Getting the Drop on Pitch Pine

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.
(Our apologies for the delayed publication.)

Photos and text by Erik Baard

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida) is a hardy little tree that’s native to the eastern US and coastal from the Chesapeake Bay to Acadia National Park, Maine. They thrive in a variety of harsh conditions from poor alpine scratch to low swamps. They protect dunes, stabilize shores, and feed birds and insects. These crooked and twisted trees are rarely used for lumber, but as you can imagine, they were in great demand for the resin pitch.

Physicists are fascinated by how a drop of room temperature pitch can be shattered by a hammer blow yet is experimentally shown to be a liquid (unlike ice, which is a true crystalline solid). The hardness and consistency of pitch, which is also malleable when heated, makes it extremely useful for preserving and waterproofing ships, railroad ties, and mine shaft supports. It’s also used to flavor wine, and sometimes medicinally. Outdoor enthusiasts often use pitch for lamps and torches, glue and wound binding, or even to make natural plastic widgets! Now research labs are following suit.

These trees are very well protected against fire by their specialized bark. In a worst case scenario, even a stump can spring to life with new branches. Their cones also pop open when exposed to intense heat, so they not only endure the flames but help regenerate the ecosystem.

In our region, you can enjoy pitch pine forests in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, Fire Island, and Long Island’s East End. But NYC parks have stands of them too,  including Hunters Point South Park just blocks away from HarborLAB. We’ll grow seeds gathered there at the HarborLAB GreenLaunch!

HarborLAB makes pitch pine seedballs to benefit our entire harbor. We’ve gathered cones with students and volunteers with Baruch College, New Jersey Institute of Technology, National Iranian-American Council, and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy. We learned our seed ball making technique from Seedball NYC, and how to get seeds from pine cones (by baking them) from the Greenbelt Native Plant Center of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s Natural Resources Group.

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

Pine seed. Photo and labeling by University of Miami: http://www.bio.miami.edu/dana/dox/altgen.html

The Wonders of Pokeweed

Flora and Fauna Fridays

A weekly entry about the life of our estuary and watershed.

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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.

 

 

 

Seedball Making at LIC Springs!

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. This group of seedballers was perhaps the most fierce of the day.    🙂

 

HarborLAB volunteers had a wonderful time at the LIC Springs street festival, teaching kids and adults how to make seedballs. This means of planting native species helps restore habitat and stabilize shorelines. We focused on seaside goldenrod, which sustains migrating monarch butterflies and other beneficial insects in the autumn and shelters the eggs of black skimmer shorebirds. Our seeds were gathered by HarborLAB volunteers and students from Hunters Point Community Middle School in coordination with the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Hunters Point Parks Conservancy.

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HarborLAB at LIC Springs! Seedball making station. Some were super serious seedballers. 🙂

We’re very grateful to Long Island City Partnership, our local business improvement district, for organizing this annual event, which is much more than a block party. Our lead volunteers for the day were Dylan Geil, Patricia Menje Erickson, David Borgioli, Scott Wolpow, and Erik Baard, with Thomas Dieter helping us get shipped out from the site. Thanks to David Kistner of sponsor Green Apple Cleaners as well, who did the leg work of picking up and delivering the 50 lbs bag of red clay powder needed for our seedballs.

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We’re also grateful to our Seedball friends (http://http://seedball.us/) for teaching us this ancient propogation technique, which mimics the critical ecosystem process of endozoochaory (spreading seeds by animal droppings). We simply mix natural red clay powder, a pinch of sand, seeds, compost (cocoa husks), and a bit of water until the ingredients reach a cookie dough-like consistency. Then the “dough” is rolled into penny diameter balls. These are air dried for a few days and then bottled. Then HarborLAB distributes the seedballs along shorelines to stabilize them and provide habitat and sustenance for pollinators and birds. In cooperation with conservancies and governmental park agencies, we’ve seeded shorelines from Queens to Coney Island and Staten Island!

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Hunters Point Eco-Day Memories

Seedball making team ! Questus at Hunters Point Community Middle School with HarborLAB.

HarborLAB and friends from new sponsor Questus shared a wonderful day improving the ecology of Hunters Point and enhancing the environmental science programs of Hunters Point Community Middle School. The students made the day even sunnier, and we got so much done!

We started the day by continuing HarborLAB’s work to turn our launch on the Newtown Creek Superfund site into a green and welcoming habitat area and orchard. We planted more shadbush and tended to our orchard trees, built up fresh and composting soil cover on our sloping bank, cleaned the shore, and gathered pokeberries for our seeding program. Questus Co-Founder Jeff Rosenblum joined HarborLAB Facilities Manager Patricia Erickson in revamping our water access, preserving our dock and replacing — and better securing — our ladder. They did a stellar job!

The rest of us headed over to Hunters Point Community Middle School with a wheelbarrow of supplies to make seed balls! Our partners were Mary Mathai’s special needs science students and the school’s Eco Club. The students were delightful, and Ms. Mathai, other faculty members, and Principal Sarah Goodman have been amazing partners with HarborLAB since before the school even opened!

Seedballs are an efficient way to distribute seeds with a nutritive soil head start, whether for agriculture or habitat strengthening. HarborLAB got its start through lessons provided by the NYC Seedball community. We make our seedballs from powdered red clay, compost, cocoa shells, a pinch of sand, and seeds gathered from indigenous shoreline plants. Our Hunters Point Eco-Day seeds were seaside goldenrod gathered by Hunters Point Community Middle School students last year. Goldenrod is a vital part of our estuary, sustaining butterflies and other beneficial insects and sheltering the nests of black skimmers, one of our most unusual shorebirds. The HarborLAB and Questus team worked with the students in two sessions, with two or three adults to a table. The group effort produced thousands of seedballs and the kids will use up leftover material next week.

This activity and our illustrated presentation reinforce curricular lessons about the purposes of flowers, fruits, and seeds, and how seeds are distributed in nature. Seedballs replicate frugivorous endozoochory, or how animals spread seeds, packaged in dense nutrition, through their droppings after eating fruits. When students gather seeds with us, they learn how to identify plant species and about how plants support other species and stabilize shorelines. We also discuss, of course, how plants can remove CO2 from our air to reduce climate chaos and ocean acidification. All spring and summer, HarborLAB volunteers and students distribute seedballs as we paddle shore to shore, under the direction of conservation groups and park and preserve authorities.

The Questus team also enjoyed peer bonding, diving into a delicious lunch provided by COFFEED LIC Landing in Hunters Point South Park and canoeing from the HarborLAB GreenLaunch to the mouth of the Newtown Creek on the East River. In both cases they were exhilarated by Manhattan skyline views.

We’re deeply grateful to Questus’ team for their support and camaraderie, and to the students and faculty of Hunters Point Community Middle School for their spirited engagement in education to meet our world’s ecological challenges.

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Questus afloat with HarborLAB!

Seedball Making at LaGuardia Community College!

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Seedballs. Photo by Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens.

Hurricane Sandy, pollution, and development have stripped away much of our dune and coastal meadow habitats, so HarborLAB is joining the effort to restore them! To this end, HarborLAB and other conservationists are following Permaculture farmers in adopting an ancient Japanese and North American no-till agriculture tool that mimics the natural dung distribution of seeds (called endozoochory). It’s simple: make a ball of clay, compost, and seeds and toss them over the area to be revived. The warmth and rains of spring and summer then signal the seeds to germinate. Before long we’ll green the shores of NYC by bombarding them with seed love from our armada of kayaks and canoes!  😉

HarborLAB volunteers learned the art from SeedBall NYC‘s Co-founder and President Anne Apparu in a room made available to us by Dr. Sarah Durand of the Natural Sciences department at CUNY LaGuardia Community College. We made several hundred seed balls, and will make thousands more! The trick is to get the proportions right so that the balls hold together firmly but dry out before the seeds germinate. In terms of consistency, think cookie dough.

Another great instruction resource comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

HarborLAB used seeds we gathered with Hunters Point Community Middle School and Dr. Stephen Grosnell‘s Baruch College conservation biology students from Gantry Plaza State Park, Hunters Point Park, and our own GreenLaunch, along with seeds provided by SeedBall NYC and Briermere Farms. Hunters Point Parks Conservancy Vice President Mark Christie kindly help guide us in our seed gathering. Species included aster, milkweed, beach plum, beach pea, goldenrod, viburnum, pine, switchgrass, pokeberry, and the humorously named panicgrass (gallery below). These salt-tolerant species support endangered monarch butterflies and other pollinators, and feed birds. They also stabilize the shoreline, allowing complex ecosystems to develop while also protecting property from surges and erosion. We also gathered beach rose from Hunters Point South Park but must be very careful about where to use them, if at all, for biological productivity without enabling invasion.

See Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman‘s great write up of one of our outings at Queens Brownstoner.

We’re also grateful to Maureen Regan, president and founder of Green Earth Urban Gardens for participating and to Gil Lopez, president and co-founder of Smiling Hogshead Ranch Urban Farm, for inviting a naturalist to join us. We also thank the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation for permission to gather seeds. An especially welcome newcomer was Philip Anthony Borbon, a sailor who moors on the Queens waterfront of the Newtown Creek.

Our next step is to go into classrooms to make seedballs with kids, and to then bring the balls with us when we paddle to areas in need of habitat restoration! If you’d like a classroom talk and seedball making activity with HarborLAB, please email us at edu@harborlab.org!