The perseverance of New York City wildflowers

In Williamsburg, in a seven-acre park along the East River, spring will soon unfold in blue flowers. Cornflowers are always the first to bloom in the Pollinator Prairie of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, a welcome sign to bees and people that things are starting to thaw.

On Monday, the annual meadow was cut and the grass trimmed to six inches to make way for the spring flowers. “The cutting encourages this rebirth and regrowth,” said Leslie Wright, regional director of the city’s state park system. If New York City has a warm spring, the cornflowers may open in late April, eventually followed by orange frills of butterfly milkweed, spindly purple bee balm, and black-eyed and bud-yellow Susans that also inhabit the prairie, Hardy species that can weather the salty spray that faces life on the boardwalk.

Not all of these flowers are native to New York, or even North America, but they have been around long enough to naturalize. These species pose little threat to native wildlife, unlike the more dominant introduced species such as mugwort, a herb with an intrepid rhizome system.

Although cornflowers herald spring now, they weren’t here hundreds of years ago, before settlers forcibly displaced the Lenape people from their ancestral homeland of Lenapehoking, which encompasses New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and the state. from New York. The Lenape knew spring for another bloom: white clumps of blossoms from the service berry tree, dusting their branches like snow in April. Today, the berries still bloom in Brooklyn, in both Prospect Park and John Paul Jones Park.

A wildflower can refer to any flowering plant that was not cultivated, planted intentionally, or received no human help, but still managed to grow and flourish. This is one of several definitions offered by plant ecologist Donald J. Leopold in Andrew Garn’s new photography book “Wildflowers of New York City,” and one that feels particularly suited to the city and its many transplants..

Mr. Garn did not intend “New York City Wildflowers” to be a traditional field guide for identifying flowers. Rather, his reverent portraits invite us to delight in the beauty of the flowers that we find more often in a crack in the sidewalk than in a bouquet. “They all share a beauty of form and function that bears witness to the glory of survival in the big city,” Garn writes. He asks us to stop and consider the buds that we can go through every day and appreciate them not only for their beauty, but also for their ability to thrive.

More than 2,000 plant species are found in New York City, more than half of which are naturalized, Garn writes. Some were imported for their beauty; Ornate shrubs such as winterhazel buttercup, star magnolia, and peegee hydrangea first arrived in North America in a single shipment to the Parsons & Sons Nursery in Flushing in 1862.

Others came as stowaways, as writer Allison C. Meier notes in the book’s introduction. In the 19th century, botanist Addison Brown swept heaps of discarded ballast (dirt and stones that weighed on ships) alongside the city docks in search of unknown flowers, as noted in an 1880 issue of the Bulletin of the Torrey. Botanical Club. During a July field trip to Gowanus in Brooklyn, Mr. Brown noticed purple shoots of sticky nightshade, a plant native to South America. He also found purple tendrils of the thistle thistle, native to Europe and Asia. The spotted thistle did not make it past the ballast pile to take root in New York City, but the sticky nightshade has stuck.

Located on a 19th-century shipping dock and former trash transfer station, Marsha P. Johnson State Park is no stranger to ballast. The docks imported flour, sugar, and many other goods until operations ceased in 1983. The state purchased the land and, in 2007, reopened the site as East River State Park.

In February 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo renamed the park in honor of activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the central figures in the Stonewall riots and co-founder of Street Travestite Action Revolutionaries with activist Sylvia Rivera. Johnson, who died in 1992 of undetermined causes, would have turned 75 in August 2020.

In January, the state parks department released a $ 14 million park redesign proposal featuring a thermoplastic rainbow flower and stripes mural, the Brooklyn Paper reported. Although the state promised to consult with the city’s LGBTQ community, members of Ms. Johnson’s family and the trans community were not consulted and have criticized the proposal. Local residents created a petition, titled “Stop the Plastic Park!” – for real flowers and natural landscaping instead of the harsh colors of the thermoplastic mural. In response to the protest, the state is holding workshops in March and April for the public to provide input on the redesign.

“I always have candles lit for Marsha and Sylvia, but I pray especially now that we have a plan that includes a lot of flowers,” said Mariah Lopez, executive director of the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, or STARR, an advocacy group.

Ms. Johnson was known for wearing fresh wreaths that she arranged with leftover flowers and discarded daffodils from the flower district in Manhattan, where she used to sleep. In one photo, Ms. Johnson is wearing a wreath of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, ruffled tulips, statues, and baby’s breath. Although accumulated clusters of baby’s breath are now a staple of flower arrangements, the species is a wildflower native to central and eastern Europe.

Ms. Lopez and STARR have criticized a proposal for a new $ 70 million beach slated to be built on the Gansevoort Peninsula, near the docks where Ms. Rivera once lived and Ms. Johnson died. Instead, suggest a memorial garden for Ms. Johnson, Ms. Rivera, and other transgender people. “We will never feed enough people, we will never plant enough flowers, we will never be good enough to honor Sylvia and Marsha,” Ms. Lopez said. “They cared too much, even when no one cared about them.”

Ms. Lopez, who grew up on the Upper West Side near a sooty fireplace, has always wanted more green space in the city. Her dream of the park includes a variety of green and functional spaces: a paved area where people can be fashionable and hold rallies, a flower garden honoring Mrs. Johnson, a greenhouse and an apiary for bees. “You can never have enough bees,” Lopez said. “They are not there to sting you. They are minding their own business. “

Parts of Marsha P. Johnson State Park will be closed for construction until June, when the native plantation meadow will flourish more, replete with sunny heart-shaped petals of evening primrose, hedgehog heads of purple coneflowers and drooping red columbine bells. In late summer, the buttery goldenrod clumps will do the same. Soon, the garden will also be full of bees, beetles, moths, butterflies, and other pollinators. There are several bee houses with tunnels, designed to attract native solitary bees, such as carpenter bees, and offer them rest after drinking the nearby nectar. Unlike bumblebees, carpenter bees do not have queens or worker castes. In some species of carpenter bees, females nest in groups, living alongside their daughters or other adult female bees.

The redesign of the park will add a new fence around the meadow, as well as interpretive posters about the pollinators that depend on its wildflowers. “What if there were no bees in the world?” Ms. Wright, regional director of the city’s state park system, wondered aloud. “We have to protect them. That’s the function of this sweet little meadow. “He added that the bees will come when the cornflowers bloom, in warmer, blue months.

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