ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News, I'm Robert Siegel.
When the city of New York replants grasses on the dunes of its beaches, which were devastated by Hurricane Sandy, they'll be able to draw on seeds from precisely the grasses that used to thrive on those beaches. That's because of the work done by a group I watched in action last week.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING WATER)
SIEGEL: In a city known more for its great indoors, Heather Lea Liljengren is devoted to the outdoors. She works for the Parks Department native seed bank and I joined her in search of some new deposits, plant seeds that might ensure the survival of the city's flora.
HEATHER LEA LILJENGREN: So, we're going to sneak in right over here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SLOSHING WATER)
SIEGEL: We are traipsing through the faintest trace of a trail through the wetlands of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island. It poured the night before and the night before that, so the swamp water that would typically be up to our ankles is up to our calves.
LILJENGREN: You guys don't mind crashing through for some phragmites, do you?
SIEGEL: The phragmites, the common reeds that have invaded the world's wetlands, competing with local grasses, are a foot or two taller than we are.
LILJENGREN: When it gets tall like this, it's hard to remember where the trail used to be.
SIEGEL: As we hunt for plants whose seeds might be ripe for collecting, I am increasingly mindful of the water seeping into my boots and increasingly hopeful that the bug spray will live up to its advertising. Heather Liljengren, meanwhile, who tells me that she loves being in a swamp, is positively thrilled to be out doing her job in the wilds of New York City.
LILJENGREN: When people walk around, they just maybe see green. But when I walk around, I am drawn to every small flowering thing from the ground all the way up into the trees.
SIEGEL: Liljengren, who's 30, has been a seed collector/field taxonomist for the Parks Department for over five years. At the University of Massachusetts she majored in environmental design. But it was the horticulture courses that captivated her.
LILJENGREN: Well, what a treat. Here we have some of our iris in bloom, which is the thin leafed iris, iris prismatica. This is one of the only spots, I believe, in the five boroughs where this species naturally exists.
SIEGEL: But let's face it, I mean, to get here and see these irises is quite a trek. I mean, we've been walking through the mud to get here.
SIEGEL: And it's not as if New Yorkers are routinely enjoying the sight of this particular iris.
LILJENGREN: Well, it depends on which New Yorkers you're talking about. The insects...
LILJENGREN: ...that come and pollinate these iris love them.
LILJENGREN: So all in all, really that's why it always comes back to why our native flora is so important.
SIEGEL: If these plants disappear, she says, then so will the insects, and in time the loss of species will snowball.
At another patch of wet lands, out of the reeds and closer to the shore, Liljengren gave me a quick tour of the local flora - none of which was ready for seed collection.
LILJENGREN: So this is Juncus gerardii, a saltmarsh rush. If you open up the seed pod, you can see that all the seed is still white. It turns black when it's ready.
SIEGEL: Last October, by coincidence, Heather Liljengren was on a routine mission collecting seeds from Ammophila breviligulata, the grasses that helped stabilize the dunes on the beaches at Far Rockaway in Queens. This was just a few days before Hurricane Sandy.
LILJENGREN: So it was serendipitous, for sure. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was in awe and in marvel of these beautiful, large rolling dunes across the beach. And I actually went back a few weeks ago and all of the dunes are gone.
SIEGEL: The seeds she collected that day will likely be a part of the city's restoration of those beaches.
Oakwood Beach, on the eastern edge of Staten Island, was also ravaged by Sandy. Rows of small houses with views of the Lower Bay, and beyond it the Atlantic, were damaged very often beyond repair. Like the dunes of the Rockaways, these Staten Island wetlands are also in harm's away. And the seeds Liljengren collects may help preserve them.
Heather Liljengren and her colleague Judith Van Bers range over the greater New York metropolitan area in search of native seed. Their turf is 25 counties in three states. They've collected over 500 species and they'd like to get 700.
LILJENGREN: We look at seed and see that every seed is a possible plant.
JUDITH VAN BERS: Every seed counts.
SIEGEL: Judith Van Bers was at work at their home base, the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island. She was separating seed from grass the two had recently collected on Sparta Mountain in the New Jersey highlands. The grass is Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania sedge.
This is primitive, tedious work. A strip of ridged rubber stair tread is the most modern piece of equipment involved.
BERS: At first I tried to basically manually take them out and cleaning the seeds - rubbing them off. But I just found that it's easier to just rub it on this rubber mat.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBING)
BERS: And that brings all the seeds...
(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBING)
BERS: Seeds, they're all coming loose.
ED TOTH: It's very, very labor intensive, this next step, which is bringing the seed in and cleaning it. It's the biblical separating the wheat from the chaff.
SIEGEL: That's Ed Toth, the director of the Native Plant Center. He says the New York seeds that his center collects, stores, plants in a green house and then likely farms out to others to grow in quantity, comprise a kind of plant seed savings and loan; one that knows its local needs and environments.
TOTH: Populations have adapted to local conditions. So those adaptations are captured in their genes. And you want to keep that base healthy and vital.
SIEGEL: Of course, threats of rising waters and temperatures may require further adaptation.
TOTH: Some species, many species, are highly adaptable - they're highly plastic. Some may adapt very well if the temperature rises significantly.
SIEGEL: Which species? Ed Toth says we don't know. So, the aim of his New York Native Plant Center on Staten Island is to have a huge backup supply in store before the city discovers its next need - whether it's seeding a landfill or replacing dune grasses on the city's beaches or planting trees in parks where old tress have fallen to the wind.
He figures it'll be especially important if calamitous conditions become more common.
TOTH: It's a hugely complex story about how this is going to unfold, this manmade change that we're bringing upon the world. And what we need is the raw genetic material that's contained in these healthy populations. It's like having a Library of Congress in seed, so that all of this tremendous diversity is available to us when we face these problems down the future.
SIEGEL: Ed Toth acknowledges that nobody used to give much credit to nature in the city. But he says, we've learned it is very resilient and we can improve on it all the time.
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