Tales of the Unexpected: Marine Park

Sun, 23/06/2013 - 17:29
Gerritsen Creek Marine Park
Gerritsen Creek Marine Park

…….from Common Reed to Marsh Goldenrod

I am looking out where the glimmering sky meets the glittering sea. An osprey glides across the translucent blue sky to its nest perched on a pole. Below its wings, the water gleams deeper than blue until it passes over palid sand dunes sprinkled with coastal plants. A vision of serenity but the seemingly pristine wetlands scene of Gerristen Creek in Marine Park is hiding a surprise deep below its surface.

New Plantings at Marine Park © River of Flowers

The islands of Brooklyn and Manhattan are much larger now than they were hundreds of years ago. The edges have been crayoned in with trash and rubble over the years to create a solid base on which to plant houses and streets, grow industries and cultivate schools. Beneath the sand dunes, created from sand dredged up by the US Navy to keep the Rockaway channel wide enough for ships to pass through, is the waste of generations including demolition debris from bombed British cities such as Coventry brought over during the war as fill material – so a little bit of England still grounds the sandy stretches along the creek.

Common Reed (Phragmites australis) © Schilfrhor

Mike Feller, Chief Naturalist for the Natural Resources Group, New York City, is taking us around and he explains that because Gerritsen Creek, lying in south-east Brooklyn and part of the Jamaica Bay region, was a dumping ground for so many years, alien plant species were brought to its shores. A carpet of Common Reed or Phragmites australis, a non-native had choked its waterways, crowded its soil and blocked out sunlight for other plants. In Europe, this reed causes less of a problem because it does not manage to gain a foothold and animals graze on it but here in North America, there are areas where it has reigned rampant. 

Marsh Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) © Sam Fraser-Smith

By removing the invasive plants, replanting with native species such as Marsh Goldenrod and carving out the fill material so water was able to flow in at salt marsh levels (which also helped to control the reed), Gerritsen Creek has been restored over a period of ten years to an aquatic and costal grasslands habitat of such variety and beauty that it is now a designated nature trail and a Forever Wild Preserve. The adjacent White Island has also been resurfaced with sand dredged up from the sea. 

Musk not so Horrid Thistle © River of Flowers

We wander along the track finding gems along the way, a Marsh Goldenrod springing out of the sand, a tiny white flowered native Foxglove that I don’t recognize and a non-native buttery yellow Birdsfoot trefoil that I do, lots of Milkweed not yet in flower, a row of Black Poplar trees and next to them hundreds of new trees planted as part of the MillionTrees NYC program. Peeping through a fence, I see a gorgeous Thistle, possibly Cirsium horridulum that translates to Horrid Thistle! However, later I decide that it is Musk Thistle or Carduus nuttans, a native wild plant of regions in Europe, Asia and North-west Africa, and an invasive plant in North America. It looks like a cross between a Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), also known as the Artichoke thistle, and and a Globe artichoke.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata) © Field Botany

Mike Feller points out some of the problem plants along the way and some of these surprise me – who would have thought that Garlic Mustard, an innocuous British shade loving and edible plant would cause such havoc in the woods of Eastern North America?

One of the things that I have learned since I have been in North America is that the term ‘wildflower’ is not necessarily synonymous with being 'a good thing’ as it is in the UK. There are too many wild invasive plants striking fear in the heart of conservationists for a wildflower to have the positive connotations that it has for Europeans. So from now on, I will try to qualify each plant that provides forage for wild pollinators with ‘native’ such as native wildflower or native wild edible tree.



Marine Park by Kathryn Lwin

With thanks to

Mike Feller of the Natural Resources Group for a fascinating tour recounting the secrets below the surface of Marine Park

Marechal Browne and Crista Carmody of NYC Parks & Recreation for introducing me to the amazing Marine Park

Read more: 

The saying is “eat ‘em to beat ‘em” and there are many recipes for Garlic Mustard including pesto, fritters and Vichysoisse, see this article in the Washington Post. Where such plants are invasive, take care not to carry these away on your shoes or clothes.