Today, March 3, is UN World Wildlife Day and what better way to honor it this weekend than by helping create thriving habitat areas along a polluted waterway? Just yesterday HarborLAB’s GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek was designated by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat in recognition of our efforts to provide edible native plants for birds, milkweed for Monarch butterflies, clean water, shelter, and other support for native species. We also generate organic compost to enrich our poor soil.
This Sunday, March 5, from noon to 3PM turn sentiment into action by joining HarborLAB for an orientation at our Newtown Creek GreenLaunch (53-21 Vernon Blvd, LIC, NY 11101) and then walking over to Bricktown Bagel Cafe to plan our 2017 plantings, water systems, constructed habitat (mason bee and bat boxes to start), seedball activities, environmental monitoring lab, and more!
A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
by Erik Baard
Imagine a common wild berry that not only feeds and protects wildlife but is potentially the next big thing in solar energy. Ah, the wonders of American pokeweed!
American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana), flowers in summer and its purple berries are ripe in autumn. So why write about it now? HarborLAB harvests pokeberries in late February when they’re dry and less messy, and birds have had a chance to subsist on them through the winter. Besides, few native plants have given us a better weekend song than “Polk Salad Annie.” 🙂
The song name derives from the traditional dish, “poke sallet.” The lyrics offer a great description of pokeweed, except that composer Tony Joe White mistakes the species for being specific to the South. This hardy perennial grows at forest edges and in sandy beaches across all but eight of the 48 contiguous states. It thrives even in eastern Canada, far from White’s home state of Louisiana. HarborLAB grows it at our GreenLaunch on the Newtown Creek, and we’ve encountered it on shores from Staten Island to South Brother Island. We make pokeweed seed balls and distribute them in areas where city, state, and federal park ecologists determine 8′ high bush’s deep tap root can stabilize shorelines and dunes, and protect the interior from storm surge.
As a central part of our GreenLaunch habitat area, the white flowers are a favorite of beneficial insects like our favorite pollinators, bees and butterflies. The leopard moth feeds on the plant during its larval stage. Northern mockingbirds, gray catbirds, northern cardinals, mourning doves, cedar waxwings, brown thrushers, and other birds eat the berries. Our resident raccoon can enjoy noshing on a bit of pokeweed too. Few mammals are so lucky, and for some the plant is deadly. Humans must strip young stems and leaves and boil them three times and toss the water after each cycle. After boiling removes the toxins, many fry the soft greens. “Poke salad” remains part of African American and Appalachian cultures of the South, taught earlier by American Indians, who also used the plant for herbal medicine.
Pokeweed, especially its berries, should be handled with care because it causes rashes on some people, and the poison can be absorbed through skin or open cuts. Never eat the berries and roots, which cause severe vomiting and even, in rare cases, death. Infants are especially vulnerable. Crushed seeds release the greatest toxic loads. Longer-term concerns like mutations and cancer are suspected, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.
On the bright side, literally, Wake Forest University Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials Director David Carroll was inspired to test pokeberry juice as an “agrisolar dye.” Purple pokeberry ink would replace the silicon normally sandwiched between the plates of a photovoltaic panel. Carroll envisions this as a cheap way for developing nations to produce solar energy hardware locally, even in poor soil. That’s a prescription for either growing a solar revolution or unleashing an invasive organism.
HarborLAB and MAST Brothers’ “Cocoa Coast” Brings Habitat to Superfund Waterway
When: Wednesday, February 10: 2:25PM-2:55PM
Where: 53-21 Vernon Boulevard, LIC, NY 11101
Reporters are also welcome to join HarborLAB volunteers as they pick up hundreds of pounds of cocoa husks from two MAST Brothers factories. Typically Wednesday and Sundays, 3PM-5:30PM.
HarborLAB and MAST Brothers Chocolate Makers have partnered for the past two years to turn tons of deliciously fragrant cocoa husks from the company’s bean-to-bar factories in Brooklyn into clean, fertile soil on the Long Island City waterfront of the Newtown Creek. This growing shoreline slope and berm at HarborLAB’s canoe and kayak launch is now home to an expanding habitat of native flowers and fruits for butterflies and birds. Chocolatey love for a long-unloved creek!
“We’re excited to rescue organic material from landfill to create a beautiful, clean landscape of native flowers and orchards in a place that needs love, on Valentine’s Day and every day,” said Erik Baard, founder of HarborLAB. “Our volunteers are grateful to MAST Brothers and to Queens Community Board 2 Environmental Chair Dorothy Morehead for building this offbeat, fun, and useful relationship.”
Check with organizers for updates regarding public officials who might speak.
Photo opportunities each Wednesday and Sunday (including Valentine’s Day):
Students and volunteers spreading cocoa shells and burlap bags on the waterfront.
Bag stamps: Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Venezuela, Papua New Guinea.
HarborLAB waterfront and Manhattan skyline from Pulaski Bridge.
The Newtown Creek is a place New Yorkers usually associate with the smells of sewage, petroleum spills, and the sulfuric gases of anaerobic bacteria. The MAST Brothers’ husks, along with other plant matter, compost into rich and healthy soil in an area deprived of it. And for a time the place smells delicious!
Our soil creation technique is commonly known as “lasagna composting,” in which alternating layers of carbon and nitrogen-rich materials interact. The husks cover volunteers’ kitchen scraps, tea bags, etc. Cocoa husks have a desirable 3:1:3 fertilizer ratio of Nitrogen: Phosphorous: Potassium. Burlap bags are made from jute plants, a type of mallow. With a small amount of additional soil and beneficial invertebrates and bacteria, a rich humus forms. Broken bricks rescued from landfill form a substrate mimicking our region’s glacially transported rock.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation encourages natural shoreline stabilization that relies on root systems instead of always building bulkheads. Growing at HarborLAB’s kayak and canoe “GreenLaunch”: Milkweed (on which Monarch butterflies depend), goldenrod, pokeberry, serviceberry, American persimmon, beach plum, hackberry, fig trees, Kazakh and other apples, Asian pears. The native seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers, CUNY and NYC Public School students, and provided by the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Greenbelt Native Plant Center. Trees provided by New York Restoration Project, US Department of Agriculture, and Cornell University. Coming soon: fruiting vines and native spartina saltmarsh grass (for the intertidal zone).
About HarborLAB: Student and volunteer-run HarborLAB operates from a 125’ shoreline in Hunters Point outside the Circus Warehouse, a school for big tent performance arts, thanks to Schuman Properties. HarborLAB volunteers serve communities throughout the Hudson River estuary and watershed with free environmental education programs. HarborLAB provides educational kayaking and canoeing tours, paddling to shores that volunteers and students and clean and plant with native species, and open introductory paddles in parks. HarborLAB also enriches NYC public school curricula with field trips and activities in libraries and classrooms.
About MASTBrothers Chocolate Makers: MAST Brothers is a New York-based chocolate maker with flagship locations in Brooklyn and London. Founded by pioneering brothers Rick and Michael in 2007, is introducing chocolate to the world with an obsessive attention to detail, meticulous craftsmanship, groundbreaking innovation, and inspirational simplicity.
Mark Christie, HarborLAB volunteer and Vice President of Hunters Point Parks Conservancy, with bouquets of goldenrod seeds. Hunters Point Community Middle School student in the background. (Photo by Erik Baard)
HarborLAB had a fantastic winter day of gathering goldenrod and beach rose seeds with Hunters Point Community Middle School students! Many thanks to biology teacher Mary Matthai and Principle Sarah Goodman, and to the students! Thanks also to Vice President Mark Christie of the Hunters Point Parks Conservancy and to the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
Through this exercise the students learned about bioremediation, shore ecology, evolved means of seed propagation, combined sewer overflows, and genetic diversity. We asked that the school choose only five students for each round of work to avoid trampling habitats.
HarborLAB is creating a marine-to-uplands habitat restoration on the Newtown Creek. We call this project the “GreenLaunch.” Citizens Committee for NYC gave us funds for initial work, which HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson oversees. We’ve applied to the Hudson River Foundation for a larger Newtown Creek Fund grant. We hope our City Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and State Assembly Representative Catherine Nolan will also partner with us as a wonderful (and only) Queens environmental group based on the creek, and support our work.
Central to the GreenLaunch, conceived by HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard, is a living shoreline stabilized using methods recommended by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. We’re applying for fresh earth from the NYC Soil Bank. Roots from native, saltwater tolerant plantings will hold soil down. We’re gathering seeds from milkweed, pokeberry, goldenrod, beach plums, and beach rose to start. We have MillionTreesNYC shadbush (service berry), hackberry, sassafras, and other native saplings to further strengthen this slope. Milkweed and goldenrod sustain endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators. Our berry bushes and trees, and rose hips, have deep root systems and feed birds. Below this slope, in the intertidal zone, we’ll grow cordgrass and mussels.
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