The Perseverance of New York Metropolis’s Wildflowers
In Williamsburg, in a seven-acre park on the East River, spring will soon unfold in blue blossoms. Cornflowers are always the first to bloom in Marsha P. Johnson State Park’s pollinator meadow, a welcome sign to bees and humans that things are starting to thaw.
On Monday, the meadow was mowed annually and the grasses trimmed to six inches to make room for spring blooms. “Mowing promotes that rebirth and regrowth,” said Leslie Wright, the city’s regional director of the state park system. If New York City has a warm spring, the cornflowers can open by late April, followed by orange frills of butterfly milkweed, purple, spindle-shaped bee balm, and yolk-yellow, black-eyed Susans who also live in the meadow – hardy species that can weather that salty spray that faced aquatic life.
Not all of these flowers came from New York or even North America, but they have persisted long enough to be naturalized. These species pose little threat to native wildlife, unlike more dominant introduced species like mugwort, an herb with an intrepid rhizome system.
Although cornflowers now herald spring, they weren’t here hundreds of years ago before colonizers forcibly evicted the Lenape people from their ancestral Lenapehoking land, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, and parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York State. The Lenape knew spring from another bloom: white clusters of flowers from the serviceberry tree, which in April powdered its branches like snow. Serviceberries are still in bloom in Brooklyn today, in both Prospect Park and John Paul Jones Park.
A wildflower can refer to any flowering plant that was not cultivated, intentionally planted, or treated with human help, but was still able to grow and bloom. This is one of several definitions that the plant ecologist Donald J. Leopold offered in Andrew Garn’s new photo book “Wildflowers of New York City” and that feels particularly suitable for the city and its many transplants.
Mr. Garn did not intend that Wildflowers of New York City should be a traditional field guide for identifying flowers. Rather, his awe-inspiring portraits invite us to delight in the beauty of the flowers, which we find more often in a street plan than in a bouquet. “They all share a beauty in form and function that testifies to the glory of survival in the big city,” writes Garn. He asks us to stop and ponder the sprouts that we could pass each day and appreciate them not only for their beauty but also for their ability to thrive.
There are more than 2,000 species of flora in New York City, more than half of which are naturalized, Garn writes. Some were imported for their beauty; Ornate shrubs such as the Butterhappe Winter Hazel, Star Magnolia and Peegee Hydrangea reached North America for the first time in a single shipment to the Parsons & Sons Nursery in Flushing in 1862.
Others came as stowaways, as the writer Allison C. Meier notes in the introduction to the book. In the 19th century, botanist Addison Brown searched the piles of discarded ballast – earth and stones that weighed ships down – on the city’s docks for unusual blooms, as he found in an 1880 edition of the Torrey Botanical Club’s bulletin. During a July trip to Gowanus, Brooklyn, Mr. Brown noticed purple sprouts from sticky nightshade, a plant native to South America. He also found purple tendrils of the welted thistle, which is native to Europe and Asia. The welted thistle hasn’t successfully grown out of the ballast pile to gain a foothold in New York, but sticky nightshade has been floating around.
Located on a 19th-century shipping dock and former garbage disposal 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 bought the land and reopened the site as East River State Park in 2007.
In February 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo renamed the park after activist Marsha P. Johnson, a key figure in the Stonewall riots and co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with activist Sylvia Rivera. Ms. Johnson, who died in 1992 for undetermined reasons, would have turned 75 in August 2020.
In January, the State Parks Department unveiled a proposed $ 14 million redesign of the park with a thermoplastic mural made of rainbow stripes and flowers, 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. The residents have created a petition entitled “Stop the plastic park!”. – for real flowers and natural landscaping instead of the harsh colors of the thermoplastic mural. In response to the outcry, the state is holding workshops for the public in March and April to contribute to the redesign.
“I always lit candles for Marsha and Sylvia, but I pray especially hard now that we are getting a plan that is full of flowers,” said Mariah Lopez, executive director of the Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform or STARR advocacy.
Ms. Johnson was known to wear crowns of fresh flowers arranged from leftover flowers and discarded daffodils from the Flower District in Manhattan, where she often slept. In one photo, Ms. Johnson wears a crown of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, frilled tulips, statice, and baby breath. Although the baby’s cumulative breaths are a staple for flower arrangements today, the species is a wildflower native to Central and Eastern Europe.
Ms. Lopez and STARR criticized a proposal for a new $ 70 million beach to be built on the Gansevoort peninsula near the waterfront promenades where Ms. Rivera once lived and Ms. Johnson died. In its place, she proposes a memorial garden for Ms. Johnson, Ms. Rivera, and other transgender people. “We will never feed enough people, we will never plant enough flowers, never be good enough to honor Sylvia and Marsha,” said Ms. Lopez. “They cared too much even when nobody cared about them.”
Ms. Lopez, who grew up near a sooty chimney on the Upper West Side, has always longed for more green spaces in the city. Her dream of the park includes a number of green and functional spaces: a paved area where people can gather and hold rallies, a flower garden in honor of Ms. Johnson, a greenhouse and an apiary. “You can never have enough bees,” said Ms. Lopez. “They are not there to stab you. They take care of their business. “
Portions of Marsha P. Johnson State Park will remain closed for construction until the native planting meadow is in full bloom and filled with the sunny, heart-shaped petals of evening primrose, urchin-like heads of purple coneflower, and drooping red bells of Columbine. In late summer, buttery lumps of goldenrod follow. Soon the garden will also be full of bees, bugs, moths, butterflies and other pollinators. There are several tunneled apiaries designed to attract native solitary bees like carpenter bees and provide them with rest after sucking up nectar nearby. Unlike bumblebees, carpenter bees do not have queens or worker boxes. In some species of carpenter bees, the females nest in groups and live next to their daughters or other adult female bees.
The redesign of the park will add a new fence around the meadow and signs about the pollinators who are dependent on the wildflowers. “What would happen if there were no bees in the world?” Ms. Wright, the city’s regional director of the state park system, wondered aloud. “We have to protect them. That is the function of this cute little meadow. “She added that when the cornflowers bloom in warmer, bluer months, the bees will come.