I’ve got a good one for you guys, a joke I’ll give to you — for free! — to use as we get back into hosting and habiting friendly gatherings. Ready?
April showers bring May flowers and what did the Mayflower bring...?
Historical rumor is that this twist on the classic childhood zinger holds true. It is thought dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) first came to North America in 1620 as passengers aboard the Mayflower, providing vital vitamins and minerals for the pilgrim settlers  once the plants took root in the ‘New’ World. It wouldn’t be hard to squeeze dandelions onto the menu of your next Thanksgiving meal now, either; the dandelion is edible from flower to root, bearing leaves of a “slightly astringent flavor prized by salad eaters, Canada geese, and porcupines” , alike. Among just a few of the recipes offered to The New York Times Cooking subscribers: a “generous bunch of dandelion greens,” alongside onion, mushrooms, garlic cloves, and Gruyère for a delicious tart; a dandelion salad with beets, bacon, and goat cheese toasts; dandelions puréed with fava beans; and one that particularly caught my eye, “Southern” Dandelion Greens with Crispy Onions. The flowers are said to be delicious fried in batter, the greens taste best blanched (to remove bitterness) or sautéed like a spinach or a kale.
Dandelions also became quite popular during America’s Prohibition era, so popular in fact that a report from Detroit in 1923, nestled among other notices in The New York Times, remarked on the city’s need for more garbage men just to handle all the dandelion mash being thrown away on nearly every city block. In 1919, proactive American soldiers in Germany picked up recipes for loewenzahnwein (dandelion wine) in anticipation of “difficulty in obtaining any sort of liquid refreshment of a cheering nature when they reach[ed] home” [see this article in my collection of NYT dandelion pieces, The Daily Dandelion, below]. No longer restricted to home brewing and speakeasies today, dandelion wines continue to delight.
It’s 2021, and I miss crowds.
There are the reasons one might find themselves in a crowd, of course: to see a play, to grab a drink, to board a train bound for somewhere new. But I suspect I miss the mechanics of a crowd—any crowd—most of all. The crush, the chaos, the peculiar coziness of being caught up in a human herd. I take secret pride, as an avowed introvert, in loving the company of a mass of people, in the odd sense of companionship to be found alongside strangers on the subway when there’s no elbow room to be had. I miss noise, being bumped into on a crowded crosswalk, having the back of my shoe stepped on, hastily jamming my heel back in place while reassuring the offender that it is “no worries!” (even when it did hurt a little bit). The sensory overload of a city street or a popular park, it resets my brain. I feel reflective there: thoughtful, energized, and activated. And while I’ve sought out and waded through many-a-crowd in my day, there’s nothing quite like the one that goes to see Rockefeller Center’s beloved Christmas tree.
As a Texan, the bar for my enjoying the experience is admittedly low (anything resembling “real winter” is de facto charming to those who grew up wearing shorts most Christmas afternoons, after all). But 45 Rockefeller Plaza in December is as classic-Winter-Wonderland as it gets. The first time I went—on a weekend critically close to Christmas—I probably spent just 20 seconds in front of the tree itself. I marveled over how big it really was and how many lights covered its branches (50,000 bulbs across five miles of wire, for the record ). I was struck by how imperfect it looked. Ice skaters circled the surprisingly small rink below, and I managed to catch a few laps before being issued a keep it moving! by one of the many police officers controlling traffic at the scene. I was swept by the current of the crowd, away from the tree and towards the plaza’s varied window displays. My audience with the tree at Rockefeller Plaza was up. I remember laughing at how out-of-my-hands the experience was, strategizing how best to get across the street to window shop at Saks, and wondering whether I’d be able to see (even on tippy toes?) over the heads of the many people aiming for the same. Heading for a street corner, the lights covering the storefront of the department store suddenly lit up, a castle dripping in icicles, its lights flashing dramatically in time with “Carol of the Bells” as speakers blasted overhead. I held my ground, best I could, to watch. One of hundreds, it felt special to be there.
Forty feet in the air, I perched hesitatingly on the uninviting, creaky metal slats of my friend Kate's rusty fire escape in Flatbush, Brooklyn. It was a deceptively cool summer morning in 2020 and one perfect for a coffee alfresco. I’d wedged myself “gracefully” through the apartment’s window moments before, managing not to send any notebooks or pens plunging below as I maneuvered myself, akimbo. At the window sill, Kate's dog, Djola, (and my charge for the weekend), had surveyed my acrobatics with concern until I found myself a seat. Savoring slow, quiet mornings like this one had become my standard: a coffee, a crossword, a few pages of a book. The cozy, quotidian sounds of muffled city traffic as background music, I settled down with that day’s offerings, content, and realized: I had always wanted to be here. Not so much here, literally, but here in the larger sense, in New York City—as my home.
The seed (pun intended) that planted my love for the Big Apple was sowed by Betty Smith in her classic 1945 novel, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. On my mom’s urging (her mom had loved it as well), I first read the book in middle school at about the age we meet its protagonist, Francie Nolan. Francie was a balance between dreamy and observant, earnest, reflective, bookish; I identified with her and romanticized the New York City world she inhabited. I loved Smith’s rich descriptions of Francie’s life in Williamsburg in the early 20th century, particularly of the many characters Francie encountered as she walked her block or gazed out from the perch of her fire escape. Of all the neighborhood’s residents, the book opens with a description of its most famous one:
On the fire escape in 2020, I could easily have been looking out at the same scene. A tree effortlessly towered over the 6-story apartment buildings that crowded it. Its canopy lent dramatic shadows that covered the dusty and cement yards below; I followed the outstretched branches with my eyes, tips to the trunk, to really make sure they all came from the same tree (they did).
What tree was this?
Hello! I am Katherine, a graduate student in anthropology, new to my 30s, and fairly new to New York City. A transplanted species, native to Texas, I traded the Lone Star for the Empire State in 2015 to pursue my doctorate at Stony Brook University, in the Interdepartmental Doctoral Program in Anthropological Sciences, or IDPAS.
My research interests concern the extent to which animal communities can persist in human environments: what happens as human populations 'creep' into wild spaces? How adaptable are species to this change? What interests might animal and human communities share, and are there any opportunities for conservation in human landscapes?
The possibilities to learn about Madagascar's endemic flora there are practically limitless. I love learning their names and function as my team and I work together on data collection: we encounter the towering bararatra (Gaertnera phyllostachya), the thorny fantsy (Carissa sp.), and ever-persistent, invasive mazambody (Clidemia hirta), the last closely associated with human disturbance.
You know what I don't know much about though? The plants outside the window of my New York apartment, plants that may prove just as interesting as those dotting the fields and forests of my Malagasy home. With COVID-19 causing all international research to come to a (momentary) grinding halt, I have time to get to know my, shall we say, more photosynthetic neighbors. What's the story behind the plant species immortalized by A Tree Grows in Brooklyn? Where does the Rockefeller Christmas tree come from? What the heck is that shrub by the laundromat? I am so excited to use this blog to discover the science and stories of the plants of NYC.
Part personal blog, part field and tourists' guide, I hope we can learn here, together, about the biodiversity to be found just a few steps outside my front door.
Now what's outside of yours?
Planted Header image: Utsman Media on Unsplash
Ivy: Victoria Strukovskaya on Unsplash
NYC Skyline: Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash
All other images are my own.
Welcome to Planted!
Hello, Katherine here! An ecologist and anthropologist by training, I am here to talk about plants: broadly, how they shape human spaces and persist within them, and, more personally, how they are helping me feel at home (one might say, rooted) as I adapt to life in NYC.