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Harvested beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

When explorer Giovanni da Verrazano sailed into New York Harbor in 1524, he remarked on the multitude of this sweet fruit thriving in sand. In 1609, Henry Hudson was similarly delighted. This vision of our estuary is long lost, but not irrecoverable despite massive urbanization.

Imagine waterfronts swaying with white flowers that grow into delicious plums the size of fat cherries. We can do it inexpensively in a way that’s a fun learning experience for youth!

Beach plum flower. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

These indigenous fruits are better known in luxury summer communities like the Hamptons, Block Island, Martha’s Vineyard, Cape Cod, and Nantucket. They’re difficult to grow in yields demanded commercially, but but there’s nothing stopping us from making them a signature of New York Harbor again, from waterfronts to nearby community gardens and schools. The NYC Department of Parks and Recreation and Friends of Gateway are leading parallel efforts to replant beach plums in key sites like Soundview Park, Floyd Bennett Field, and Plumb Beach. Regarding the last location, many already mistakenly call it “Plum Beach,” so we have a happy instance of reality catching up to a misnomer!

A community effort could share the fun of beach plums on a much greater scale. As some readers know, I founded the Newtown Pippin Restoration and Celebration to plant hundreds of apple saplings throughout the five boroughs, with a special focus on our local heirloom variety. That project is now maturing (two new orchards this season, on Governors Island and in Red Hook!), thanks to the support of New York Restoration Project, Green Apple Cleaners, Slow Food NYC, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center, and a host of other allies and volunteers. Looking to the future, I spoke with Cornell University plant ecologist Dr. Thomas Whitlow, who is the leading expert on beach plums in New York, about how we might contribute to the return of beach plums.

Thanks to Friends of Gateway, I’ve delivered beach plum bushes and elderberry trees to Greenpoint, Red Hook, Astoria, Dumbo, Manhattan, and LIC. What Dr. Whitlow envisions is having students gather beach plums at the East End of Long Island, enjoy them (perhaps we could makes jams with a local canning instructor) and then germinate the seeds. In partnership with a native plant group, the seeds could be potted and grown for distribution to public spaces.

If you’d like to be part of this, please drop a note to erikbaard@gmail.com and we’ll get started!

Wild beach plums. Photo courtesy of Cornell University.

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Imagine the sandy shores of Dumbo, Stuyvesant Cove, Hunters Point, South Beach, and Pelham Bay resplendent with bushes full of white blossoms that grow into delicious fruits akin to fat cherries as summer passes. Or seeing trees at City Hall, or in a school playground just inland from the Newtown Creek, heavy with sublimely sweet and tart green apples.

Welcome to New York City, 2015!

Well, potentially. Check this page in the coming weeks to learn how you can be part of bringing beach plums and Newtown Pippin apples back to NYC! It might even be possible to have the Newtown Pippin recognized as the official apple of the Big Apple. We have some amazing sponsors and partners already committed to plantings and helping others receive saplings.

Beach plums grow in sandy soil, even dunes, from New Jersey to eastern Canada. They sustain birds and delight beachcombers, and provide a living for those who make them into desserts. Industrialization erased them from our city’s shores.

Newtown Pippins were developed on the Queens bank of the Newtown Creek in the 18th century and quickly became known as the “prince of apples.” Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Queen Victoria were all ardent fans. Today they are grown by celebrities like Dave Matthews. They consistently win apple taste competitions to this day. The namesake creek has quietly descended into a state that should shame all New Yorkers. The nation’s largest oil spill leaches into it while combined sewer outflows continually assault it. The creek bed is laden with heavy metal wastes.

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May the restoration of these species remind us of how lush and wondrous our environment once was, and inspire us to act to replenish our city.

One key element of the campaign will be to excite city officials by providing a taste of these plums and apples. On Saturday, Dec. 13, we will carpool or take a train out to Riverhead, Long Island, to buy apples, cider, plum jams, plum pies, and other delicacies at Briermere Farm. While we are there, there will be some exploring, of course!

If you’d like to come, please email naturecalendar@gmail.com so that we can determine how best to coordinate travel.

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