Light Spring rain pitter-patters on my raincoat and on my sad, broken umbrella, which has three bare spines that stick out like broken bicycle spokes. I juggle the Charlie Brown umbrella and my camera, trying not to splash raindrops on my new 50 mm lens.
I hop the short fence around the picture-perfect native plants garden, a small oasis of leafy green and floral rainbows in New York City's bustling Union Square. It's an unlikely and yet fitting setting, since the park has deep roots as an important Native American site -- there's even a plaque about that history in the street.
I wander along the short path through young birch trees, and enjoy the diversity of shrubs, wildflowers, ferns and grasses. I recognize a patch of May apples (yum, their fruits are kinda good if you get to them at the right time). I also spot some lovely trilliums, in purple blooms, which I remember as one of my dad's favorite flowers, and something he always pointed out to me on family nature walks when I was young. There are pretty wild geraniums, smooth witherod and bushy mountain laurels, all labeled for easy identification.
According to Marielle Anzelone, a botanist and native plant landscape designer, as well as founder of NYC Wildflower Week, the small garden was started in spring 2007 as a way to introduce New Yorkers to the beauty and diversity of the plants indigenous to the New York City region. "Inspired by local plant communities, it was designed to attract birds, bees and butterflies and serve as a woodland retreat in the heart of Manhattan," says Anzelone. "The purpose of the garden is to educate and engage New Yorkers with their local flora, reflect the local natural heritage of the Big Apple and encourage place-based nature education in our schools." It is open to the public year round.
Anzelone adds, "This public landscape celebrates the local, with consideration also given to ecological relationships, textures, long-term sustainable growth and seasonality and natural beauty throughout the year. The garden serves as a habitat haven for wildlife, acts as an outdoor classroom and is a model for sustainable ecological design in our public parks."
Since the built-up part of lower Manhattan that includes Union Square no longer supports much wildlife, the small garden serves as a stopover, haven or food source for living things. According to Anzelone it exclusively features plants native to the area, and so can also help raise awareness among New Yorkers and visitors, reminding people that everything is connected, even in the urban environment.
True to form, no pesticides are used on the garden. Native insects, especially pollinators, are encouraged, and local biodiversity is supported. The roots of perennials hold soil and control erosion. Plants were selected and placed according to their moisture and light preferences to limit the need for water and fertilizer. Fallen leaves return nutrients to the soil.
Anzelone hopes that the small garden will serve to encourage more use of native plants throughout the city and region. "Most home gardeners buy plants based on so-called 'curb appeal,'" notes Anzelone, who adds that non-native plants can often end up becoming invasive, crowding out native flora, or at best simply offer less food and shelter to indigenous species. She hopes the beauty of the native plants at Union Square will help encourage homeowners and businesses to think local instead.
The Native Plant Display Garden is a not-for-profit project through its fiscal sponsor, Open Space Institute. In 2008 the garden received its first grant from Hudson River Foundation's NYC Environmental Fund. Monies have also been raised by other grants, public partnerships and private donations.
Check out this exclusive TDG video of Marielle Anzelone talking about Wildflower Week and the importance of protecting, and exploring, urban nature:
Photos by Brian Clark Howard of TDG.
Enter your city or zip code to get your local temperature and air quality and find local green food and recycling resources near you.