Tales of the Unexpected: Parks of the East River Shoreline

Thu, 11/07/2013 - 16:13
Wild Carolina Rose
Wild Carolina Rose

……… from Shadberries to Wild Roses

I am on a mission to find the wildflower associated with New York City. I am told it is Rosa carolina, the native wild rose but everywhere I keep finding Rosa rugosa, a species of much darker pink rose originating from North Eastern Asia, which grows well along the riverside. Along the Brooklyn side of the shoreline, wildflower meadows flourish at the East River State Park, the East River kisses the fringes of the tiny Grand Ferry Park and beside the Brooklyn Bridge, a shady 'forest trail' winds through the park. It’s at Brooklyn Bridge Park where I finally find the wild Carolina rose.

Shady Path  © River of Flowers

We visit the Brooklyn Bridge Park on a day when the heat is at its most intense and the soothing shade of the ‘forest path is so refreshing. Thin nearly invisible wires hold back the trailing stems and branches that brush against us just like on a real forest trail. 

Shadberries  © River of Flowers

At the start of the walk, Rebecca McMackin, the park horticulturalist introduces me to the native Shadberry or Amelanchier a small tree or shrub, also known as the Serviceberry or Juneberry bush. I am told that the light red berries have a different taste to the purple red riper ones. I collect a few of each to taste and it’s true.

Red Columbine (Aquilegia formosa) © Walter Sigmund

The path winds ahead and behind us until we turn the corner and it widens up to a sun filled lane, where I glimpse the orange-red Columbine flowers that hummingbirds love – the first time I have seen either since neither are native to Northern Europe.

Brooklyn Bridge Park Pond  © River of Flowers

At the lower end of the path is a small pond fringed with many milkweeds and I am entranced to be shown the milky latex sap that oozes out when a stem is broken. Larvae of different insects get gummed up in this sticky trap but the Monarch butterfly that eats as well as pollinates this native wildflower has a trick of its own – more on this later. The Brooklyn Bridge Park is a delight and I return to visit again and again, looking at all the different areas of where native wildflowers and wild trees have been planted with such sensitive awareness of the needs of pollinators, as well as plants and people. 

East Ferry Park © Human Impact Institute

Another park that I visit more than once is East State River Park, the local green space to where I am staying in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and the only State Park that I see on this trip. The other parks are managed by NYC Parks. On my first visit, I meet up with park director Christopher Cushieri and park designer and engineer Chip Place who managed miracles on a tiny budget. The East State River Park lies adjacent to the East River Ferry at the end of N 6th street and Kent Avenue. Like other shoreline edges to New York City, the landfill has been extensive and a few of the log cabins filled with rubble sunk so long ago have now surfaced following the ravages of Hurricane Sandy. A former rail to barge shipping terminal, East State River Park was acquired by the state following the efforts of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), a national nonprofit organisation conserving land for the community as parks, gardens, playgrounds, historic sites and so on. TPL works in both inner cities and rural hinterlands.

East Ferry Park © En Yoga

The surprise that I find at East River State are natural looking, long grassy meadows growing around and about the remnants of the past that still remain, old railway tracks buried in cobblestones and concrete foundation blocks for some long forgotten building standing in the grass like monolithic monuments.

Yarrow © River of Flowers

I see masses of white and yellow Yarrow in the meadows and dotted around in the grass are the bright egg yellow heads of the introduced legume Lesser Trefoil and the purple pea flowers of the native vetch, Vicia americana (of course!) but not the damaging invasive Crown Vetch that so many people dread. Purple blue Catmint bushes are being planted along the entrance path. The lush long grass hides another of the park’s secrets. I watch as a child runs up to a meadow and startles a flurry of tiny birds, which whirr in a winged blur out of it to decorate the branches of the neighbouring trees. The expression on her face is a delight to see. 

Mugwort © Ava Chin

In the park and all along Kent Avenue, Mugwort, another invasive plant, is abundant, growing in clumps in sidewalk gardens as well as fringing the water line. Like Rosa rugosa, it has taken the salting from seawater that rose high up over the shoreline parks during Hurricane Sandy so much better than many other plants. Mugwort is a medicinal plant in both Western and Chinese Traditional medicine so I have a good idea of how it arrived in North America.

Grand Ferry Park © River of Flowers

Further along Kent Road and at the end of Grand Street, lies Grand Ferry Park. Once a place where only rusting cars and drug dealers lurked, in the days when Williamsburg harboured drug gangs as well as ferryboats, Grand Ferry Park is a testament to those dedicated individuals who inspire their neighbours to clean up their neighbourhoods by planting up their vacant lots. This little gem of a park is one of the few places along the shoreline where people can actually walk into the water, where lovers holding hands can see the sunset flood the river, where families can picnic in peaceful shade, where cyclists can pause to catch breath and where old men can sit on park benches and talk all evening long.

Grand Ferry Park © River of Flowers



Wild Rose (Rosa carolina) © Gordon E Robertson

All other images by Kathryn Lwin

With thanks to

Rebecca McMackin of Brooklyn Bridge Park for enthusing me with her passion for the pollination in the park

Christopher Cuschieri & Chip Place of East River State Park for showing me around a lovely urban meadow

Marechal Brown & Crista Carmody of NYC Parks for giving me the opportunity to see and enjoy Brooklyn Bridge Park

Read more:

Trust for Public Land: East River State Park 

NY Times