By Rebecca White
I transplanted myself from Oregon to North Brooklyn in the nineties. As someone who cares about gardening, I had our backyard soil tested. The results? Luau-style pig roasts were out. Raised vegetable beds were in.* A tree wasn’t growing in Brooklyn, not even the crappy kind that symbolically signified our neighborhood was going to hell.
Last May, I went back to Oregon for a visit. It was the highest pollen index in a decade, but an inability to breathe wasn’t what had my attention. What struck me was that I knew the name of every single plant and flower I encountered. I felt like if all the people disappeared, I would still be able to hang out with my old friends Indian paint-brush and maidenhair fern. For some of the flowers, I even recalled their Latin family names from my 10th grade botany lab. My brain would compulsively spit out factoids: columbine is a member of the buttercup family. Butteracae.
Raised outside the city limits of nowheresville, as a kid I spent my afternoons and holidays picking crops and working for nurseries and a garden center. We hunted, fished, camped, hiked, and poached—well never-you-mind—but we spent a lot of time in the wild. Every trip out was an educational drill on plant and animal knowledge.
For a summer, I was a housepainter. We were working on a historical home where the owner had committed her entire yard to native flora. I had never met anyone of means who didn’t aspire to have the perfectly manicured suburban yard with shaped hedges. I had long been concerned about the effects of sprawl, but hadn’t considered the impact on native plants that could only survive in the valley. They would never make it on the salty cold coast or the dry high mountain desert. Long after the painting was done, I visited the garden often. I met other people who were native flora advocates. It was like belonging to the geekiest secret botanical society. You think you are a nerd for having been a Watchmen fan in the 80s? I dig native flora! Booyah!
This spring, I attended the Cherry Blossom Festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and noticed a fenced off area with a sign, “New York Native Flora.” I got a spastic adrenaline rush. This was it! This was how I was going to get to know my native New York flora and stop feeling like a botanical tourist, estranged from the plants all around me. I hadn’t realized how I pined to know my chlorophyll neighbors. I have neglected them. I didn’t bring over casserole (nitrates?), or even introduce myself.
A tour was offered of the Native Flora Garden in July. I went and took copious notes. I was invigorated by the enthusiasm of the other attendees and the passion of the garden’s curator, Uli Lorimer. The garden only features species which can be found within 100 miles of the heart of New York City. In order to not poach plants, the garden works to create its own seed bank. It also collects plants from construction sites, carefully transplanted by volunteers who learn which areas are scheduled for demolition.
Most of us are familiar with the disturbing loss of plant species in far away rain forests, but unaware that native plants in our own neighborhoods are struggling to survive between our homes, sidewalks, and street cracks. I am only beginning to learn New York native flora, but it is riveting thus far. I will keep visiting the New York Native Flora Garden at BBG** and have purchased “A Guide to Native Plants of the New York City Region” by Margaret Gargiullo. The New York Flora Association has an online plant atlas at www.nyflora.org. Once I know more about the native flora, I can better advocate for my new friends. For instance, there is one native plant which. if you get its juices on your skin and then go into the sun, will give you giant pustules. Doesn’t botany slay? Getting to know you. Getting to know all about you…
*Luau style pig roasts involve putting the pig in a pit in the soil, with coals and roasting it over a couple of days. One would not wish to do this in this soil lest the toxins make their way into the piggy. If one has toxic soil in one’s yard, one will grow any food in raised beds—you have seen them with wood framing—which are slightly elevated above ground level. Raised beds have soil from a nursery, which is not toxic, and are lined with plastic to prevent contamination from the native soil.