Monday, November 30, 2009

High Line, Perennials

Even though it was late November when I visited the High Line, there was still a fair amount of perennials in bloom.

If you didn't know plants well, you may pause when seeing this plant, thinking it's a spring crocus. It is a crocus, but it's Crocus pulchellus or autumn crocus. Like the word 'pulchritude' pulchellus is derived from the Latin word for beautiful. I only saw one of these plants in the whole park and I wonder if some of them didn't survive since most bulbs are planted in the fall and not spring.

Aster tataricus, or tartarian aster, was a new plant for me. I recognized the flowers instantly as an aster or aster-like plant, but the coarse, dentate foliage was unlike the leaves I usually associate with the genus.

It turns out that Aster tartaricus root has been used by Chinese cultures as an expectorant, antifungal and antibacterial for over 2000 years. There is also a cancer-fighting chemical in the root though its success is not clearly documented.

The photos below are that of Knautia macedonica, or pincushion plant. You may recognize it as similar to the more ornamental Scabiosa, also called pincushion plant, and indeed the two are closely related.

Knautia is named for a botanist, but I found myself wondering what the root word was for its cousin, Scabiosa. Turns out that the rough leaves of Scabiosa were thought to be a cure for scabies and the name Scabiosa was applied.

Later this week we'll look at some of the grasses, shrubs and trees.

More High Line

I promised to post more photos of the High Line last week, before delving into the plants in the park, but between deadlines and Thanksgiving, I never got around to it.

So, without further delay...

The High Line, as you may know, was a commercial rail track that ran along the lower west side of Manhattan. It was built in the 1930's and abandoned in the '80s. Remnants of the train rails remain, presumably as a reminder of the park's industrial past.

Long concrete "rails" cut swaths into the naturalistic plantings. I have heard some designers consider them trip hazards, but that seems a bit stodgy, considering children live for the chance to walk along balance beams of any kind.

This seating area takes good advantage of the framed view of the Statue of Liberty.

While the amphitheater seating that faces north on 9th Avenue gives pedestrians a chance to spy on the street level drama below.

Finally, an ingenious water fountain that recycles excess water by sending it into the plants' root zones.

More on the actual plants to come in the (deadline & holiday free) week to come!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Finally, the High Line

I visited the High Line shortly after it opened in June. I went once again towards the end of summer, but both trips were spontaneous and I was camara-less. Yesterday I was determined to get some pictures of this new park, designed by a team led by landscape architects Field Operations, collaborating with Diller Scofidio (architecture), L'Observatoire International (lighting) and a slew of other consultants. For the purposes of this blog, of course, I was mostly interested in seeing Piet Oudolf's work -- he did the planting design.

And when I arrived at the park yesterday, I realized that it made perfect sense for me to delay so long in taking some photos. This is the time of year where Oudolf's work starts to galvanize into the painterly winter landscapes for which he's best known. Oudolf's work has always celebrated how plants look in the winter, rather than ignore this season altogether. He focuses on grasses and plants with distinctive, persistent seed heads.

Tomorrow or Wednesday I will show some more general shots of the park, then after Thanksgiving, we'll look at some of the plant species on display.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Agave Americana

When I posted about Brugmansia I mentioned that the horticulturist at Central Park Zoo likes to experiment with marginally hardy plant materials. Agave americana is another plant in this category.

Agave americana is also called century plant, because this plant only blooms every ten years or so, and we all like a little hyperbole. When the plant does bloom it sends a very tall stalk into the air, high enough above the ground to protect the blossom from terrestrial predators. After the plant blooms, it dies.

If one were to cut the bloom's stem before the flower had opened, one could collect a sap - called agua miel (honey water) - ferment it and create a drink called pulque. Agave americana's cousin, Agave tequilana is of course responsible for a drink called tequila.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I inevitably overlook cherry trees (Prunus sp.). I don't know why. In the spring, I look forward to the crabapples, but then am always insensibly surprised by how beautiful cherries are in the spring.

I've mentioned them in passing once and mused on the poor use of the potentially beautiful weeping variety, but I've never acknowledged the lovely fall color they have.

The above is taken outside of the Stuyvesant town apartments - but all around the city I have noticed how lovely cherries look this time of year. The fiery oranges and sunburst yellows contrast well with the trees' dark bark and the evergreen Pachysandra beneath.

Cherries area always easy to spot, even in the winter. They are a coarse-limbed tree with a dark brown - almost black - bark with a rosy pink undertone. Of course, more notable than the color is the bark's smoothness, punctuated with lenticels. (Lenticels are specialized 'pores' in the bark that aid in gas exchange.) The easy way to describe cherry bark is to say it looks like Shantung or raw silk.

But if you weren't convinced you had encountered a cherry, and the leaves were still on the tree, you could look for the small 'pimple' at the base of the leaf's petiole. That is typical to Prunus.

I haven't used a species name in this post, primarily because cherries are so often hybridized. This plant is most likely a Prunus serrulata, but it could be a hybrid of several species.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

290 Mulberry

290 Mulberry is a condo that's been under construction for some time in Nolita. It looks like construction is pretty close to being wrapped up.

In the meantime, someone's having some fun with the building by staging a light show with the empty rooms.

Apologies in advance for the fact that the whole video ought to be rotated 90°!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Norway Maple

These are some exquisite specimens of Norway maple (or Acer platanoides) growing in the cemetery at Old St. Patrick's Cathedral, in Nolita.

For those of you who don't live in New York City, I cannot impress upon you how rare it is to see a huge, spreading maple tree outside of Central Park. The walled cemetery has protected these trees well.

A couple weeks ago, we looked at sugar maples which, at first glance, can seem quite similar to Norway maples. The margins are entire, but Acer platanoides leaves are usually much larger, change color later in the season and change to a yellow hue, whereas Acer saccharum leaves are smaller and can turn yellow, orange and red.

The other undeniable difference between the two maples is in the leaf's petiole. Snap a leaf off a branch of the Norway maple and you will find the exuding sap is white. The sap on a sugar maple runs clear.

Here's a shot through the keyhole of the cemetery doors.

If we got a bit closer to the trees' trunks, we may find that the grass is not growing as vigorously. That's because Norway maples are allelopathic. Allelopathy (or more specifically, negative allelopathy) is a phenomenon where the maple can produce chemicals that limit the growth of other plants in its rootzone. For this reason, the non-native Norway maple is deemed invasive. Plants cannot grow beneath its canopy and thus the plant has more opportunity to spread. The dense shade of this larger-leaved maple amplifies this situation. I discourage students from utilizing this plant for these reasons.

Finally, though, I'll end on a light note. I've mentioned my aunt before, and that I tinker in her garden a bit. She has a large red-leaved cultivar of Norway maple in her front yard. When she bemoans the sad state of her lawn I remind her that the maple isn't helping things and she feels better. A couple months after we discussed this, she brought it up again and called the tree her Norwegian maple. Nowegian Wood, I get. Norwegian maple...not so much!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day, New York

As I mentioned last week, I've been under some deadline pressure, but today, finally, I could sleep in and get to work a bit late.

When I was leaving my building - later than usual - I heard a policeman on a motorcycle zip up First Avenue, siren blaring. A man on the sidewalk, indignant, shouted to no one in particular, "Why can't he turn that motherfudging thing off?" (Only, he didn't say fudge.)

I'm sure he felt chagrined when it became evident that the policeman was leading a motorcade of vets, in honor of Veteran's Day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Halesia tetraptera

Since the last few posts have been about Central Park Zoo, I'll stay there for a bit longer, at least to talk about Halesia tetraptera, or Carolina silverbell.

Carolina silverbell is a small understory flowering tree that can ultimately reach a size of 30-40 feet (there's a larger one on the north side of Central Park bandshell, too). It has a lemony fall color that is evident in these photos, and in mid-spring the plant is covered with white bell-shaped flowers.

But today, and even after the leaves have fallen, the notable characteristic that remains is the seedpods. Tetraptera literally means four-winged and refers to the four flattened corners of the seedpod. Halesia is named for a botanist, Stephen Hales.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Snow Leopards, Central Park

Last spring a new Snow Leopard exhibit opened in the Central Park Zoo. Despite the fact that I worked on the concept design when I was working at the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2006, I had yet to check out the exhibit until this fall.

It's been a busy week with deadlines so I haven't had much time to post to this site.

What better moment to post photos of incredibly beautiful felines??

The above is only posted so you can see the massive tails that snow leopards have -- they help keep the cats warm and I believe have something to do with their ability to leap great heights.

Definitely check out the exhibit if you're near the Central Park Zoo!

Monday, November 2, 2009


Central Park Zoo has a great collection of moderately hardy plants - the horticulturist there who oversees the grounds is always pushing the zonal limits for different species. I always love to see what he has growing there.

is one of these plants. Native to South America, this plant typically thrives in frost-free climates but has tolerated the Manhattan climate, for now.

Of course, it thrives in a warmer climate. For comparison to the above Central Park plant, here's shot of one growing in Barcelona:

Brugmansia is in the Solanaceae family, or the nightshade family. It is related to tomatoes, potatoes and some peppers. But, it's also related to some highly toxic plants and this species can be fatal if ingested in the wrong doses.

It's poison can have psychotropic effects, but it's toxicity makes ingesting the plant a very dangerous gamble. It has been used in shamanic practices by people from Peru and Amazonia.

Brugmansia is named for a botanist, Sebald Justin Brugmans.