Wild Seed Hunters
It’s early morning and the dew has evaporated in the July heat. We’re leaving Brooklyn for the wilds of New Jersey, crossing the Verrazano Bridge through the sweltering intensity of the city’s low-hanging haze. We are seven people, in one van, on one mission. We’re after a rare jewel in the world of native flora: Asclepias rubra (red milkweed). We’re told that this plant hides deep in the recesses of New Jersey’s moist, acid-rich, sun- drenched savannahs. Relishing its obscurity, it hardly shows itself to passersby, yet here we are trying to find it.
We leave the cool of our air-conditioned van for the destabilizing nature of the Pine Barrens. Creeping, spiky greenbriar vines (Smilax species) wind their way through the spaces between trees. Thorns scratch skin as we contort our way out of the forest and into the bog. We walk on the hummocks of a floating sheet of sphagnum moss, brushing sweat out of our eyes, careful to avoid plunging our legs into the murky waters below. We’ve been wading for hours to no avail. The red milkweed has eluded us this time, but one of us will be back. For six of us, this is an excursion, a flight from the confines of the office, an adventure from “admin,” from the words and work that confine us within four walls. But for one of us, this is our job. This is science in action, this is conservation in process.
Uli Lorimer, curator of the Native Flora Garden, makes it look easy as he navigates the alien terrain, plucking specimens from the ground and identifying them, in Latin, as we travel throughout the day. He is a veteran bog-hopper and has visited the Pine Barrens for years in pursuit of the conservation of native flora. Including us on a seed-scouting (and blueberry-picking) expedition has enabled us to witness the legacy of BBG’s commitment to scientific integrity and conservation at work. What we encounter there is striking—carnivorous plants, red and blue dragonflies, wild water-lilies, sweet blueberries on every bush. Who would have known that a place called barrens could hold such abundance?
Soon, BBG’s visitors will be able to see the beauty of the Pine Barrens without leaving Brooklyn. Teams of skilled workers will re-create that native habitat as part of BBG's Native Flora expansion, populating it as nearly as possible with plants grown from wild-collected seeds. This expansion is not just a stunning addition to our collection but a living assertion of the value of endangered native plants. For more information on the expansion of the Native Flora Garden and continued updates about our exciting projects, take a look at the Campaign for the Next Century website.
Lauren Deutsch is BBG’s campaign coordinator.