The Perseverance of New York City’s Wildflowers

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In Williamsburg, on a seven-acre park by the East River, spring will soon unfurl in blue blossoms. Cornflowers are always the first to bloom in the pollinator meadow of Marsha P. Johnson State Park, a welcome sign to bees and people that things are beginning to thaw.

On Monday, the meadow got its annual mow-down, its grasses trimmed to six inches to make way for springtime blooms. “The mow-down encourages this rebirth and regrowth,” said Leslie Wright, the city’s regional director of the state park system. If New York City has a warm spring, the cornflowers may open up by late April, eventually followed by orange frills of butterfly milkweed, purple spindly bee balm and yolk-yellow, black-eyed Susans that also inhabit the meadow — hardy species that can weather the salty spray that confronts life on the waterfront.

Not all of these flowers are native to New York, or even North America, but they have sustained themselves long enough to become naturalized. These species pose little threat to native wildlife, unlike more domineering introduced species such as mugwort, an herb with an intrepid rhizome system.

Although cornflowers herald springtime now, they were not here hundreds of years ago, before colonizers forcibly displaced the Lenape people from their ancestral land of Lenapehoking, which encompasses New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New York State. The Lenape knew spring by another bloom: white tufts of flowers from the serviceberry tree, which powder its branches like snow in April. Today, serviceberries still bloom in Brooklyn, in both Prospect Park and John Paul Jones Park.

A wildflower can refer to any flowering plant that was not cultivated, intentionally planted or given human aid, yet it still managed to grow and bloom. This is one of several definitions offered by the plant ecologist Donald J. Leopold in Andrew Garn’s new photo book “Wildflowers of New York City,” and one that feels particularly suited to the city and its many transplants.

Mr. Garn did not intend for “Wildflowers of New York City” to be a traditional field guide for identifying flowers. Rather, his reverent portraits invite us to delight in the beauty of flowers that we more often encounter in a sidewalk crack than in a bouquet. “They all share a beauty of form and function that offers testimony to the glory of survival in the big city,” Mr. Garn writes. He asks us to stop and consider the sprouts we might pass every day and appreciate them not just for their beauty, but also for their ability to thrive.

More than 2,000 species of plants are found in New York City, more than half of which are naturalized, Mr. Garn writes. Some were imported for their beauty; ornate shrubs such as the buttercup winterhazel, star magnolia and peegee hydrangea all reached North America for the first time in a single shipment to the Parsons & Sons Nursery in Flushing in 1862.

Others came as stowaways, as the writer Allison C. Meier notes in the book’s introduction. In the 19th century, the botanist Addison Brown scoured the heaps of discarded ballast — earth and stones that weighed down ships — by city docks for unfamiliar blossoms, as he noted in an 1880 issue of the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. During one July jaunt to Gowanus in Brooklyn, Mr. Brown noted purple sprouts of sticky nightshade, a plant native to South America. He also found violet tendrils of the welted thistle, native to Europe and Asia. The welted thistle did not successfully outgrow the ballast heap to take root in New York City, but sticky nightshade has stuck around.

Marsha P. Johnson State Park, which sits on a 19th-century shipping dock and former garbage transfer station, is no stranger to ballast. The docks imported flour, sugar and many other goods until operations ceased in 1983. The state bought the land and, in 2007, reopened the site as East River State Park.

In February of 2020, Gov. Andrew Cuomo renamed the park after the activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the central figures of the Stonewall riots and a co-founder of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries with the activist Sylvia Rivera. Ms. Johnson, who died in 1992 of undetermined causes, would have turned 75 in August 2020.

In January, the state parks department unveiled a proposed $14 million redesign of the park featuring a thermoplastic mural of rainbow stripes and flowers, reported the Brooklyn Paper. Although the state promised to consult with the city’s LGBTQ community, members of Ms. Johnson’s family and the trans community were not consulted and have criticized the proposal. Local residents created a petition — titled “Stop the plastic park!” — for real flowers and natural landscaping instead of the harsh colors of the thermoplastic mural. In response to the outcry, the state is holding workshops in March and April for the public to offer input on the redesign.

“I have candles lit always for Marsha and Sylvia, but I’m praying especially hard now that we get a plan that includes lots of flowers,” said Mariah Lopez, the executive director of Strategic Trans Alliance for Radical Reform, or STARR, an advocacy group.

Ms. Johnson was known for wearing crowns of fresh flowers that she would arrange from leftover blooms and discarded daffodils from the flower district in Manhattan, where she often slept. In one photo, Ms. Johnson wears a crown of roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, frilly tulips, statice and baby’s breath. Although cumulous clusters of baby’s breath are now a staple of floral arrangements, the species is a wildflower native to central and Eastern Europe.

Ms. Lopez and STARR have criticized a proposal for a new $70 million beach scheduled to be built on Gansevoort Peninsula, near waterfronts where Ms. Rivera once lived and Ms. Johnson died. In its place, she suggests a memorial garden for Ms. Johnson, Ms. Rivera and other transgender people. “We will never feed enough people, we will never plant enough flowers, never be good enough to honor Sylvia and Marsha,” Ms. Lopez said. “They cared too much, even when no one cared for them.”

Ms. Lopez, who grew up on the Upper West Side near a sooty smokestack, has always longed for more green spaces in the city. Her dream of the park includes a range of verdant and functional spaces: a paved area where people can vogue and hold rallies, a flower garden in tribute to Ms. Johnson, a greenhouse and an apiary for bees. “You can never have enough bees,” Ms. Lopez said. “They aren’t there to sting you. They’re minding their business.”

Parts of Marsha P. Johnson State Park will remain closed for construction until June, when the native plantings meadow will be in fuller bloom, replete with the sunny heart-shaped petals of evening primrose, urchin-like heads of purple coneflowers and the drooping red bells of columbine. In late summer, buttery clumps of goldenrod will follow suit. Soon, the garden will also be abuzz with bees, beetles, moths, butterflies and other pollinators. There are several tunneled beehouses, designed to attract native solitary bees, such as carpenter bees, and offer them rest after imbibing nearby nectar. Unlike bumblebees, carpenter bees have no queens or worker castes. In some carpenter bee species, females nest in groups, living alongside their daughters or other adult female bees.

The redesign of the park will add a new fence around the meadow, as well as interpretive signs about the pollinators who depend on its wildflowers. “What would happen if there were no bees in the world?” Ms. Wright, the city’s regional director of the state park system, wondered aloud. “We have to protect them. That’s what the function of this sweet little meadow is.” She added that the bees will come when the cornflowers bloom, in warmer, bluer months.

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