Tales of the Unexpected: Miracles in Manhattan

Tue, 23/07/2013 - 00:43
Butterfly Milkweed

……… from Butterfly Weed to Azure Sage

Early in the morning, we arrive at the Gardens of Remembrance in the Battery Conservancy, nestled on the southern tip of Manhattan beside the Staten Island Ferry. I am with Marechal Brown again and we meet up with Sean Kiely who manages these vast, gorgeous landscapes designed by Piet Oudolf as a memorial to those who died on 11 September 2001 and a comfort to those who survived. Oudolf, who hails from the Netherlands, was one of the first landscape designers to favour perennial plantings and resilience in public landscapes. There are many native wildflowers too, sprinkled among the ornamentals. The Gardens of Remembrance are a visual delight because Oudolf is a master of texture, colour and variation, his palette of plants is amazing. 

Penstemon (Penstemon hirsutus) © Kurt Stuber 

The Butterfly Weed is one wildflower that I find in every park that I visit so I am not surprised to find it here. Along with Penstemons, which are ubiquitous too! Penstemons are often given the common name Beardtongue because of their open mouthed and fuzzy tongued ‘look’. While we are walking along the promenade, the Staten Island Ferry looms large reminding me how close we are to the waterline. 

Gardens of Remembrance © River of Flowers

There are plenty of pollinating insects around. On our way into the Gardens, we pass a small circle of pastel coloured beehives - the first of the park’s secrets. 

Battery Park Beehive © River of Flowers

I see plenty of honeybees but I don’t recognise any wild native pollinators including a bumblebee with a little white jacket on (the bumblebees I am used too have different coloured bottoms, e.g. Red-tailed Bombus lapidarius). Later on I find out that it’s the Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) and there’s a similar looking one called the Brown belted Bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis).

Common Eastern Bumblebee (Bombus impatiens) © Bees Alive

As we make our exit, we spy the second of the park's little miracles, an urban farm which was once home to over 80 varieties of organically grown vegetables, fruits and flowers. Hurricane Sandy gave it a bashing as it did other parts of this lovely park but the bamboo is back up around the perimeter and things are growing again!

Battery Urban Farm © The Battery

Every time I come to New York, I climb the Highline and with good reason. A magnificent landmark, it's on a par with the London Eye and the Eiffel Tower but with the added value of being alive, I think that the Highline makes a fantastic statement about New York as a city. So I am especially pleased that our next visit is to the Highline where we meet Johnny Linville, manager of horticulture, who walks us along part of this iconic park. We also meet up briefly with the director of horticulture, Tom Smarr. High above the busy traffic-filled streets, the air is scented with a heavy, verdant fragrance and the smell of warm rain. 

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on the Highline © Marie Vijoen "66 Square Feet"

The Highline is owned by the City of New York and managed by the nonprofit conservancy Friends of the Highline that works with NYC Parks & Recreation to maintain it as a high profile public space. There is information on the Highline website such as plant lists and lots of beautiful images. The plant featured on there that most intrigued me is the fascinating Compass plant, related to the sunflower but much taller with masses of smaller yellow flowers. Compass plants are able to orientate their leaves so they lie at right angles to the strongest light - usually from north to south - and thus avoid the intense direct sunlight of midday. 

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) on the Highline © The Highline Blog with thanks to Erika Harvey

At its start, the Highline juts out in midair over Gansevoort Street, crosses over 10th Avenue and after a mile or so reaches the Railyards of W 30th Street where more construction is taking place that will extend the Highline to W 34th Street at some point in the future. 


The Highline Gansevoort Street © Gryffindor

A former freight rail line before it was abandoned for 25 years, the original Highline became an ethereal wilderness cloaking an urban relic before it was threatened with demolition. Rescued in the nick of time, the Highline was finally renovated in 1999 as a public park for Manhattan’s West Side. 

The Highline 1990 © Friends of the Highline

Piet Oudolf (again!) designed the planting scheme for the Highline in collaboration with two architectural firms, James Corner Field Operations and Diller Scofidio & Renfro to bring about this spectacular park above the streets. What is interesting from a River of Flowers’ perspective is that native species originally found growing on the High Line's rail bed have been incorporated into the park's landscape.

Wildflowers in the Rails © Friends of the Highline

I love the fact that the High Line's planting was inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew on the former elevated rail tracks which can still be seen embedded all around us. Plants were chosen for their ability to survive the harsh environment of the Highline as well as for colour, texture and diversity. 

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) © Cody Hough

The plantings start at the Gansevoort Woodland section where we pass a lovely linear stream of birch and Serviceberry trees leading on to the Washington Grassland section where native Chokeberry and Sassafras flow high over W 12th to 14th Street, and then we move on to the Sundeck Preserve, a place for visitors to relax among wildflowers, grasses and Sumac trees. 

The Highline Northern Preserve Spur © Friends of the Highline

From here to 20th Street, we pass a couple of spurs jutting out over the streets below. The Northern Preserve spur appears to enter the building opposite and has plants growing between the original rails. After this, we are taken under the Falcone Flyover to the Highline's secret place, a hidden, shaded, lower area that the public views below and to eiter side of the eght foot high walkway but never visits. It's a sanctuary, a place of cool relief for the eight horticulturalists and the volunteers exposed to the intense New York City summer, which feels like a double-deckered Highline floating high above the streets of Manhattan. 

Azure sage (Salvia azurea) © Kenpei

The Chelsea Grasslands that follows is full of plants with spectacular names such as Azure Sage and Prairie Blazing Star. The perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees all bloom at different times so that the Highline is always in flower whatever the season. It really is a River of Flowers in the sky!

Central Park landscape with Wildflowers © Andrew Prokos  

Afterwards, Crista Carmody joins us and we pay a visit to Central Park, the iconic green heart of Manhattan, to search for a wildflower meadow. Who would have thought it? I imagine that most people would associate Central Park with naturalistic landscapes, formal gardens, ponds, lakes, boathouses, joggers or even the Strawberry Fields Mosaic created in memory of John Lennon. But a wildflower meadow in the centre of Central Park? Sounds too wild! But it's there!

Evening Primrose (Oenothera speciosa or biennis) © Georg Slickers

Central Park spans from 59th Street up to 110th Street and the meadow is located at the bottom half of Strawberry Field, on the west side of the park. By entering the park at 72nd Street and 8th Avenue, beside the famous Dakota Apartments, we followed the roadway south. We meet up with Val Lavid who takes us to look at the wildflower meadow fenced in by posts and Sumac trees. Most of it is not yet in flower, but I see Evening Primrose, vetches and goldenrods, here and there native coneflowers such as Blackeyed Susan. Later on I find out that the Cardinal Flower, Bee Balm, Boneset, Purple Coneflower, Smooth Blue Aster, New York Ironweed, Rose Mallow, Joe-Pye weed, and Mountain Mint are popular plants in Central Park to attract the butterflies. It is hard to believe that Central Park was not created in the centre of the Manhattan but once lay on the outside the city, which eventually surrounded it.  

Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) © Lorax

We wander down the path beside the meadow to find ourselves beside a stream bounded by dense thickets. It’s a blazing hot day yet no needle of sunlight filters through to the trickling water. It is extraordinary. The city seems a million miles away. There are other places where wildflowers can be found in Central Park but we have no time today to locate them because we have another visit to make. Central Park is such a feature of Manhattan, it is hard to believe that Central Park was not created in its heart from the beginning. However, Central Park once lay on the city's outskirts for many years before Manhattan grew around and eventually surrounded it!

Native wildflowers are touted about and feted during NYC Wildflower Week, a May celebration across all five boroughs of New York, that was founded in 2007 by urban conservation biologist and writer Mariellé Anzelone and fellow founders, Jill Bressler and Cindy Kridle. The talks and walks that take place during this week are run in several venues including the gardens of the Battery Conservancy, Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) in the Bronx, Queens Botanical Garden and the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Garden (LCBH). The NYC Wildflower Week includes visits to the Greenbelt Native Plant Center in Staten Island, the Butterfly Project NYC and Bronx Green-Up projects run by the NYBG. I really admire the remarkable relationship that has built up between the community and their local botanical gardens which are heading up such innovative and inspiring projects.

With thanks to

Marechal Browne and Crista Carmody of NYC Parks & Recreation for introducing me to the miracles in Manhattan

Sean Kiely of The Battery Conservancy for his patience and sound advice

Gal Lavid of Central Park Conservancy for showing me a meadow in Manhattan

Johnny Linville of Friends of the Highline for his enthusiasm for a floral trail in Manhattan

Tom Smarr of Friends of the Highline for his support for my visit to a Manhattan magnificence