Archive for Wildflower Books

A Literary Wildflower

A Literary Wildflower . . .

The Scarlet Pimpernel opens only on sunny days. (photo by Maryann Amici 08 04 2013)

The Scarlet Pimpernel opens only on sunny days. (photo by Maryann Amici 08 04 2013)

My desire to share an enthusiasm for Manhattan’s wildflowers hit home in a delightful way in recent weeks.

The story began, as it often does, with a walk. My wife and I were enjoying a Sunday afternoon outing. We had set out to enjoy the sunshine and unseasonably cool air after seeing a film in Battery Park City. The bonus appeared in Hudson River Park when we found a tiny creeping plant flowering in a color quite unlike the solid white, yellow, or pink I usually see in the urban field. The pointed petals of this example held a hue more like smoked salmon with a distinctly purple center.

When we got home, I began to search through resources for a positive identification. One detail I did note was that the leaves, stems, and general spreading appearance of the plant resembled Common Chickweed.

I had been at work less than five minutes when, from the other side of the room, Maryann announced: “Found it!”

Indeed she had, by using some of the same search terms and comparisons I have illustrated in past posts. My wife, I have discovered, has been an attentive reader. She has honed her own skills and has done so, at least in small part, by reading Wildflowers of the West Village.

The flower we found turned out to be one that has a broader cross-cultural appeal, having given its name to a famous piece of literature –

The Scarlet Pimpernel

Anagallis arvensis is a European immigrant closely related to Common Chickweed; a fact that further satisfied my own little ego, as I had made that connection on my own before reading an authoritative resource, in this case the comprehensive database of The Connecticut Botanical Society, which can be found by following this link:

I must admit here that I had never heretofore known Scarlet Pimpernel, the wildflower, had established itself in North America. I knew of the name, as most people do, by way of the famous novel of the French Revolution authored by Baroness Emma Magdolna Rozália Mária Jozefa Borbála “Emmuska” Orczy de Orczi.

We were fortunate to come across this little literary flower when we did, The Scarlet Pimpernel blooms in full only on sunny days. Overcast weather and evening compels this plant’s petals to fold up. Had that been the case, we might have missed it entirely, or overlooked it as just another example of Common Chickweed.

This leads me to relate another lesson I have learned, and one I hope to share: students and lovers of nature must carpe diem when a new wildflower is found. Wild plants in urban environments are especially subject to the whims of groundskeepers, vehicles, or in this case, their own unique habits.

The face of the Scarlet Pimpernel. (photo taken 08 04 2013)

The face of the Scarlet Pimpernel. (photo taken 08 04 2013)

— rPs 08 28 2013

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Bloomsday 2013

Bloomsday 2013 . . .

Common Mullein begins to show beside the Corporal John A. Seravalli playground on Horatio Street. (photo taken 06 16 2013)

Common Mullein begins to show beside the Corporal John A. Seravalli playground on Horatio Street. (photo taken 06 16 2013)

A lot of rain has fallen on NYC, nearly 20 inches since the middle of May. The green lining is a bloom as rich as one in Dublin.

There are a multitude of wildflowers at their peak as a result of the rain. One is the massive Common Mullein photographed above on this Bloomsday.

Speaking of which . . . I have a new short story titled “Bloomsday” in the new issue 4.4 of The Flyfish Journal. There is a thrill in this, having fused a literary favorite with my love of the outdoors. The magazine is on newstands now. Perhaps you, too, can enjoy my latest attempt at pairing words with wildflowers.

rPs 06 16 2013

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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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Bloomsday 2011

Bloomsday 2011 . . .

Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, blooms in Central Park on . . . Bloomsday, of course. (photo taken 06 16 2011)

Today, June 16th, is Bloomsday, the date into which all the Dublin world of the character Leopold Bloom was condensed in the novel Ulysses by James Joyce.

Last year I wrote an extensive essay that ties together all the threads of meaning this literary holiday holds for me as a writer. Here is the link for further reading:

During my years in Philadelphia, I spent Bloomsday in and around the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which has the original handwritten manuscript of the novel in its extensive holdings. Every June 16th, rain or shine, the 2000 block of Delancey Place becomes a gentile gathering place for fans, and lovers, of the novel. There, on the Rosenbach’s stoop, the novel is read aloud with musical interludes culled from the text. Various celebrities, literary and otherwise, take turns reading passages from the big good book. I had the pleasure to do so on the 100th anniversary year, 2004. The placard placed in front of the microphone as I read my script listed me as:

ron P. swegman

Angler & Author

This moment in the literary limelight still makes me smile. Squeezed between Mister Mayor and Madame University President was this “Angler & Author” fellow who read the “Proteus” section of Ulysses with an ear for the complex cadence of Joyce’s prose. Who was he? Well, at that time, he was the author of the forthcoming collection of stories Philadelphia on the Fly.

This year, as a New Yorker, the “work-in-progress” is Wildflowers of the West Village. I spent this Bloomsday to that end in Central Park. I first fly fished at Harlem Meer where the purple pickerel weed was in full flower. I next hiked through the North Woods, down through the heart of the park, around the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, finishing up at Columbus Circle. Seven plus hours of shoe leather in total; kind of like Joyce’s own epic wanderer.

The star bloom on this day turned out to be Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, a member of the family Ranunculaceae (Joyce would probably appreciate my generous use of the Latin). This pretty flower is a native perennial, fond of woodlands (where I found the plants I photographed), and one of the more delicate red wildflowers to be found near the cusp of spring and summer.

Happy Bloomsday . . .

Closeup view of the distinctive bell-shaped bloom of Wild Columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. (photo taken 06 16 2011)

– rPs 06 16 2011

Postscript: Visit the Rosenbach Museum & Library online here:

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A Pennycress Earned

A Pennycress Earned . . .

Field Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense, decorates the base of a lamp post near Jane Street. (photo taken 05 29 2011)

One admirable quality of the West Village is the neighborhood’s strong sense of identity. Historic preservation is highly valued here and the streets reflect the character of the district’s red brick origins. Blacktop and aluminum poles festooned with flyers can be found here like everywhere else in Manhattan, but there are also plenty of quiet streets paved with Belgian block, lined by trees, and flanked by antique lamp posts.

One of these fixtures near Jane Street recently drew my attention. I saw a flowering plant spread gracefully before the Art Deco detailing of the lamp’s black molded metal base. The specimen was rooted between the Belgian blocks within one of those surrounding strips of soil I have described as being an urban wildflower haven. Nearby I had photographed Garlic Mustard and saw many examples of Shepherds Purse in bloom there as well. This one plant seemed different; its shape more defined and striking. The main stem did not rise from a basal rosette of toothed leaves similar to the dandelion, so I knew it could not be Shepherds Purse. The shape of the entire plant also had more cohesion, almost like an actual bush, and the alternate toothed leaves were narrow and lanceolate. The flowers were white and possessed four petals like many mustard plant species, but the seed pods radiating below had shorter stems, were set in tight rows, and revealed a geometric symmetry that resembled a bristle brush.

I took a closer look at the pods with my loupe. Another physical difference convinced me I was on to something new. The seed pods had a distinctive oval shape with a notch at the tip. The Garlic Mustard has long, threadlike pods called silique. Those of the Shepherds Purse are more widely spaced and, as I wrote in my essay on Capsella bursa-pastoris, resemble “a creased heart served on a stem.” The ones extending below the blooming tips of the mystery plant were rounder, resembling the shape of a fried egg, over easy, served on a stem. This smaller seed pod, usually not more than twice as long as wide, has a formal name of its own: silicle.

A key physical feature of Field Pennycress, Thlapsi arvense, is the plant's dense ordered rows of silicles (seed pods) located below the flowering tip. (photo taken 05 26 2011)

The basic flower structure convinced me I had found another variety of Brassicaceae growing wild in the West Village. A small problem was the large number of members in the genus Capsella and genus Lepidium. My print references offer only a few illustrated examples so I turned to the Internet and attempted various searches using descriptive phrases that fit the plant in question. The shape of the seed pod was the most obvious feature on which to focus. My searches and some time spent in comparative plant anatomy directed me to Field Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense.

A native of Europe, Field Pennycress is an annual that reaches two feet in height. The plant has minor value as a spice and salad ingredient and has been used as a source for biodiesel production.

This particular plant was a challenge for me to identify. When confronted with a family of plants with numerous members, such as Asteraceae or Brassicaceae, one has to take time to sort out and whittle down potential candidates. Part of this effort involves compiling the basics such as time of year, habitat, and general plant shape. What follows is close observation of the details. This is the reason why I carry a loupe with me at all times. The tool helps me to note such minor details as:

The stem: Is it smooth or hairy?

The leaves: What shape; simple or compound; and how arranged on the stem?

The flower: What color; how many petals?

The fruits: Shape; location; orientation?

Field Pennycress presented all of these nuances, and a few more. There to assist me was a fine reference, How to Identify Plants by H. D. Harrington. Published by the Swallow Press Books imprint of the Ohio University Press, Harrington’s reference, complete with black and white line drawings by L. W. Durrell, provides me with technical help in narrowing down various physical features and terminology. The only easy part of this exercise was discovering the plant in situ, as it made a striking appearance along the historic front of a Manhattan street. The rest of the process was work akin to a class assignment, making this wildflower of the West Village a penny(cress) earned!

Front cover of How to Identify Plants by H. D. Harrington. (photo taken 05 31 2011)

– rPs 05 31 2011

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Don’t Cut This Mustard, Either

Don’t Cut This Mustard, Either . . .


Garlic Mustard, Allaria petiolata, blooms in the pocket park beside the spot where Horatio and Jane streets join. (photo taken 05 26 2011)


The differences separating annual, biennial, and perennial become clearer as one adds the experience of time to his or her book knowledge about wild plants and wildflowers. Last year, I began Wildflowers of the West Village with basic field guide facts under my belt and a passion for urban exploration. I followed the neighborhood’s growing season, surveyed the wild flowering species as each new one made its appearance. My list grew, yet a very common variety often found in cities, Garlic Mustard, stayed elusive during this time and ultimately remained out of sight; I wondered, why?

My personal quest for a West Village example of  Alliaria petiolata finally found its fulfillment this year. I answered my question in the process and learned a lesson that will aid in my future wild flower exploration. The reason why I could find no example last year became obvious when the experience of time revealed to me the full meaning of “biennial” plant. Garlic Mustard is a biennial plant. Last year there were examples all around my feet; first-year plants that eluded my radar because of their lack of flowers. This year, the plants have reached maturity and are in full flower around the West Village, hence easy now  to find.

To my amusement, the first specimens I discovered were thriving at the end of my own block. Horatio and Jane streets join beside the West Side Highway to form a kind of cul de sac. There is a pocket park located here, which separates the quiet residential street from the busy freeway. This garden has become a rich spot for observing wild flowering species, including onion grass, marsh marigold, yellow sow thistle, shepherds purse, common plantain, and mugwort. This year, as the  marsh marigold waned, a new wave of white flowers took over center place. The plant itself was new to my eye: toothed heart-shaped leaves surrounding a tall central stem capped by a tight cluster of tiny, white, four-petal flowers. Beneath the flower head, radiating like the rungs of an old telephone pole, extended a number of long seed pods. The thin structures, called silique, resembled those of shepherds purse in their arrangement.

A close view of the flower cluster and silique (seed pods) of Garlic Mustard, Alliaria petiolata. (photo taken 05 26 2011)


Shepherds purse, which I profiled in June, 2010 (“Don’t Cut This Mustard”), is a member of the mustard family, Brassicaceae. I thought: Could this new flower that has seed pods like shepherds purse be a mustard family plant, too? Here was a clear opportunity to use an important tool in the amateur naturalist’s knapsack of tricks. I noted a physical feature of a new plant, likened it to another species with which I was already familiar, and then went to my reference shelf. Sure enough, after just a few seconds of consultation with my field guide, in this case the laminated broadside Invasive Weeds of North America: A Pocket Naturalist Guide, I used this most distinctive physical feature to make a positive identification.

Garlic Mustard is a native of Europe and Asia that was imported to the United States on purpose during the Civil War era. The plant makes a decent show as a spicy salad green or as a source of added zest to pasta sauces. Mince a few fresh  leaves and add to marinara or pesto for a locally-grown savory kick.

Garlic Mustard is quite beautiful on its own and could make an attractive ornamental in addition to a practical garden herb. Like most immigrant species, the plant quickly escaped the confines of backyard gardens and spread into the American wild, even into urban green spaces, where it now thrives. Most people no longer view the plant as a welcome immigrant, but as an invasive pest.

Perhaps, yet I will defend this wildflower from criticism. Like every other wild plant that has made it in the big city, this species adds some life and color to otherwise drab waste places. An individual plant, viewed aesthetically, could easily fit within an ornamental garden, perhaps along a fence or around a tree. Here in the West Village, the neglected tree pit naturally calls. Those thin strips of soil that frequently ring telephone, lamp, and sign posts also will do. With its beauty and herbal qualities added together, I must go on the record and say: “Don’t cut this mustard, either.”

— rPs 05 26 2011

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NYC’s Extinct Blooms in the NYT

NYC’s Extinct Blooms in the NYT . . .

New York City’s wildflowers have made the op-ed page of today’s Sunday edition of the New York Times.

Mariellé Anzelone, an urban conservation biologist and the executive director of NYC Wildflower Week, penned a short essay about a dozen native species of wildflowers now extinct in the region. Her words are illustrated by Wendy Hollender, a botanical illustrator and the author of Botanical Drawing in Color. You can view their collaboration here:

“When New York City Bloomed”

For more information regarding NYC Wildflower Week, you can click the link on the Blogroll located to the right, which will take you directly to the organization’s homepage.

– rPs 03 27 2011

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