Lost in the Wild
Brooklyn was once a verdant landscape lush with vegetation. One hundred years ago, the towering structures that dotted the skyline were tall trees, not tall buildings. Flat terrain characterized by saltwater grasslands dominated its southern extent.
Today, Brooklyn is the New York City borough with the least amount of green. As its open space has dwindled, so has the presence of nature in our daily lives. This makes the prescience of BBG’s Native Flora Garden all the more impressive: The Garden’s founders understood the importance of connecting neighbors to the nature in their collective backyards.
Brooklyn was not the only borough to convert marshes to macadam. New York City has lost more than 40 percent of its native flora—the forbs, ferns, grasses, vines, trees, and shrubs that are the wild, unplanted thread in the ecological fabric of the Big Apple. These local extinctions continue today.
I spent the summer of 2004 counting plants in Kreischer Hill, the historical name for a 100-plus-acre tract of land on the south shore of Staten Island. Less than 20 miles from Wall Street in Manhattan, this part of New York City felt half a world away.
Kreischer Hill was ecologically unique and botanically rich. In fact, a new natural community type was discovered on the site—a sandy barrens dominated by post oaks and blackjack oaks—which is now included in federal standards for vegetation classification. Also present on the property were 13 plant species considered rare in New York State and another 33 that were threatened in New York City.
The crowning glory of Kreischer Hill was the inconspicuous forb Torrey’s mountain-mint (Pycnanthemum torrei). The plant was formerly known in New York City only from historical records from the late 1800s. In 2003, Torrey’s mountain-mint was rediscovered after decades of fieldwork. With less than 20 known populations of it in the world, all of them in the eastern United States, the species was more imperiled than many plants on the federal endangered species list. And amazingly, one population graced a sleepy roadside in Staten Island.
That it persisted in such a public spot for decades says something else about Torrey’s mountain-mint: It’s not much to look at. It blends in well with the scruffy, “weedy” stuff you might see by the side of a road and not think twice about. Unless in a garden setting, humans barely notice individual plants or consider the fact that they are alive. This tendency is called “plant blindness,” and plant blindness has consequences.
About the same time that scientists rediscovered Torrey’s mountain-mint on Staten Island, New Yorkers were rallying on behalf of Pale Male, a red-tailed hawk in Manhattan, whose mate, Lola, had a nest on a tony apartment building across from Central Park. The management of the building found it messy and wanted to take the nest down. The public was having none of this, and there was a giant outcry, with plenty of media coverage and dozens of protestors carrying placards. The birds won. This outcome is wonderful for the flashier elements of nature, but what about organisms incapable of garnering any attention for themselves?
The site on Kreischer Hill where Torrey’s mountain-mint was rediscovered was city-owned land slated for development. Despite its rarity, there was no public outcry. Local conservation groups sued the city over the incomplete environmental assessment that had been done—and won—but development proceeded on a technicality. Bulldozers rolled in, 40 acres of wilderness were razed, and a strip mall was built. Today the mountain-mint lives in a sad, garbage-filled strip along a roadside. Its future is precarious.
This is how extinction happens. Dramatic events such as fires, hurricanes, and even oil spills have gross negative consequences, but extinction usually is not one of them. Most native plants and animals are lost to events that happen every day all around us. Red maple swamp forests are cut down for ball fields. Monocultures of turf lawn and impatiens replace the places where biodiversity once thrived. Plants rarely figure into land-use calculus when communities are searching for sites to insert parking lots, public works, and active recreational areas.
In the years since I saw Kreischer Hill torn up, the experience has made me wonder what it would take to help people notice their environment. What if we had more opportunities to connect to nature? What if everyone learned how to identify ten wildflowers in their neighborhood? What if a city’s annual budget accounted for ecosystem services like pollination and floodwater storage that come from the preservation of open space? How much richer would our daily lives be because of this ecological literacy?
Like the Torrey’s mountain-mint, such interactions are rare. While the face of Brooklyn has changed over the past 100 years, BBG’s Native Flora Garden is a reminder of our rich natural history and affords us a unique opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with our foliar neighbors.