Serpentine Barrens

Serpentine barrens
Andy Finton

Barrens And Woodlands
State Protection
Not Listed
Not listed or protected by New York State.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Critically Imperiled in New York - Especially vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to extreme rarity or other factors; typically 5 or fewer populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, very few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or very steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled globally - At high risk of extinction due to rarity or other factors; typically 20 or fewer populations or locations in the world, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines.


Did you know?

Serpentine is a light green bedrock that is thought to have been forced from the earth's core 450 million years ago during plate shifting activity. The green color is due to the high concentration of magnesium in the rock. The community is found in only a few places in the world and in New York it is only found on Staten Island. As it weathers, most of the rock dissolves. Soils poor in nutrients and high in nickel and chromium metals that are toxic to most plants and animals remain. Therefore, the ecosystem is sparsely vegetated and is not able to support commercial crops, hence the name "barren." However, some plants have found a competitive advantage and thrive in this nutrient poor soil.

State Ranking Justification

There are only about five remnant occurrences in New York State totaling less than 40 acres. All sites are fair to poor quality. This community is limited to the regions of the state underlain with serpentine bedrock on Staten Island. The current trend of this community is probably stable in its current condition for occurrences on private conservation land and public land, or declining slightly due to moderate threats that include wildfire suppression, invasive plants, excessive ATV use, and trash dumping.

Short-term Trends

The acreage of serpentine barrens in New York have probably declined slightly in recent decades due to fire suppression, invasive plants, disturbance by off-road vehicles, trash dumping, and development.

Long-term Trends

The acreage of serpentine barrens in New York have probably had very large declines from historical numbers due to fragmentation, development, and fire suppression.

Conservation and Management


The threats to the serpentine barrens natural community type come mostly from its location in a dense urban environment. Among the major threats are erosion from trails (both hiking and biking) and off-road vehicle use. In addition, threats include illegal dumping of trash and debris and increased pressure from development. This community is also a "fire dependent" community meaning it requires periodic fires to maintain it's natural species composition. Because of its location in an urban environment, fires have been suppressed and the community is changing from a grassy-shrubland to trees. In addition, invasive species such as autumn olive, rugosa rose, and black locust are a problem.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

Management of serpentine sites can include the following: improve the condition of existing serpentine pavement barrens by reducing and/or eliminating invasive species (including invasive native woody species), minimizing trail network and clearly marking existing trails, developing and implementing a prescribed burn plan at appropriate sites, improve the landscape context by encouraging surrounding landowners to establish natural buffers and restore natural corridors to other larger natural landscape blocks.

Development and Mitigation Considerations

Soils are very thin in and around this community and the effect of clearing and construction on soil retention and erosion must be considered during any development activities. Similarly, these soils are acidic and nutrient-poor and any soil enrichment (septic leach fields, and fertilized lawns) activities have a high probability of altering community structure and function. The open structure of this community is maintained by fire and presents a fire hazard to existing and proposed development.

Inventory Needs

Periodically inventory of the serpentine pavement barrens to keep occurrence data current. Species lists, both plant and animal, as well as plot data should be conducted on a regular basis.

Research Needs

Research is needed to determine the optimal fire regime for this community. The effect of prescribed burning needs to be evaluated. In addition, research is needed to evaluate the success of mechanical removal of woody plants in areas where fire is prohibited.

Rare Species

  • Asclepias purpurascens (Purple Milkweed) (guide)
  • Asclepias viridiflora (Green Milkweed) (guide)
  • Cyperus echinatus (Globe Flat Sedge) (guide)
  • Dichanthelium scoparium (Velvet Rosette Grass) (guide)


New York State Distribution

The range of this natural community in New York is currently restricted to Staten Island (Richmond County). The historical range may have extended to Manhattan Island (New York County). It is not reported in the state from outside New York City. New York City sites are at the northeast edge of range extending to central Maryland.

Global Distribution

Although geologic serpentine formations can be found worldwide, the range of this natural community, with it's associated plant species, is small. This particular association occurs only in serpentine barrens located within Staten Island, New York and Chester County in Pennsylvania. This community may extend into Maryland as well.

Best Places to See

  • Latourette Park (Richmond County)

Identification Comments

General Description

A grassland community of Staten Island, New York associated with soils derived from weathered serpentine bedrock. The dominant species in this community are yellow Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Other characteristic herbaceous species may include ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), common hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa), Small's ragwort (Packera anonyma), shrubby sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa ssp. Glauca), bristly foxtail (Setaria parviflora), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), poverty grass (Danthonia spicata), white heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), white old-field aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), small white snakeroot (Ageratina aromatica), old-field cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex), and green milkweed (Asclepias viridiflora). In New York, trees may cover 20-40% and typically include gray birch (Betula populifolia), black oak (Quercus velutina), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), and quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).

Characters Most Useful for Identification

An herbaceous, thin soiled, upland community found only on Staten Island. Serpentine barrens are dominated by graminoid (grass-like) vegetation including yellow Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Some trees, such as gray birch (Betula populifolia) and trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) may also occur here.

Elevation Range

Known examples of this community have been found at elevations between 40 feet and 240 feet.

Best Time to See

A great time to visit this natural community is in late June and early July when purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens) showcases its beautiful red-purple blossoms. Another great time is in the fall when little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), panic grasses (such as Panicum virgatum and P. philadelphicum), yellow Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), and poverty-grass (Danthonia spicata) change colors.

Serpentine Barrens Images


International Vegetation Classification Associations

This New York natural community encompasses all or part of the concept of the following International Vegetation Classification (IVC) natural community associations. These are often described at finer resolution than New York's natural communities. The IVC is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

  • Red Maple - Oak species / Greenbrier species Serpentine Forest (CEGL006438)
  • Indiangrass - Little Bluestem Serpentine Grassland (CEGL006441)

NatureServe Ecological Systems

This New York natural community falls into the following ecological system(s). Ecological systems are often described at a coarser resolution than New York's natural communities and tend to represent clusters of associations found in similar environments. The ecological systems project is developed and maintained by NatureServe.

Characteristic Species

  • Trees > 5m

    • Betula populifolia (gray birch)
    • Populus tremuloides (trembling aspen, quaking aspen)
    • Quercus velutina (black oak)
    • Sassafras albidum (sassafras)
  • Shrubs 2 - 5m

    • Morella caroliniensis (bayberry)
    • Rhus copallinum var. copallinum (common winged sumac)
  • Shrubs < 2m

    • Vaccinium corymbosum (highbush blueberry)
  • Herbs

    • Ageratina aromatica (small-leaved white snakeroot)
    • Asclepias purpurascens (purple milkweed)
    • Asclepias viridiflora (green milkweed)
    • Danthonia spicata (poverty grass)
    • Panicum philadelphicum ssp. philadelphicum (Philadelphia witch grass)
    • Panicum virgatum (switch grass)
    • Potentilla simplex (old-field cinquefoil)
    • Schizachyrium scoparium var. scoparium (little bluestem)
    • Sorghastrum nutans (Indian grass)
    • Symphyotrichum lateriflorum (calico-aster)
    • Symphyotrichum pilosum var. pilosum (frostweed-aster)

Similar Ecological Communities

  • Maritime grassland (guide)
    This is a grassland community that occurs on rolling outwash plains of the glaciated portion of the Atlantic coastal plain, near the ocean and within the influence of offshore winds and salt spray. This community is dominated by grasses that usually form a turf.
  • Oak openings (guide)
    This is a grass-savanna community that occurs on well-drained soils. In New York, these savannas originally occurred as openings within extensive oak-hickory forests. They were restricted to excessively well-drained sites such as on knobs or hilltops with shallow soil over dolomite outcrops, sandy to gravelly soils of kames and eskers, or gravelly glacial deltas and terraces. The best remnants occur on dolomite knobs. Oak openings differ from serpentine barrens in that they do not occur on serpentine rock, and generally occur as small patches within extensive oak-hickory forests in the Erie-Ontario Plain subzone of the Great Lakes Plain ecozone.
  • Pitch pine-scrub oak barrens (guide)
    This is a shrub-savanna community that occurs on well-drained, sandy soils that have developed on sand dunes, glacial till, and outwash plains. The dominant canopy tree is pitch pine, which occur as scattered emergents over dense understory thickets of scrub oak. Within the shrub thickets are small patches of grassland dominated by the following prairie grasses: big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). Pitch pine-scrub oak barrens differ from serpentine barrens by the canopy dominance of pitch pine and scrub oak thickets, and because they occur on sandy soils that have developed on sand dunes, glacial till, and outwash plains.
  • Post oak-blackjack oak barrens (guide)
    These are open barrens on upper slopes and low ridges characterized by the presence of stunted individuals of post oak (Quercus stellata), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica). Other trees at low cover include white oak (Q. alba), black oak (Q. velutina), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), American chestnut (Castanea dentata), gray birch (Betula populifolia), red maple (Acer rubrum), pitch pine (Pinus rigida), and blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica). There is a sparse heath and grass ground cover growing in very dry, deep, exposed sand overlying a clay subsoil. Post oak-blackjack oak barrens differ from serpentine barrens by the presence of post oak and blackjack oak as dominant canopy species and that they occur only over exposed sand overlying a clay subsoil not serpentine rock.
  • Successional northern sandplain grassland (guide)
    This is a meadow community that occurs on open sandplains that have been cleared and plowed (for farming or development), and then abandoned. This community is usually dominated by low, dry turf of sedges and grasses less than 30 cm (12 inches) tall, and include patches of open sand, and patches of soil covered with mosses and lichens.
  • Successional old field
    A meadow dominated by forbs and grasses that occurs on sites that have been cleared and plowed (for farming or development), and then abandoned. Characteristic herbs include goldenrods (Solidago altissima, S. nemoralis, S. rugosa, S. juncea, S. canadensis, and Euthamia graminifolia), bluegrasses (Poa pratensis, P. compressa), timothy (Phleum pratense), quackgrass (Elymus repens), smooth brome (Bromus inermis), sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), and orchard grass (Dactylis glomerata).


Trees > 5m
Shrubs 2 - 5m
Shrubs < 2m

Percent cover

This figure helps visualize the structure and "look" or "feel" of a typical Serpentine Barrens. Each bar represents the amount of "coverage" for all the species growing at that height. Because layers overlap (shrubs may grow under trees, for example), the shaded regions can add up to more than 100%.

Additional Resources


Arabas, Karen B. 2000. Spatial and temporal relationships among fire frequency, vegetation, and soil depth in an eastern North American serpentine barren. J.of Torrey Botanical Society 127(1) 51-65.

Brooks, R. R. 1987. Serpentine and its vegetation: A multidisciplinary approach. Volume 1. Dioscorides Press, Hong Kong. 454 pp.

Edinger, G. J., D. J. Evans, S. Gebauer, T. G. Howard, D. M. Hunt, and A. M. Olivero (editors). 2014. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke’s Ecological Communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Albany, NY.

Edinger, Gregory J., D.J. Evans, Shane Gebauer, Timothy G. Howard, David M. Hunt, and Adele M. Olivero (editors). 2002. Ecological Communities of New York State. Second Edition. A revised and expanded edition of Carol Reschke's Ecological Communities of New York State. (Draft for review). New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY. 136 pp.

Grossman, D. H., K. Lemon Goodin, and C. L. Reuss, editors. 1994. Rare plant communities of the conterminous United States: An initial survey. The Nature Conservancy. Arlington, VA. 620 pp.

Harshberger, J.W. 1903. The flora of the serpentine barrens of southeast Pennsylvania. Science 18(454): 339-343.

Hart, R. 1980. Coexistence of weeds and restricted native plants on serpentine barrens in southeastern Pennsylvania. Ecology 61: 688-701.

Kershner, Bruce editor. 1998. Secret places of Staten Island. A visitor's guide to scenic and historic treasures of Staten Island, New York City. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Co., Dubuque, Iowa. 148 pp.

Lapham, D. M., and H. L. McKague. 1964. Structural patterns associated with the serpentines of southeastern Pennsylvania. Geological Society of America Bulletin 75:639-660.

Latham, R. 1993. The serpentine barrens of temperate eastern North America: Critical issues in the management of rare species and communities. Bartonia (supplement) 57:61-74.

Levine, Maureen E. and Andrew M. Greller. 2004. Ecological and floristic analyses of vascular plants along a gradient on disturbed serpentine on opposing slopes in Staten Island, NY. J. of Torrey Botanical Society 131(1): 69-92.

Miller, G. L. 1981. Secondary succession following fire on a serpentine barren. Proceedings of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science 55: 62-64.

Miller, Gary L. 1977. An ecological study of the serpentine barrens in Lancaster County, PA. Proc. of the Pennsylvania Academy of Science 51:169-176.

NatureServe. 2015. NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Parisio, Steven. 1981. The genesis and morphology of a serpentine soil in Staten Island, New York. Proceedings of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences 31(1): 2-17.

Parisio, Steven. 1982. Uptake by plants of calcium, magnesium and nickel on a serpentine soil in Staten Island, New York. Proceedings of the Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences 32: 70-76.

Pennell, F.W. 1912. Further notes on the flora of the Conowingo serpentine barrens of southeastern Pennsylvania. Proc. Acad. Nat. Sci. Phila. 64: 520-539.

Pennell, F.W. 1930. On some critical species of the serpentine barrens. Bartonia 12:1-23.

Proctor, John and S.R.J. Woodell. 1975. The ecology of serpentine soils. In: MacFayden, A. editor, Advances in Ecol. Research 9:256-366.

Reed, C.F. 1986. Floras of the serpentinite formations in eastern North America, with descriptions of geomorphology and mineralogy of the formations. Contr. of the Reed Herbarium no.30. Smithsonian Institution, Baltimore, MD. 858 pp.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

Shapiro, A.M. 1972. New York City's Last Frontier: Field trips on Staten Island. The Staten Island Institute of Arts and Sciences, Staten Island, New York.

Wherry, E.T. 1963. Some Pennsylvania barrens and their flora. I. Serpentine. Bartonia 33: 7-11.


About This Guide

This guide was authored by: Shereen Brock

Information for this guide was last updated on: November 15, 2023

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Serpentine barrens. Available from: Accessed June 21, 2024.