[BSW] Mountain Mint Broke My Heart (NYTimes) (fwd)

Kathy Bilton kathy at fred.net
Wed Aug 15 13:50:57 BST 2012

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 15 Aug 2012 08:21:37 -0400
From: Mary Ann Lawler <malawler0 at gmail.com>

August 14, 2012
                         Mountain Mint Broke My Heart


YOU can’t help whom you fall for. Sometimes you can’t help what you fall
for, either. It was a wildflower that did it for me.

With its scruffy demeanor and inconspicuously small blossoms, Torrey’s
mountain mint is not much to look at. Yet seeing it is rare. This species is
globally imperiled, known to exist in fewer than 20 locations in the entire
world — all in the central and eastern United States, and all dwindling. One
is on Staten Island in New York City.

In 2003 a relatively small cluster of Torrey’s mountain mint was found along
a forested roadside in a sleepy part of southern Staten Island. Local
naturalists cheered this discovery of a wildflower that had not been
recorded in the five boroughs since 1897. The news was less welcome to the
city agency and developer that planned to raze the woodland habitat and
build a strip mall in its place. Located near the street, the plant itself
would survive the bulldozer, but it would be isolated as its surroundings
changed from pastoral to paved.

I was in the middle of the ensuing melee. At the time, I was the plant
ecologist for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation. I spent the
spring and summer of 2004 immersing myself in the disputed 42-acre forest,
which also turned out to be home to an additional 13 plant species that were
rare in New York State. Glacially deposited sandy soils supported rose pink
and sweet everlasting. A copse of trembling aspens overlooked gray birch and
bracken fern. Prickly needles of shrubby pines intermingled with all manner
of oaks. I was in botanical heaven.

But I was also in contentious political waters. The borough president didn’t
help matters by offering his own solution: “I need a plant in my office. Put
it in a jar and bring it to me, and I will water it every day.”

When found in other places, Torrey’s mountain mint is not an inconvenience
but an inspiration for conservation efforts. In New York State, near the
Connecticut border, one population of mountain mint lives in a 144-acre
grassland, preserved in perpetuity. Our mountain mint was given no such
considerations. Local conservation groups sued New York City to stop the
destruction, citing an incomplete environmental review. The court did not
dispute that the ecological assessment was lacking, but development was
allowed to proceed because the brief statute of limitations had run out.

As construction approached, I said goodbye to what would be lost: sweeps of
meadow beauty, partridge pea and blue-eyed grass. Spicebush swallowtails and
other winged wildlife could flee to neighboring woodlands, at least. But
what of the ants? I imagined them buried beneath the macadam, entombed in
their underground chambers like an insect Pompeii.

A little over a year later, I made a trip, required by my job, to the new
shopping complex. With a heavy heart I dutifully cut back encroaching vines
and gathered garbage from the sad, fenced-in strip that now enclosed the
mountain mint. Looking over the empty parking lot, I imagined I could still
see the old American chestnut tree that once bore fruit. Over there was the
shallow pool brimming with sedges and sphagnum mosses. Just beyond was the
thicket of sassafras and lowbush blueberry shrubs. These visions soon faded,
leaving me standing among the big-box stores.

Environmentalists come to cities and see only loss and degradation.
Developers come to cities and see construction opportunities. In Torrey’s
mountain mint, I saw hope. In the face of impossible odds, this plant graced
New Yorkers with its presence. It challenged us to redefine what a city
could be. In the face of that gift, we let a poorly planned development
displace a landscape replete with biological riches.

Today, surrounded by strip malls and cheaply built housing, that once quiet
Staten Island road is bustling with traffic. In this environment, Torrey’s
mountain mint’s days in New York City are surely numbered. For now, the
wildflower is blooming. At least, that is what colleagues tell me. I cannot
bear to revisit the site. At some point, every conservation biologist is
bound to have her heart broken. This is how it happened to me.

Mariellé Anzelone, an urban conservation biologist, is the executive
director of NYC Wildflower Week.


More information about the BSW mailing list