The perseverance of New York City’s wildflowers

Butterfly weed.(photo:NYTimes)
NEW YORK — In Williamsburg, on a 28328sq.m. park by the East River, spring will soon unfurl in blue blossoms. Cornflowers are always the first to bloom in the pollinator meadow of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, a welcome sign to bees and people that things are beginning to thaw.اضافة اعلان

Last Monday, the meadow got its annual mow-down, its grasses trimmed to 152 millimeters to make way for springtime blooms. “The mow-down encourages this 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 may open up by late April, eventually followed by orange frills of butterfly milkweed, purple spindly bee balm and yolk-yellow, black-eyed Susans that also inhabit the meadow — hardy species that can weather the salty spray that confronts life on the waterfront.

Not all of these flowers are native to New York, or even North America, but they have sustained themselves long enough to become naturalized. These species pose little threat to native wildlife, unlike more domineering introduced species such as mugwort, an herb with an intrepid rhizome system.

Although cornflowers herald springtime now, they were not here hundreds of years ago, before colonizers forcibly displaced the Lenape people from their ancestral land of Lenapehoking, which encompasses New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York state. The Lenape knew spring by another bloom: white tufts of flowers from the serviceberry tree, which powder its branches like snow in April. Today, serviceberries 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, intentionally planted or given human aid, yet it still managed to grow and bloom. This is one of several definitions offered by plant ecologist Donald J. Leopold in Andrew Garn’s new photo book “Wildflowers of New York City,” and one that feels particularly suited to the city and its many transplants.

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

More than 2,000 species of plants 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 the buttercup winterhazel, star magnolia and peegee hydrangea all 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 writer Allison C. Meier notes in the book’s introduction. In the 19th century, botanist Addison Brown scoured the heaps of discarded ballast — earth and stones that weighed down ships — by city docks for unfamiliar blossoms, as he noted in an 1880 issue of the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. During one July jaunt to Gowanus in Brooklyn, Brown noted purple sprouts of sticky nightshade, a plant native to South America. He also found violet tendrils of the welted thistle, native to Europe and Asia. The welted thistle did not successfully outgrow the ballast heap to take root in New York City, but sticky nightshade has stuck around.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which sits on a 19th-century shipping dock and former garbage transfer station, 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, in 2007, reopened the site as East River State Park.

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