Spring is here: The proof is in the park

Mertensia virginca buds emerge from the ice at Stuyvesant Cove.

By Liza Mindemann
Stuyvesant Cove Park Manager

Despite the recent blanket of heavy snow, we are slowly moving away from the dormancy of winter into the season of spring ephemerals at Stuyvesant Cove Park. Due to another mild winter, we had consistent signs of life all winter long in the scattered lemon-yellow blooms of Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea), much dwarfed compared to their usual summer height but present nonetheless, which bloomed just above their basal leaves throughout the coldest days.

Later in the season we will notice the taller stalks of these very same flowers and in August, the swallowtail butterflies they attract. Just within the last two weeks, peaking through the remaining patches of snow, Virginia Bluebells (Martensia virginica), have also begun their spring show of small purple buds that when fully open are more of a cobalt blue and bell-shaped.

Spring ephemerals are the earliest to bloom, woken by the shift in sunlight and longer, warmer days, but short-lived, as by early June they have moved through the entire cycle of bloom, fertilization, seed production and are ready to retreat back under the earth as other, taller plants over-shadow and the large canopy trees leaf out and change the light-landscape of the garden.

Among the other spring ephemerals to look for at Stuyvesant Cove Park are the delicate pantaloon-shaped milky-white flowers of Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria), and the close-cropped yellow flowers of the trout lily (Erythronium americanum), which only reach about six inches above the ground and have mottled, dusty-green leaves. These are just the first hints of what is to come as the season matures and gives way to the bold pallet of the summer garden.

Last fall we laid ground for many of the new plants you may spot at the park. As the firework show of flowers proceeds throughout the season, it is easy to forget how much work is behind their growth and success. What appears not to need very much intervention or maintenance in fact requires a great deal of careful thought and intentional curation to be successful.

There is a misconception that native plants require less maintenance than ornamental varieties, and this can be true if the groundwork is properly laid. However, doing so is much trickier than one might think. In this article I want to give a bit of the back story to the plants you can spot this season at Stuyvesant Cove Park, for I believe it can only make the observation of their blooms that much more worth appreciating.

Built in 2002 as the result of sustained community advocacy, Stuyvesant Cove was created as a native plant park, meaning that all one 120 different plant varieties currently planted can be traced to local origins, and many of the new plants sourced are grown from seed collected from naturally occurring plant communities within our specific geographic region. Our newly introduced New England Blazing Star (Liatris scariosa var. novae-angliae) is an example of one such plant that can be found at Stuyvesant Cove. Once abundantly found growing across Long Island, this plant is now extinct in that location. It is a unique and special opportunity in New York City to be able to provide a small piece of reclaimed territory to those plants that once grew prolifically and are becoming more and more threatened by human encroachment.

Over the years, the conversation surrounding native plants has matured and evolved as more information has become available and interest has grown surrounding sustainable landscapes and environmental preservation.

When the park was built fifteen years ago, less was known about how to successfully use native plants. One of the largest contributors to their success is proper soil conditions, and that is a challenge we currently face at the park today. Because native plants are so highly adapted, often to lean, sandy or rocky soils, our generic garden soil rich in organic matter does not best model the conditions in which many of our plants would naturally grow.

The effect is that the plants at the park tend to grow much taller and require more maintenance such as watering and staking.

Last season, in an effort to better model natural conditions, we began introducing soil zones. Choice areas were cleared with the help of volunteers and sand was carefully turned into the soil to alter the level or organic matter and promote better drainage.

This spring, we were rewarded for our efforts with our first little glimmer of success. A very special plant called Rosepink (Sabatia angularis) overwintered for the first time in one of the sand zones. Rosepink is a notoriously difficult plant to establish, as it desires well-drained soil in addition to a consistent level of moisture. Because this special plant is a biennial, meaning it blooms every other year (unlike perennials which bloom annually), we will have to keep an eye out this summer as it will not flower again until the summer of 2019!

These are only a few of the new and unique plants to look for this season; each plant we have at Stuyvesant Cove Park has a special story, was planted with intention and some you may no longer be able to easily see where they used to grow wild.

We encourage you to come to the park and learn more about the stories behind our plantings, and take part in our ongoing projects. We host monthly volunteer events.

For more information, check Solar One’s events calendar, online at solar1.org or email me at liza@solar1.org to find out more about becoming a volunteer.

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