species composition that may have originally included Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) and Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), as occur in a wet woods nearly one mile interior to this shoreline, as well as other Oak and Hickory hardwoods presently identified along the Niagara River in the Tonawanda Channel.


The poor diversity of arboreal species and their youth (most trees are only around 6" diameter breast height (dbh) indicate selective logging (note some diameters are large, to 24" dbh), perhaps during the heyday of the timber industry in the Tonawandas downstream. That the canopy of these young trees is at an extreme height suggests that when the logging occurred, the canopy remained essentially intact and the shrub and herbaceous character of the lower layers is indicative of typical natural conditions along the Niagara River ‑ either originally or as an example of natural regeneration after selective logging with the canopy intact. That there is little or no branching low down on the trees also suggests their uninterrupted growth in shade.


Young sprouts of this tree occur as a ground cover in all parcel areas.


Several robust (more mature) trees of Hickory (Juglans cf. nigra) were rather anomalously growing on the raised berm, as was the Bird Cherry (Prunus avium). This last European exotic is aptly named as the seed is dispersed by birds. It is the ancestor of the commercial Bing Cherry and, though the fruit is smaller, they are just as tasty.


Typical of moist forest edges were the very large Cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) that grew predominantly on the upstream forest border as well as along the beach side of the shoreline thicket.


Several trees of American Elm occur near the River Road thicket and along the interior berm. On the upstream margin a very tall River Grape (Vitis riparia) scrambled up to the canopy.



2. Thicket (shrub) strips and associated herbaceous species. Except for a few stems of Buttonbush and Currant (Ribes sp.) in the shaded interior, shrubs only dominate along the beach, the berm and the peripheral edges along River Road and on the downstream forest margin. A shrub layer is essentially absent in the forested interior.


a. forest margin along River Road.


This thicket is in full sun facing River Road, in shade facing the interior canopy. Green Ash is developed here, together with Virginia Creeper, a massive Bird Cherry. At the northern end where the ground is higher, is a fine specimen of Beech (Fagus grandifolia) to 10" dbh, indicative of aboriginal upland growth. One might expect Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Red Oak (Quercus rubra) to have shared the canopy at one time. The native Red‑osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) is established here, and Panicled Dogwood (Cornus racemosa).


b. A third strip of thicket has become established on the linear berm feature near and parallel to River Road under the forest canopy.


Trending toward the berm and on the berm itself the soil is somewhat drier to dry with increasing herbaceous presence. Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus cf. vitacea) forms a ground cover, there is more of the Currant (Ribes). Were the ground any drier, Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron) would be part of the ground cover as elsewhere in the Niagara River woodlands. White Avens (Geum canadense) and the large‑headed species Rough Avens (Geum laciniatum), Solidago sp. River Grape grows here also. The dark elevated soil is covered with the moss Fissidens taxifolius.


For some reason, artificial hummocks of deposited soil, no matter how large or small, seem to be magnets for exotic species, often seen as islands of exotics in a sea of native species. This is probably due to contamination of the imported soil with seeds of these species. The noxious shrub Morrow's Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) is conspicuous on the berm, growing below several Hickories (to 12" dbh) and the exotic Bird Cherry (Prunus avium). American Elm is perched on the berm, one to 12" dbh, also Privet (Ligustrum cf. vulgare) and Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). Enchanter's Nightshade is abundant here in the drier soil (Circaea quadrisulcata) and the Garlic Mustard is dense. The weedy taxa selectively predominate on the side of the berm facing River Road.


c. along shoreline margin facing the Niagara River (this area includes large (mature) willow trees planted to provide erosional control).


The thicket character here is useful in that it may represent the pattern that once occurred downstream along the western boundary of Buckhorn Island State Park, presently deeply infested with Lonicera tartarica, L. morrowii and L. morrowii x tatarica (= x bella). Here in Tonawanda the thicket is primarily species of Dogwood (Cornus racemosa, Cornus stolonifer) and one specimen of possibly Cornus amomum developed under Cottonwood trees (Populus deltoides) and the Green Ash. Although probably too wet for Hawthorne species, there was one shrub of Crataegus monogyna and one of Crataegus mollis with its lightly downy leaves.


Exotic intruders include Alder buckthorn (Rhamnus frangula) and Black or Siberian Alder (Alnus glutinosa), a species recently thought to be sparsely established, but now demonstrated to show an invasive character all along the shoreline of both channels of the upper Niagara River (Eckel, (Rhamnus cathartica) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera sp.) also have a presence, but so far a minor one. A specimen of Box Elder (Acer negundo) is troubling to see as this is an invasive tree. An exotic willow, Basket or Purple Willow (Salix purpurea) occurs here, as along Wood's Creek at Buckhorn. It has purplish leaves and they are nearly opposite on their twigs ‑ distinctive among willows. 


For the herbaceous component of the shoreline thickets see below.


3. Herbaceous ground layer and associated shrub species.


a. in shade on variably wet to moist soil.


There are two components to this layer:


i. the trough between berm and River Road, a linear track of black wet soil.


The moist soil here is black (reduced) and nearly completely devoid of vegetation. This is typical of soils along the river and in poorly drained soil inland where water has stood from the end of winter through spring and early summer and nothing germinates in it excepting new tree species, not even Garlic Mustard. On the edges of the trough where the soil is high enough and all around the weedy peripheral areas and throughout the berm occur Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis = A. petiolaris).


ii. the depression between the berm and the shoreline elevation.


The black soil without vegetation in the trough area is probably due to the existence of the berm, otherwise it is likely to have the character of the berm‑shore depression: robust swathes of urticaceous species, here primarily False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) whereas in other wet Maple‑Ash woods, this species also alternates with zones of Clearweed (Pilea pumila). Such broad‑leaved herbs are typical of Maple‑Ash woods whereas graminoids abound in adjacent wet Oak (Oak‑Hickory) woods with spring‑wet, fall‑dry soil regimes. There is little graminoid, Juncus or cyperaceous species present in the South Grand Island Bridge parcel.


Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is most abundant here on the shaded side of the shoreline thicket where presumably the soil is wettest all year growing with a little stand of Broad‑leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia); the white‑flowered Polygonum on slender stalks is Dotted Smartweed (Polygonum punctatum) one of the most common Smartweed in New York State and present in all wet margins along the Niagara River; the Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris) and Common or Swamp Dodder (Cuscuta gronovii) with its twining orange stems; other species include some Iris sp. (Iris versicolor or I. virginica), White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia); large‑headed Rough Avens (Geum laciniatum); Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis); some Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia), an alien sprawler in wet soil; scattered Water Horehound (Lycopus sp.), a delicate species of Bedstraw, Stiff Marsh Bedstraw (Galium tinctorium). An herb with a rather large purple flower typical of such wet places is Square‑stemmed Monkey‑flower (Mimulus ringens). Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora) is an unusual plant, found also at nearby Buckhorn marsh.


One exception to the absence of graminoid species is Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea), a large grass of wet ground that occurs among the False Nettle population. The common name most likely refers to the need to identify wild or weedy grasses whose seeds could be gathered to feed the family bird. Caged canaries were household standards during the turn of the 20th century and earlier during the Victorian Era during a time when the pet food industry had not yet developed or when frugal households would never waste money on feed for their pets.


Trending toward the berm and on the berm itself the soil is somewhat drier with increasing herbaceous presence (see shrub section above).


Shrub species occurring here include some small stems of Buttonbush and a curious abundance of Currant (thornless Ribes sp. with resinous glands).


b. open sunlight along the shoreline margin edge of boundary thickets.


Native herbs include various Horehounds or Bugleweeds (Lycopus sp.) of the mint family, a little grass Nerved Manna‑grass (Glyceria striata), Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) as on Goat Island downstream, Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), a spectacular yellow flower beside the alien but beautifully blue‑flowered Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). There is Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata), species of Beggar‑ticks (Bidens sp.), Grass‑leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia), Northern Bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus) with its very narrow leaves, Cut‑leaved Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus), Joe‑Pye‑Weed, American Germander (Teucrium canadense) one of the larger marsh mints, and Agrimonia (Agrimonia gyrosepala). A mint that resembles the Bugleweeds (Lycopus sp.) but with a powerful mint‑fragrance is American Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis).


In the wet sand grows the Silverweed (Potentilla anserina) so characteristic of the beaches of the upper Niagara River. There was a very tall species of Meadow Rue, the Thalictrum revolutum Zenkert mentioned was collected along the Niagara River in the town of Tonawanda in an old pre‑1934 specimen. A Buttercup with conspicuous yellow petals growing on the shore was Swamp or Marsh Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus var. caricetorum, formerly R. septentrionalis). Joe‑Pye‑Weed (Eupatorium maculatum), Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) grow in more shaded stations.


Among the various species of Bugleweed occurs the fragrant American Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis), two species of Thistle, both exotic: Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) and Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense) as well as Burdock (Arctium lappa), some Chicory (Cichorium intybus), Ox‑eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) and a little Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).


It is clear that the greatest species diversity of this parcel exists along the shoreline with species enjoying the sunny riverside on one side of the tree/shrub line and those enjoying shade on the other.





Bold faced names of species indicate natives, italicized names are of introduced species. Nomenclature follows Zander and Pierce (1979).


Tree species:


American Elm (Ulmus americana)

Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Bird Cherry (Prunus avium)   

Black or Siberian Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

Box Elder (Acer negundo)

Crack Willow (Salix fragilis)       

Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)

Green Ash (Fraxinus americana)

Hickory (Juglans sp., probably nigra) 

Red Maple (Acer rubrum).


Alien species of trees were the Crack Willow on the shore and the Bird Cherry on the berm. The Black Alder is the most noxious species and Box Elder is next, one of the most aggressive weedy trees in the gorge forests of the Niagara River. There are no upland trees in this parcel excepting the Hickory established on the berm elevation and the Beech on the northern periphery. The dominant species in the central woodland is Green Ash.


Shrub species:


Basket Willow (Salix purpurea)

Buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica)   

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Currant (a thornless Ribes species, either the native Ribes americanus or the Black Currant of gardens, Ribes nigrum)

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) 

Hawthorn (Crataegus mollis)

Honeysuckle sp. (Lonicera sp.)

Morrow's Honeysuckle (Lonicera morrowii) 

Panicled Dogwood (Cornus racemosa).

Privet (Ligustrum cf. vulgaris) 

Red‑osier Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera)

River Grape (Vitis riparia)     

Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus cf. vitacea)


The most noxious shrub species are well known: exotic Honeysuckles, Privet and Buckthorn. Radical and immediate removal does not seem to be likely to cause a problem here as elsewhere where these shrubs form an impenetrable infestation of communities of native species, as along the Niagara gorge.


Herbaceous species:


American Wild Mint (Mentha arvensis)

American Germander (Teucrium canadense)

Agrimonia (Agrimonia gyrosepala).

Beggar‑ticks (Bidens sp.)

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)

Broad‑leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare)

Burdock (Arctium lappa)

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)

Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Common or Swamp Dodder (Cuscuta gronovii)

Cut‑leaved Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus)

Dotted Smartweed (Polygonum punctatum)

Enchanter's Nightshade (Circaea quadrisulcata)

False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica)

Field Mint (Mentha arvensis).

Fringed Loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata)

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria officinalis)

Grass‑leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia)

Great Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica).

Iris sp. (Iris versicolor or I. virginica)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Joe‑Pye‑Weed (Eupatorium maculatum)

Marsh Fern (Thelypteris palustris)

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum revolutum)

Moneywort (Lysimachia nummularia)

Nerved Manna‑grass (Glyceria striata)

Northern Bugleweed (Lycopus uniflorus)

Ox‑eye Daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum)

Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)

Reed Canary Grass (Phalaris arundinacea)

Rough Avens (Geum laciniatum) 

Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis)

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina)

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale)

Solidago sp.

Square‑stemmed Monkey‑flower (Mimulus ringens).

Stiff Marsh Bedstraw (Galium tinctorium).

Swamp or Marsh Buttercup (Ranunculus hispidus var. caricetorum, formerly R. septentrionalis).

Tufted Loosestrife (Lysimachia thyrsiflora) 

White Avens (Geum canadense) 

White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia)




Fissidens taxifolius





Thalictrum revolutum is rare in Canada and rare in Ontario. This population at the south Grand Island bridge would be a possible source for natural colonization across the river in Ontario given suitable habitat there. US populations of species rare in Ontario near the border should be scrupulously maintained to maintain this natural process of enrichment of the diversity of the Canadian flora.


Identification of the Iris species should be undertaken when Iris species are in bloom to determine whether this species is the common Iris versicolor, or Iris virginica, which is rare in New York State.





1. Trash, presumably from River Road, needs picking up.


2. Deer population existence needs some monitoring and its effect on the vegetation. No effect on the vegetation was seen as of this writing, no sense of browsing pressure. The deer seem to restrict themselves to the shoreline.


3. Exotic species need removing, if anything, to provide habitat for expansion of existing native populations and provide additional habitat space for the introduction of other species along whatever vector originating up or downstream. Except for the Garlic Mustard, alien species seem manageable if this problem is addressed in the near future. Garlic Mustard, a biennial species, could be addressed late in its fruiting season when pods are just starting to develop as the plants are most conspicuous then and easily removed as well as being distinguished from other, native species. One positive aspect is the lawnscape that exists surrounding the parcel. Actively maintained lawns suppress all species and in this instance seem to act as buffers against aggressive species. Exotic herbs typical of waste ground, such as Thistle, Burdock and Chicory, are most likely to enter the community along the periphery at the upstream and downstream boundaries (utility properties).


Another positive aspect of the industrial environment in which the parcel is embedded is the absence of public facilities for congregation, the general nakedness or exposure of the surroundings that with complex traffic patterns discourages public assembly on the parcel boundaries.


4. Noxious thicket species that may contribute to deterioration of shoreside habitats, such as Honeysuckle, Buckthorn, Black Alder and Box Elder should be scrupulously removed to protect the high species diversity of the herbaceous community.


5. Certain alien species with no known noxious character might remain for scientific or biocultural interest. Bird Cherry may arguably be a remnant of colonial times as many very old trees may be found throughout the forests adjacent to the Niagara River and Niagara Escarpment. Basket Willow does not escape much and is also probably a remnant of earlier economic efforts on the river edge. In colonial and later periods this willow was introduced from Europe for basket‑weaving ‑ it is only seldom escaped, as at this station. Other aliens, such as the Great Lobelia are beautiful and not invasive. The Crack Willow not only stabilizes shorelines but its tough trunks resist ice scour. It seldom spreads.


This shoreline parcel is small enough that alien species removal protocols may be developed to apply to the maintenance of other natural areas along the Niagara River.


The low extent of invasion makes clean‑up possible and the special effect specific to individual noxious invaders can be studied, and the impact of their removal on the natural community structure examined and monitored.


It is recommended, due to the fragility of the wet soils and their fundamental importance to the structure and function of this system, that any recreational or educational use and access be denied. The primary function of this tiny wetland is scientific with an emphasis on historical ecology and no trespassing signs might be contemplated.


Protection and understanding of the ecology of this piece of landscape is vital as a biocultural asset for restoration or natural maintenance protocol development in any natural history corridor formulation by area governments on both Canadian and American shores.


I thank Richard Zander for reviewing the manuscript and providing the computer technology to make this information available on‑line.





Eckel, P. M. 2003. Two problems in Betulaceae along the Niagara River: Alnus glutinosa and Betula cordifolia. Clintonia Clintonia 18(4): 3-4.


Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, N.Y.S. Department of Environmental Conservation, 700 Troy‑Schenectady Rd., Latham, NY 12110‑2400.


Zander, R. H. & G. J. Pierce. 1979. Flora of the Niagara Frontier Region: Second Supplement and Checklist. Bull. Buffalo Soc. Nat. Sci. 16(Suppl. 2).


Zenkert, Charles A. 1934. Flora of the Niagara Frontier Region. Bull. Buffalo Soc. Nat. Sci. 16. Buffalo, New York.