Welcome to the third episode in our series about the changing seasons at a New York City salt marsh. Much of these wetlands were buried deep under fill until they were recently restored by New York City.
By Len Maniace
Though there are a few botanical holdouts, spring seems to have arrived at the salt marsh and meadow at the north end of Alley Pond Park. The bursting buds of red maples are living up to their name, and the branches of weeping willows are etched in chartreuse against the blue sky on Tuesday morning.
Grasses, broadleaf plants and shrubs are growing fast along the edges of the salt marsh, encouraged by a week of more-or-less normal temperatures. Marsh marigolds or Catha palustris, a low-growing plant, is blooming yellow just off the boardwalk that crosses over the marsh and above Alley Creek.
If April is the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote, April is not for the impatient in one important part of the salt marsh. The Spartina grasses that cover most of the intertidal zone are a dull tan and lie flat on the ground. “I’m hoping to see some green there soon,” said Aline Euler, curriculum and grant developer at the Alley Pond Environmental Center, which is housed in a one-story building nearby. Euler, who has worked there since the center’s early days in the 1970s, is our guide for these visits.
There are plenty of signs of animal life along the creek, which is now at low-tide, a narrow channel, bordered by mudflats. We see dozens of snails on the mudflats, leaving behind them thin trails. We see footprints, some too deep to identify for sure, but others on firmer ground are from a raccoon, Euler said.
Back from wintering in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, two tree swallows, Tachycineta bicolor, sit on a bird house planted in the middle of the salt marsh. Three more tree swallows are above the marsh, making swooping flight patterns. There are plenty of the red-winged black birds which arrived from the south last month to stake out nesting territory as they await the female of the species. The birds we see are black with red epaulets and a bit of yellow; they are the males of the species. The less-flashy, brown females are nowhere to be seen. Sorry guys.
In the two weeks since our last visit several plants – burdock, thistle and Phragmites, or common cord grass – have grow noticeably. Perhaps seven-inches then, the tallest of this year’s Phragmites crop are about 15-inches high now.
There are many new plants. One of the new finds is Impatiens capensis, commonly known as jewel weed or spotted touch me not, the latter name because its seed pods respond to touch by bursting open. As you might guess, they are related to impatiens and their early flat circular leaves with a small indent resemble the popular shade-loving annual. Unlike the low-growing garden plant, however, jewel weed is a giant and can top five-feet. Their flowers are the only orange flowers that appear naturally in the park’s salt marsh and meadow, Euler said. And not only are they nice to look at, they are quite useful medicinally, which we will detail in future reports.
Wild roses, Rosa multiflora and Rosa rugosa, are leafing out, though the latter still grips to last year’s rosehips. Also new, or at least now identifiable, are early shoots of cattails, most likely Typha latifolia, which resemble daffodil blades.
Euler point out some green, deeply lobed plants that are a few inches tall. I’ve seen them before and regarded them as weeds. They are Artemisia vulgaris, or common mugwort. Crush the leaves and they give a pleasant scent.
The plant’s many common names prove the need for official Latin names, Common mugwort is also known as common wormwood, felon weed, chrysanthemum weed, sailor’s tobacco and old Uncle Henry – a hint it’s not one of nature’s beauties, though it flowers for much of the summer. Mugwort is used as a flavoring and as a medicinal. Euler said some immigrant visitors have told her it’s sometimes put in bath water to relieve muscle ache.
As we leave the wetlands for higher ground we spot some garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata, another aromatic plant that has culinary uses. The plant was bought to this country from Europe for its cooking value and is now considered invasive. Finally we come across crabapple trees that are leafing out and showing still-unopened blossoms. Hope they are not past bloom for our next trip in two weeks.