Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 1 Fresh Water Garden are in full summertime bloom
July 8, 2011
By: Ellen Nicholson (Park Programming Intern) and
Rebecca McMackin (Park Horticulturalist)
Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 fresh water gardens are in spectacular bloom right now. Summer, according to park horticulturalist Rebecca McMackin, is their true height. Since their planting late last summer, the gardens have grown taller and fuller, adding to their persona as one of the most lush, verdant, and intriguing areas of the park.
Wrapping along the eastern edge of the Pier 1 lawns, and adjacent to the main park promenade, the gardens are composed of four sections, beginning with the small pond near the Old Fulton Street entrance. From the pond, water cascades into three successively lower weirs, all of which are separated by pedestrian bridges, which allow one to walk between the gardens.
These gardens serve an important role in the park’s storm water management system. Storm water is collected from building roofs, paved areas and lawns, and passes through each segment of the water gardens, which serve to clean the water of pollutants and sediment. When the water reaches the lowest section at the southern end of Pier 1, it is drained back into the underground tank and will ultimately supply the majority of Pier 1’s annual irrigation needs.
These gardens not only serve a valuable role in the park’s irrigation system, but they provide a unique ecological niche. The gardens are among a very small handful of fresh water gardens in the city, and contain plants that are not only lush, but are also very unusual to the area. The gardens are composed of grass-like marsh plants, interspersed with brightly-colored flowers and shrubs. McMackin notes that most of the grass-like plants are rushes and sedges (one can distinguish between the two because “sedges have edges”, or triangular stems, and “rushes have brushes”, or coarse edges). All of these plants are water-loving, and they fall into several categories in terms of their relationship to water – submerged aquatic, emergent aquatic, floating, and bank plants with “wet feet. “
While the garden has an abundance of noteworthy plants, here are three prominent examples that will be blooming throughout the summer:
Buttonbush – Cephalantis occidentalis
Buttonbush, Cephalantus occidentalis | Photo by Christopher Roddick
This emergent plant is the most “adorable” and “iPhone camera-worthy” according to McMackin. With white ping-pong-ball-like flowers, these shrubs are scattered throughout the gardens, and are a magnet for bees and butterflies. Cephalantis is Greek for “flowering head” and its resemblance to a pin cushion comes from the fact that the pistils (or female reproductive organs) stick out far from the flower to catch the pollen off on insects. The buttonbush has a history of medicinal usage by Native Americans, but is poisonous if consumed in significant doses. While buttonbush can grow up to fifteen feet tall, the buttonbush in our gardens are roughly three to four feet tall, with one or two feet showing above the surface. This flower will bloom through September.
Pickerel Weed – Pontederia cordata
Pickerel weed, Pontederia cordata | Photo by Ellen Nicholson
Blanketing the most southern wetland is the beautiful violet-blue pickerel weed. Each tiny purple flower has two even smaller yellow dots. Blooming alongside the buttonbush, these emergent flowers also attract bees and butterflies, and at present, are commonly seen covered in bumble bees. Each of these very small flowers will only last for one day. After being pollinated, the flower falls off, and a fruit is developed; these fruits contain seeds that are attractive to muskrats, ducks (both common visitors to the park), and humans (they purportedly taste something like other common nuts). The pickerel weed is usually 3- 4 feet tall, but, like the buttonbush, only one or two feet is visible above the surface of the water. The pickerel weed will bloom through November.
Cardinal Flower – Lobelia cardinalis
Cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis | Photo by Ellen Nicholson
This brilliant perennial is certainly the most eye-catching flower in the gardens. While you may see a similar color in the carnations and roses sold on any side street in Manhattan, this one is breath-taking because red this brilliant is almost never seen in a native wildflower. The flower’s common name of “cardinal” comes from the fact that these flowers are reminiscent of the robes of Roman Catholic cardinals. The shape of these flowers – with three lower petals and two upper petals uniting in a single, tubular base – make these plants dependent on butterflies and hummingbirds for pollination (bees do not land here because they have a hard time seeing red). Like the buttonbush, these flowers are poisonous when consumed in significant doses, but have a history of medicinal (including love potion) usage by Native Americans. Unlike the buttonbush and the pickerel weed, these flowers are bank plants, with “wet feet.” This plant will bloom through October.
Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Pier 1 fresh water gardens not only have a series of unusual and beautiful plants, but they have also become home to new animals as well. While these water gardens are unique within the city, much of New York City was wetlands prior to the development of farmlands, and ultimately, cities. While marshland plants and animals are rare now, they quickly populate an ecosystem once it is created, and after just one year, our gardens are home to dragonflies, damselflies, migrating birds, at least 10 species of native bees, a family of muskrats, and even a turtle. The gardens are aesthetically beautiful, as well as complex and important ecosystems for urban wildlife.
The character of the gardens is constantly changing, given the nature of the plants that grow there. The amount of water in wetlands varies from year to year depending on weather conditions, and water-loving plants have learned to adapt by, rather than staying in one stagnant location, moving or spreading quickly to their optimal microclimate. The buttonbush, for example, spreads by “suckering” (or sending out new shoots underwater) in many directions, and the cardinal flower sends out thousands of seeds. The far-reaching methods by which these plants propagate make for a garden whose character and shape is always in flux, designed by the plants themselves. The chameleon-like persona of the gardens adds to their
intrigue, and the garden’s first season is especially promising. Come visit the gardens yourself and find these and other flowers in bloom.