BOTANICAL EVALUATION OF THE GOAT ISLAND COMPLEX, NIAGARA FALLS, NEW YORK
Botanical interest in the islands generally began with the geographical descriptions of the early explorers when it became early recognized that North America had a natural phenomenon at Niagara rivaling those already made famous by tradition or exploration on other continents. The genre of travel literature throughout the nineteenth century dutifully recorded obligatory visits to the cataracts by various authors. Their differing talents for emotional expression and inspirational description also contributed to the differing observations of conditions on the island, only a fraction of which could be examined for this report.
Many scholars were also involved in the exploration of the North American continent and good use has been made in this report of their published and unpublished observations as well. This report by no means exhausts the wealth of unexamined data that are still available for study.
The many published statements relevant to the flora proved to be, if not difficult to reconcile at times, then difficult to explain in ecological terms or to justify by proposing a possible mechanism for generating the phenomena observed. Pictorial evidence, from drawings to photographs, could not be ignored and were used, it is hoped, with sufficient caution to assist in using to corroborate published observations and other aids to interpretation.
By far the largest inconsistencies to resolve were allegations as to the undisturbed character of the woods on Goat Island in 1885 and descriptions and photographs of it, including the first articulated policy on its proper maintenance (Olmsted & Vaux, 1887). All such evidence pointed to prior disturbance, rather than to forest conditions resembling classic descriptions of undisturbed, primitive, or climax woods. This fundamental problem had to be resolved before any sense could be made of the great scientific interest the island had a century ago, its public fascination over the years, and its present botanical condition. It is difficult to understand the value of what is left, or to begin to justify changes in policy which need to be developed before the historic flora is removed and replaced forever without some perspective on the nature of that flora.
Superficially, the present flora presents the same aspect as any other disturbed wood and landscape altered to lawns such that centuries-old accounts appear to be so incomparable as to resemble exaggerations or distortions regarding the biological character of Goat Island. However, many collections of species of an unusual character were found during the course of this study so as to force the present investigator to conclude that the biologically reduced aspect of the present condition is achieved by suppression of an unusual floral biology, and the biology of the area is uninteresting merely because it has been unexamined.
That the floras of Goat Island and the Niagara River Gorge appear to have lost their scientific interest is an assumption the present writer has met with among botanists across New York State and Ontario, and from the discovery that no botanical publications, except with passing mention, have been made dealing solely with the area since David Day's publication of 1887.
Several of the rarest native species in New York State either still exist here a century after their first report or were found to exist during the course of the present study - mainly because their habitats persist on dangerous boundaries or edges of the cliffs and river margins. That the conditions for rare dynamics with unusual biological consequences still exist at Niagara is borne out by the fact that several alien species never reported for western New York before were discovered here in the past year, and also rare taxa, only one or two found previously, or otherwise rare State-wide, were also found.
Accumulated evidence has shown that, based on published reports, on herbarium specimens and recent collections made over the past century, the immediate Niagara region (including the margins of the Niagara River just up from the cataracts and down through its seven-mile gorge), an area of around two square miles, has supported a floristic diversity amounting to around seventy-five percent of that of the surrounding 7,850 square miles constituting the Niagara Frontier Region (Eckel, unpublished manuscript) - a diversity nearly equal to that reported for Cattaraugus County, the seventh largest county in New York State (Eaton & Schrot, 1987). The cursory examination of the flora in the vicinity of Niagara Falls conducted by David Day (1887) amounted to 909 species, and that number has been increased by subsequent investigators by several hundred taxa, even allowing for the deletion of species due to misidentification or some other reason, and the increase in foreign taxa.
This is an electronic version mounted on January 29, 2002, of the original draft manuscript prepared and submitted in 1990.