Do New York’s Plants Need a Publicist?

May 6, 2009 at 2:01 am Leave a comment

In 2004, hundreds of protesters rallied on behalf of Pale Male and Lola, two red-tailed hawks who had been evicted from their perch on a Fifth Avenue co-op.

That’s when Marielle Anzelone, then a botanist at the New York City parks department, decided that plants needed better public relations.

“I was working on a lot of plant conservation issues at the time that weren’t getting a lot of attention and was like, ‘Wow birds get a lot of attention,’” she said.

She said there was a term for the photogenic animals in ecology circles. “They are charismatic megafauna,” she said. “They do things that attract a lot of attention. Plants aren’t able to do that.”

She added: “People don’t see plants. People perceive them to be the green blur in the background, as opposed to seeing individual characteristics.”

There was outrage over fauna, but where was the outrage for the poor flora of New York City?

New York City has already lost more than 75 percent of its green space, and more than 40 percent of its native plants.

When Henry Hudson arrived 400 years ago, New York featured “old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife.” But a 2002 study of New York’s botanical history documented 1,357 native plant species over time, of which 778 have survived — some by the slimmest of margins. For example, New York City used to have 30 species of terrestrial orchids spread across dozens of populations. But today, there are only six species with a scant 11 populations.

Of course, those numbers are bolstered by Staten Island, which has 10 percent of its land preserved. But even since 1990 Staten Island has lost more than 30 percent of its indigenous flora, according to the Wildflower Week organizers.

So Ms. Anzelone started giving lectures and teaching classes about plants in New York.

“It dawned on me I can’t save them in a vacuum, if there is no groundswell of public support to save plants like there is to save birds, the things I love would be lost.” She started a company on the side called Drosera. She went on to help establish NYC Wildflower Week, where a coalition of groups team together to present a series of walks, educational lectures, giveaways and other events. “There isn’t really an understanding what a wild plant is,” she said. “They know wild animals, they know garden plants, but wild plants are an unknown.”

This is the second year of New York’s Wildflower Week, which began last weekend and ends on Saturday. Of course, independently, some neighborhoods, including Bedford-Stuyvesant, have embraced guerrilla flower planting.

This year, they have introduced a track called “Edible Natives” which highlight plants native to New York City — including wild ramps and fiddlehead ferns. (New York City’s most famed native plant export may be the Newtown pippin apple, a favorite of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, which some advocates think should be anointed the official apple of the city.)

Not that plant life in general hasn’t had its fair share of publicity at points. It hit the peak of American patronage (other than Oprah) with a first lady supporting the cause — Lady Bird Johnson, who started a national Wildflower Week and continued to push to preserve and protect plants for decades, establishing the $10 million National Wildflower Research Center in Austin, Tex., which eventually came to bear her name. But she she passed away in 2007. New York City now has the largest celebration of Mrs. Johnson’s National Wildflower Week.

Ms. Anzelone said it was exposure to these ideas for people was important to get them invested in the plantlife around them. In fact, it was professors at Rutgers University who really shaped her passion for plants.

“It wasn’t like I grew up camping,” she said. “My parents don’t care about nature, to be honest.”
By Jennifer 8. Lee
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Manhattan.

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