A meadow in the Bronx

“Meadow” is one of those words whose meaning has changed during the crossing of the Atlantic. In England it means a field of grass that grows for one season before being cut for hay. During this season, no cattle are allowed to graze or browse the grasses. A field of grass where cattle are allowed to feed is called a pasture. Here, the word meadow can mean many other things because we are not so picky about the precise meaning of words coined by the English. So, for example, Central Park’s “Sheep Meadow” (where sheep were actually released to graze at the time) was never a grassland in the proper sense. On the contrary, it should have been called “Sheep Pasture”. And the “Meadowlands” where the New York Giants and New York Jets play football (in New Jersey) were never really meadows either. They were once brackish marshes and are now vast expanses of invasive common reed (the native/non-native status of the various common reed populations in North America is complex and for another assignment).

Meadow in Pelham Bay Park: Image by Ruth Gyure

Another sense in which Americans use the word prairie is an open area of ​​grasses and herbaceous plants in a non-agrarian habitat. And it is in this sense that I use it here. Very few meadows are self-sufficient, that is, if left alone, they will become woods. Under certain circumstances, wildfires will keep grasslands open and in grassland conservation regimes, prescribed burns are an essential management tool. The literature on prescribed burns is extensive and exhausting, but what I take away is that burning is good for plants and birds that need open spaces, but less good for butterflies and other insects that can’t escape. to fires and are not resistant to them like grassland plants. are. Grassland insects usually repopulate burned grasslands from nearby grasslands that have not been burned. But in most parts of the northeast, wildfires are being aggressively suppressed lest they spread to residential areas and once-open grassland habitats. And in city parks that may have open space that could pass for a meadow, prescribed burns just aren’t an option.

Enter WildMetro, a grassroots organization (literally) that combines the scholarly bent of its founder David Burg with the muscle and sweat of a body of volunteers willing to cut through the underbrush to free trees from the exotic vines that choke them to death and keeping certain critical areas open to plants and animals that need increasingly scarce grasslands for their sustenance. (That’s not to say David doesn’t do more than his fair share of machete blows.) To see the variety of projects SauvageMetro works on you can visit his website, but the one I’m writing about here is for an acre of prairie in the southern part of Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Pelham Bay Park, spanning over 2,770 acres, is more than three times the size of Central Park. And while Central Park presents the neat, tidy look of a long rectangle on a map, PBP is a crazy patchwork of shorelines, islands, old estates, woods, and ballparks spanning the easternmost part of the Bronx bordering Westchester County.

Here, nestled between a series of woods and along a dirt hiking trail is a single acre of meadow that has been dubbed “golden meadow” by someone with a botanical bent, as at least four species of orchard flowers bloom here from August until the November frosts extinguish the last embers of their glow. In addition to goldenrod, a host of other wildflowers bloom here throughout the growing season, including dogbane, common milkweed, joe-pye grass, purgatory, milk thistle and a species of spirea. These flowers attract an incredible diversity of pollinating insects, many of which are unusual in urban habitats. With a permit from the Department of Parks and in conjunction with WildMetro, my son Jeff and I have been collecting bees and other insects here since May. Already, according to John Ascher of the American Museum of Natural History, we have collected a species of bee that has never been recorded in the far reaches of New York before and a number of other bee species that we have found in the meadow had not been recorded. of the city for decades.

In addition to bees, meadow flowers are often covered with other pollinators, such as wasps, hoverflies, beetles, moths and, of course, butterflies. I have seen 30 species of butterflies in the meadow so far and I am sure there are at least another dozen. Some of the butterflies, like the uncommon bees we found, are rare in urban habitats, like the magnificent White-M Hairstreak that frequents the Goldenrod flat. The red-banded hairstreak and common buckeye (see photos) are also a treat for urban butterfly watchers.

Red-banded Hairstreak: Image by Harry ZirlinRed-banded Hairstreak: Image by Harry Zirlin

Common Buckeye: Image by Harry ZirlinCommon Buckeye: Image by Harry Zirlin

Unfortunately, it will take a lot of work to preserve the meadow in the future. The vandals have injured the trees that surround the meadow and it is unclear if they will eventually target the meadow itself. Rubbish dumped by thoughtless visitors is unsightly, but not as much of a concern. The real threat is simply the natural process of succession that will turn the prairie into a woodland if WildMetro is unable to muster enough volunteers to keep the saplings at bay. And the Parks Department itself, which has shown great foresight under Park Administrator Marianne Anderson thus far, is still under pressure to create more ball diamonds, tennis courts and picnic areas.

At the moment, however, we are fortunate to have this acre which is home to some unusual plants, insects and birds. On one of my most recent visits, “puzzling autumn warblers” moved across the prairie, while the only bald eagle I’ve ever seen in town soared above a sky pure blue. Not bad for the Bronx…

Images used with permission from Ruth Gyure and Harry Zirlin

Chris B. Hall