Exploring the science of plants, from the field to the lab

A Most Unlikely Place for a BioBlitz

Posted in Learning Experiences on September 18, 2015 by Daniel Atha

Daniel Atha is the Conservation Program Manager at The New York Botanical Garden. Richard Abbott, Ph.D., is a botanist at the Botanical Garden, where he works primarily on updating the Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. Donald McClelland, Ph.D., studied at the Garden and is currently Adjunct Assistant Professor at Baruch College.

Freshkills Park
Freshkills Park

Feeling like astronauts exploring an alien planet, the three of us conducted botanical investigations on the capped and newly vegetated mountains of garbage that is Freshkills Park—once the largest landfill in the world. Resembling a moonscape, only with methane-capturing wells and a thick mantle of grass, the mound at Freshkills Park is soon to become a public recreation area.

But from 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 29, to 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, August 30, the location was a laboratory and a classroom because it was the site of the annual Macaulay Honors College BioBlitz—a 24-hour cataloging marathon designed to document as many species of plants and animals as possible while raising awareness of biodiversity and providing learning opportunities for experts, amateurs, and students.

The most significant botanical find of this year’s BioBlitz was a population of Chinese lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata). To our knowledge, the species has never been collected on Staten Island before, but it has been seen in Brooklyn and collected once in the Bronx.

The BioBlitz team also documented the occurrence of blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), a more southerly species only known from Richmond, Bronx, Suffolk, and Nassau counties in New York State.

Aside from the salt marsh—where the team documented marsh elder (Iva frutescens), glasswort (Salicornia bigelovii), two species of cordgrass (Spartina), and many others—the most interesting habitat was a wetland on the edge of the landfill near Wild Avenue. There we found red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and swamp doghobble (Eubotrys racemosa) growing together along with catbriar (Smilax rotundifolia), cottonwood (Populus deltoides), and pin oak (Querus palustris). The assemblage indicates high-quality wetland habitat and may warrant further attention.

Richard Abbott teaching basic plant morphology
Richard Abbott teaching basic plant morphology

When the landfill was capped, a native grass mix was planted consisting of switch grass (Panicum virgatum), big blue stem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and others. In addition to documenting the planted grasses, the team worked to document the spontaneous vegetation (i.e., those species that came in on their own).

Some, such as the cottonwood, have wind-dispersed seeds and occur spontaneously throughout the city in open, moist gravel. The seeds of other species, such as the winterberry and the doghobble, were undoubtedly brought by birds from nearby populations in New Jersey or elsewhere on Staten Island. The appearance of the blackjack oak is curious. Acorns do not travel far, typically only as far as a squirrel will carry them. One possibility is that the acorn came in with soil brought to the site.

The herbarium specimens collected by the team represent the first collections from Freshkills Park and will be preserved in the William and Lynda Steere Herbarium at The New York Botanical Garden and made available worldwide via the Botanical Garden’s C.V. Starr Virtual Herbarium. In addition to the specimens, we brought back an admiration for the bright and engaged Macaulay students and the Macaulay and New York City Parks staff, who managed the whole event flawlessly.

The tenacity and diversity of our New York City flora inspires awe. Initially expecting nothing more than a desolate moonscape possibly dominated by one or two hardy invasives, we found instead a varied landscape. Although dominated by invasives in some spots, the park has been largely colonized by native species—some put there by enlightened park managers and others arriving by natural means, as they’ve done for millennia.

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