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Big and Bushy

Big and Bushy . . .

Marestail, Conyza canadensis, stands tall on Hudson Street. (Photo taken 07 2012)

After two vacations (to Connecticut and the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state), and several fishing trips, I have returned to my search for West Village wildflowers. Two examples quickly stood out because of their sheer big and bushy scale. One is Marestail, Conyza candensis, which appears by its numbers, lushness, and size to be at its seasonal peak. The other species is Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, a biennial that here must be in its second year of growth, as yellow blooms have begun to crown these stately plants. One especially attractive specimen is located just around the corner from my townhouse.

Common Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, blooms on Greenwich Street. (Photo taken 07 2012)

— rPs 07 29 2012

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An “Irish Spring”

An “Irish Spring” . . .

(photo taken 03 16 2012)

I discovered a pot of wildflower gold on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day. Surrounding the base of a tree beside the bike path along the West Side Highway, I found an Irish spring mix of Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), white Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), and blue Siberian Squill (Scilla siberica), blooming together.

The trees are bare, though budding; the ground is spongy, beginning to turn verdant. In this environment, the diminutive wildflowers of the early season are a refreshing sign of life renewing on the cusp of spring.

Breathe deeply . . .

(photo taken 03 16 2012)

– rPs 03 17 2012

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High Line Cuts Back and Expands

High Line Cuts Back and Expands . . .


(photo taken 03 09 2012)


(photo taken 03 09 2012)

A sure sign of the urban spring has begun. The High Line started its annual spring cutback project. The winter song of the wind sounding through the park’s high grasses has been replaced by staff and volunteers pruning back shrubs and perennials for the new spring growing season.

Clusters of blooming Crocus vernus, now in full color, have been exposed in between the trimmed plants. The purple and white bouquets, spread randomly amongst the tans and browns of stems and trunks, can provide a lot of new still life opportunities for photographers.

As this cutback proceeds, the High Line announced its planned third expansion along the Rail Yards. This stretch around 30th Street and 10th Avenue would run east and west along a major real estate redevelopment leading to the Hudson River. The shift in orientation and new features such as a children’s area promise both challenges and rewards. A community input meeting held on Monday, March 12, in the Chelsea neighborhood took a solid first step in getting the final design right.

As for the cutback, the project plans to continue over the next month or so. Interested volunteers can visit the High Line’s “News” section for more information:

The sign says it all:

(photo taken 03 09 2012)

– rPs 03 13 2012

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More February Wildflowers

More February Wildflowers . . .

I thought I would take advantage of Leap Day 2012 to squeeze in one more post for the month of February. The past four weeks have remained damp and cool, rather than cold, making the green spaces of the West Village resemble tundra. The park grass is spongy, close cropped, yet green, and along the edges a variety of hardy wildflower species can be found, low to the ground, in bloom . . .

Common Chickweed (Stellaria media)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum)

(photo taken 02 19 2012)

Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

Feral Croci (Crocus vernus)

(photo taken 02 12 2012)

And, in my own courtyard, a few Common Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

(photo taken 02 23 2012)

– rPs 02 29 2012

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The First Wildflower of 2012

The First Wildflower of 2012 . . .

Common Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) push up through the leaf litter at the Jefferson Market Garden. (photo taken 02 06 2012)

The New York region’s weather has resembled the middle of March for all but a few days of this 2011-2012 winter season. One of the effects of modest precipitation combined with moderate temperatures has been an odd kind of eternal spring.

I took a lunch hour stroll through the West Village on Monday, February 6, in part to enjoy the light and air of this gentle weather. Days like this allow me to contemplate one of my favorite outdoor aesthetic combinations: the weathered grays and tans of bare trees backlit by a silver sun, blue sky, and white clouds. Such views, like the air itself, are the cleanest of the year. The quiet beauty can purify the eyes in a city overloaded with coded manmade imagery.

During my walk, I sighted the first blooming wildflower of 2012 growing along the edge of the Jefferson Market Garden near the corner of Greenwich Avenue and the Avenue of the Americas. The species: Common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, which I described last year . . .

“This pretty little flower is an herbaceous perennial member of the family Amaryllidaceae. A naturalized immigrant from Europe, the Common Snowdrop sprouts from a bulb that sends forth two deep green lanceolate leaves and a thin scape that holds a single lobed flower on a pedicel. An individual bloom hanging from its scape very much resembles an antique lamppost supporting a white glass light fixture.”

The beauty of this bloom springs eternal. The difference, this year, is the remarkable earliness of its emergence: nearly a month sooner than last year. Good timing! The flowers can serve as a symbolic sign of celebration for the NY Giants winning Super Bowl XLVI.

Meanwhile, will this mild winter correspond to an equally mild summer? Let’s see . . . Let’s hope!

Common Snowdrops sing early during this 2012 "spring eternal" . . . (photo taken 02 06 2012)

– rPs 02 07 2012

Postscript: The Jefferson Market Garden stands out as one of the West Village’s most distinctive green spaces. Visit their website by following this link:

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The Symmetry of the Sumac

The Symmetry of the Sumac . . .

Symmetrical branches of Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra, reach up toward a gray January sky along the High Line. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

A gray windy day in January is one of the few times one can find solitude on the High Line. During a walk there this week, I found time to watch and to listen to this outdoor space on its own, without the hum and hover of humanity.

I perceived that there must be as many varieties of brown in January as there are green in June. The wind sounding through the dry stalks and branches contained as many subtle tones as the murmur of multiple conversations. What stood out the most to me was found in the basic forms of the plants. The skeleton, the architecture, of a flower, shrub, or tree is delineated at this time of year. One of the most impressive examples of such naked form can be seen in the Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra.

A native shrub family, Anacardiaceae, found throughout the eastern United States, the sumacs are known more for their summer and autumn dress: the feathery, serrated, compound leaves that turn crimson in October. The Smooth Sumac commonly forms colonies from its root system, often along roads and railways, making its appearance on the High Line both appropriate as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The Smooth Sumac is also one of the most distinctive flowering trees. The large upright panicles are the color of rich Chianti. These clusters of drupes (seeded fruits) are edible, and can be picked and soaked in cool water to make a refreshing sumac-ade. One recipe for “Wild Smooth Sumac-ade” was described by the Staten Island nature writer Ava Chin in her “Urban Forager” column for The New York Times.

The dense, upright panicles of Smooth Sumac can last throughout the winter. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

A group of panicles silhouetted against the leaden sky caught my eye, gave me inspiration and a subject for a winter wildflower. I paused in the wind, which was making whitecaps on the steel-colored Hudson in the background, and there I contemplated the forms of the Smooth Sumac branches. I was delighted by the symmetry of the tips, which spread like the pointed fingers of an open hand. I noticed also that the branches did not just spread opposite and parallel, like arms and hands. The fingered projections themselves were twisted and bent in the exact same manner as well.

The Classical orders of architecture, the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian being basic examples, were derived by the Greeks and Romans from organic forms. The Smooth Sumac, in winter, reminded me that humanity with its mathematics does not possess a monopoly on graceful, even symmetrical, functional form.

Fodder for natural philosophical thought as the annual and perennial wildflowers hibernate.

"Hand" over the High Line. (photo taken 01 13 2012)

— rPs 01 13 2012

Postscript: Ava Chin’s recipe for “Wild Smooth Sumac-ade” can be found by following this link:

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Wildflowers of the Winter Solstice

Wildflowers of the Winter Solstice . . .

Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, blooms in the West Village on the Winter Solstice and, though wild, often grows in evenly-spaced patterns as if planted by a gardener. (Photo taken 12 22 2011)


The 2011 Winter Solstice arrived like a lamb, to put it mildly. Manhattan enjoyed one of those calm, cool, balmy days that cultivate the impression of an indeterminate time of year; a kind of day that almost shouts for one to take the opportunity – the gift – to enjoy the outdoors before the traditional weather sets in, or roars in, for the season.

I listened to that call.

Outside and above, the sky resembled a portrait painting of multiple cloud types, including cirrus and cumulus, floating by at different levels of altitude, passing by at different rates of speed, forming a variety of picturesque motion patterns that took the sun in an exceptionally sparkling way during this shortest daytime of the calendar year.

Back on the surface, a short walk around the West Village revealed nature was still in an active phase. Gulls, mallard ducks, cormorants, brants, and Canada geese mingled along the Hudson River where several anglers squeezed in one last session of casting for striped bass.

Back on city land, many of the common wildflower species remained unfazed by last week’s first frost of the season. The basal rosettes of Sow Thistle, Dandelion, and Common Plantain were fresh and green, not deflated and gray as they were by this time last year. White Snakeroot, Common Chickweed, and Shepherd’s Purse remained in bloom in several sheltered spots.

Shepherd's Purse blooms beside a tree on a December day. (Photo taken 12 22 2011)

None of these plants could match the vigor and numbers of the winter annual Groundsel, Senecio vulgaris, a diminutive member of the Asteracaeae family. Just as the Dandelion will carpet lawns in spring, the Groundsel can proliferate in late fall. Find it thriving around the bases of trees and within the thinned out spaces of bare shrubs. Individual plants resemble a tiny evergreen bush and look so self contained as to appear planted by a gardener. The yellow inflorescences of this cosmopolitan ruderal never seem to open into full golden blooms like its springtime cousin, but it does go to seed in distinctive white balls that in combination with its sharply-lobed leaves look rather festive in light of the season.

Holiday Ornaments: Groundsel goes to fluffy seed like its other cousins in the Asteraceae family. (Photo taken 12 22 2011)

Happy Holidays . . .

– rPs 12 22 2011

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Still Life, Still There

Still Life, Still There . . .

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) blooms into December along West 11th Street. (photo taken 12 09 2011)

I have for some time been mulling over how to describe my personal relationship with urban nature. An encounter with a wildflower I enjoyed this week gave me an idea, a way to put that concept into words.

The beginning of most interactions with the natural world takes place during the survey phase when species, or phenomena, or processes, are observed, listed, and described. Wildflowers provide a rich source of such raw material. At first, each species is new. The time of year, their environment, their physical features, are all engaging and educational.

After two full growing seasons, which cover both annual and perennial plants, this first push of the project comes to a close. Personally, I have kept my eyes on the West Village, stuck to the geographic boundaries I set at the beginning, and have listed most, although not all of what I have noted (I have left out a few species as of this writing for want of better photographs and future content). I have been able to profile a variety of flowering plants, close to four dozen species, answering to some degree the “What is out there?” and “When is it out there?” questions.

“What’s next?” now begs to be asked.

The answer came to me as I was hurrying through a cold rain earlier in the week. I had slogged through Washington Square, faced into a stiff wind up 5th Avenue. My pant legs were soaked, my umbrella bending, so I turned down West 11th Street toward my neighborhood.

I crossed the Avenue of the Americas and started down the block protected on the north side by the tall buildings of the former St. Vincent’s Hospital complex. The sudden lull in the wind felt like being within the eye of a hurricane. I could slow down, relax, so I did so. As I strolled, I passed the front gardens of the red brick Federal town houses lining each side of the street. One of these, somewhat unkempt, nonetheless held a surprise: a patch of White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) still in full bloom. The plant’s umbels, like little balls of white yarn, poked their flower heads between the black iron bars of a fence, creating a lovely urban wildflower still life.

As of December 10, 2011, New York City has yet to experience an overnight freeze. This is one of the latest on record. The colorful lining of this meteorological oddity has been an extended autumn with the tree leaves, late-season wildflowers, and hardy weeds still in bloom. I profiled White Snakeroot in October of 2010. The plants I photographed for the essay were located in the same spot as the one’s I saw glistening in the rain. These flowers, then, were their progeny.

The words arrived for my revelation. The answer to “What’s next?” lies within the relationship a person can cultivate with the urban outdoors. Seeing that patch of White Snakeroot felt like greeting an old friend, the one who because of conflicting schedules or long distance you can visit only once in a year, perhaps during a specific holiday. Other examples of West Village wildflower companions came to me, but this particular one really pulled the concept from my personal rumination section and into full public expression. So, if you see a bearded and bookish grown man pausing to greet a weed, he may be me, visiting one of my friends, one of the wildflowers of the West Village.

“Nice to see you, White Snakeroot. Until next year . . .”

White Snakeroot gone to seed: "Until next year . . ." (photo taken 12 09 2011

– rPs 12 10 2011

Postscript: Read my profile of White Snakeroot by following this link:

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A Reader Responds

A Reader Responds . . .

Front cover of The Urban Naturalist by Steven D. Garber

I reviewed a book, The Urban Naturalist by Steven D. Garber, in February of this year. This week, I received a letter from a reader (as I occasionally do), but this time the author was the author. Dr. Garber went in depth to describe the lasting impact of his pioneering book, which provided some points of interest to me and perhaps other readers of Wildflowers of the West Village. Here is his feedback in his own words . . .

*** * ***

From: Steven D. Garber, MBA & PhD
Worldwide Ecology
P.O. Box 3502
Stamford, CT 06905

This is almost the 25th anniversary of ‘The Urban Naturalist’ a groundbreaking book about urban ecosystems, and especially about New York City’s ecosystem. I thought you might be interested in more background.
Not too long ago I read an article in the New York Times that said High Line happened when instead of tearing down “the elevated freight tracks that cut through the West Side of Manhattan,” they were preserved and turned into a park.
Here’s how the High Line started. In hundreds of speeches, interviews and articles I took every opportunity to get the idea out there, that that old highway could and should be turned into a park. For this to happen, NYC couldn’t tear the old highway down. When I couldn’t get Mayor Koch to support the idea, I persuaded the next mayoral candidate David Dinkins, not to tear it down and to support the idea of a park there in exchange for support the support that I delivered him with the endorsement of New York City’s Sierra Club.
After Dinkins, I continued working with mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani. I wrote Giuliani’s environmental platform and got him to support the idea. He said all the right things, but did little more than stop plans to tear the elevated Westside Highway down. He was swayed by the developers who wanted to build on that land. I spoke with Donald Trump and convinced him how important it was to make the shoreline he owned on Manhattan’s West Side accessible to the City.
After Mayor Giuliani was replaced, Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed the idea to finally take hold, money was allocated, and the park became official. The New York Times said this park survived “so many moneyed interests [that] were united against saving the elevated freight tracks,” and finally what I modestly admit was a brilliant idea, after years of fighting, this vision came into fruition.
In front of cameras and microphones, Mayor Bloomberg has said, “preserving the High Line [elevated Westside Highway Park] as a public park revitalized a swath of the city and generated $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park. The mayor pointed to the deluxe apartment buildings whose glass walls press up against the High Line and the hundreds of art galleries, restaurants and boutiques it overlooks.”
“All of that commerce more than makes up for the $115 million the city has spent on the park and the deals it has made to encourage developers to build along the High Line without blocking out the sun, Mr. Bloomberg said. On top of the 8,000 construction jobs those projects required, the redevelopment has added about 12,000 jobs in the area, the mayor said.”
“Indeed, what started out as a community-based campaign to convert an eyesore into an asset evolved into one of the most successful economic-development projects of the mayor’s nine years in office.”
Robert Hammond, said he thought the park “would be good for the local economy” but “we had no idea that it would happen this fast.” To Mr. Hammond, it seemed like the park happened fast. For me, it took decades to make this park happen and I see no reason to be shy about this, since the park would never have happened without my vision, my work, and my behind the scenes politicking.
What I started is hailed as brilliant and visionary. Here’s proof I was there right from the start.
In 1987, Marion Belcher wrote an article in the Clinton Community Press about my work. This was when the concept of urban ecology did not exist. People thought ecological processes only happened in the wild. That places where people lived didn’t really count. Now, books are written about urban ecology, entire journals are devoted to urban ecology, PhD programs, university departments, and the list goes on and on.
Back then urban ecology was a non-sequitur. Even biologists laughed at what I was writing. But time proved me right.
Ms. Belcher wrote: “The species is rare: an urban ecologist. It seems a contradiction in terms. Steven Garber… is not only an urban ecologist, but also the author of ‘The Urban Naturalist,’ which is receiving rave reviews and has rapidly become a best-selling science edition. Garber has written a wonderful and casual book about plants and animals [and] ‘The Urban Naturalist’ did indeed delight this reader and continues to do so.”
“The natural place to meet Mr. Garber was on his own turf: out-of-doors. ‘Do you want to go to Central Park or somewhere real?’, came Garber’s crisp response. We didn’t have to go far, and somewhere real turned out to be the unused, elevated section of the West Side Highway… Once there, as if by magic, we seemed suddenly transported far from the city. The din of traffic is silenced by the wind off the Hudson. Seagulls glide past where nature has taken over the macadam and cobblestones that man chose to abandon. It is a tranquil, beautiful spot… where one can partake of a view which encompasses Midtown [and] the Hudson as far north as the George Washington Bridge.”
“Garber is the perfect guide to point out the astonishing variety of plant life thriving there. Cottonwood trees have seeded in along the crevices on the side of the old highway. A quaking aspen has taken root as well. ‘We think of quaking aspen as only growing in the Rocky Mountains, but it is also common throughout the Northeast and Canada,’ states Garber. Seaside goldenrod flourishes and is now blooming, as is thoroughwort, a tall bushy plant covered with silvery white blossoms. Asters, evening primrose, mosses… Lofty phragmites have sprouted and other edible species such as lady’s thumb and lamb’s quarters. The list goes on.”
This area “has never had anything approaching a major park. Mr. Garber wants to see this abandoned highway turned into one. As a long time resident of the community, as well as a biologist with a keen eye for aesthetics, he sees tremendous potential for enhancing the natural environment. This elevated highway could return some of the coastline’s lost beauty if it were made into a park or promenade.”
Mr. Garber explains, “When Central Park was in the planning stages, developers fought the concept. They viewed all of Manhattan Island as a park which at the time was surrounded by wooden piers, salt marshes and inlets. Since that time the coastline has gradually been ruined. The residents of [Manhattan who] live right on the Hudson… can’t enjoy it.”
“‘The New York City Planning Commission wants to revitalize the West Side,’ poses Mr. Garber. ‘This neglected stretch of highway is perfect for a promenade. With a minimal investment we could create a resource for all of New York City. This promenade could extend… all the way to Riverside Park, via Donald Trump’s stretch of [then still] undeveloped breachfront property. For this to happen the Mayor, the Parks Commissioner, the Planning Commission, Donald Trump, and the community would all have to reach some accord.’ Mr. Garber pauses to take in the view. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful.’”
“In ‘The Urban Naturalist’ Mr. Garber writes, ‘Just as oceans and forests and prairies are natural environments, cities and suburbs are also natural. We city inhabitants are animals who affect our surroundings like any other creature, however most creatures do not destroy their environment. Economic principles alone are not enough. To revitalize the quality of an urban ecosystem, it is imperative that we work with natural processes and ecological principles.’”
“Heading home, I feel like I spent the afternoon in the country, though I never left the… area; and I have a better appreciation for what Steve Garber means by ‘somewhere real.’ To quote Henry Stern, our [then] Parks Commissioner, from his forward to ‘The Urban Naturalist,’ ‘Preserving and improving our wild areas in New York City will provide an uplift for all of us. We’ve been neglecting the outdoor aspects of our sustenance. Without nature we are deprived–and New Yorkers don’t like being deprived of anything’” (Marion Belcher. Clinton’s Urban Naturalist. Clinton Community Press. Pages 3 and 5).
I’m glad I’ve devoted my life to helping the natural world and to showing how nature is changing. It’s important to teach and preserve the history of nature.

Steven D. Garber, PhD

*** * ***

It is a good feeling to know one’s blog is reaching its target audience, even better when one of its subjects takes the time to reply in depth. For more information regarding The Urban Naturalist, read the original post by following this link:

– rPs 11 19 2011

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Seaside (Goldenrod) Still Lifes

Seaside (Goldenrod) Still Lifes . . .

I took a walk along the Hudson River shortly after completing my preceding post – “The Quest for the Goldenrod” – and discovered the pilings of Pier 45 and Pier 46 are supporting numerous boughs of Seaside Goldenrod  (Solidago sempervirens) gone to seed. The sight of these graceful stems sporting cranberry-tinted leaves tipped with fluffy ash gray cypselae, the distinctive seed parachutes of Asteraceae family members, provided me with several new studies for future still life drawings. Here are a few of my favorites:

Seaside Goldenrod study #1 (photo taken 10 28 2011)

Seaside Goldenrod study #2 (photo taken 10 28 2011)

Seaside Goldenrod study #3 (photo taken 10 28 2011)

The above images are similiar in composition to the scene that inspired my post “Wildflower Art: The End of Summer” back in September. The progression of the fall season is now well underway and each of the three compositions display the emergence of warm color and worn texture, signs of another waning  wildflower growing season in the West Village of Manhattan.

– rPs  10 31 2011

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