At Union Square this past Sunday, a quizzical look appeared on many New Yorkers' faces when they encountered volunteers publicizing the 1st New York City Wildflower Week. Wildflower Week started on May 3rd and continues until May 10th, with evening lectures, plant walks, and activities for kids. Though celebrating wildflowers in the urban jungle may seem incongruous, New York City is actually home to more than 40% of the state's rare and endangered plants, and New York City has more open space than any other large city.
New York City Wildflower Week is a part of the national Wildflower Week, which was started at the national level by LadyBird Johnson. The New York City version was an idea cooked up by botanist Marielle Anzelone. The week is hosted by the eminent Torrey Botanical Society, the oldest botanical society in America, and promotes an exploration and study of plan life with a focus on the New York metro area.
Marielle, who worked for six years as botanist with the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, before starting her own landscape company, Drosera, was inspired to start Wildflower Week in New York City after witnessing the local controversy that erupted when two hawks, nicknamed Pale Male and Lola by NYC birders, were almost evicted from their perch by the President of an Upper East Side co-op after making a nest there. The uproar was considerable—protesters carrying posters gathered in front of the building, and the musician Steve Earle even wrote a song about Pale Male. Meanwhile, in the sandy coastal plains of Staten Island, few people knew that a plant that was GLOBALLY rare, Torrey's Mountainmint was in danger. (Fortunately the plant is still there, but not because people rallied around it.)
"Plants," bemoans Marielle, "need better PR." And that is one of the reasons she started NYC Wildflower Week, believing that New Yorkers were capable of rallying behind New York City's native flora as well as its fauna, once given the idea. Plants are not charismatic, feathery, or fluffy, like hawks or Polar Bears, but they can often be just as endangered, and are also often breathtakingly beautiful.
Jennie Nevin, one of the founding members of the NYC Wildflower Week team, and also co-founder of Green Spaces, spoke to me about the need for an appreciation of New York's native plants. Jennie talked enthusiastically about New York's wealth of native plants, and with great concern about the pitfalls of ignoring what nature intended for the area. An example is the case of the exotic and invasive garlic mustard plant, which originates from Asia and Europe, growing apace especially in areas rich with native species. The plant is killing off early wildflowers such as spring beauty, wild ginger, bloodroot, Dutchman's breeches, hepatica, trilliums, and toothwort's. This last plant is eaten by the caterpillars of the Virginia White Butterfly, so that the garlic mustard plant is actually causing the extinction of the butterfly as well. Additionally, the disappearance of wildflowers threatens the ruby throated hummingbird, making this an issue for birders too.
People walking around in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, admiring the flowering cherry and dogwood trees undoubtedly appreciate the trees' beauty. But many people do not know that dogwoods also grow wild in the five boroughs, and are not just ornamental transplants. Wild geraniums can be found blooming in the Bronx this time of year, as can blueberry bushes that are just now beginning to flower. In the Fall, there will be native asters and goldenrods.
So on Sunday, to celebrate Spring and NYC Wildflower Week, Marielle and her crew of rosy-cheeked volunteers gave out free wildflower plants, including golden asters and zebrasneezes, at Union Square, and gave tours of the native plant garden on the Western side of the Park. Many people visiting remarked that they had often walked by the garden and admired it, but had been unaware that the plants there were native.
Wildflower week continues through the weekend. Highlights include: a plant walk in Battery Park Friday afternoon which will be followed by a talk on landscaping with native plants by Dr. Clemants of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden; plant walks on Saturday in both Staten Island's Greenbelt, and Brooklyn's Prospect Park; and, also on Saturday, sowing seeds and other kids' activities in Manhattan, presented by the East River educational center, Solar 1. For event locations and times see www.nycwildflowerweek.org.
Ladybird Johnson said she believed that "where flowers bloom so does hope." After seeing a pleased five-year old boy walk off with a sneezeweed plant, so do I!