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Around The Park

Cardinals

Devoted, Romantic, and Melodic

Cardinals are birds in the Cardinalidae family found in the Americas and the Caribbean in woodlands, gardens, shrublands, and wetlands. They come in a variety of colors and are passerine, meaning their toes are designed to grab onto surfaces for perching. The family consists of 14 genuses, which together comprise 53 species. The Cardinalis genus specifically consists of three species – the Northern cardinal, Vermillion cardinal, and Pyrrhuloxia – all of which are found in the eastern United Sates, southeastern Canada, Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala. The Northern cardinal is the most common cardinal in New York.

Male and female Northern cardinal

Male and female Northern cardinal

Both male and female cardinals are songbirds, and they will sing to each other for communication and for courtship. The songs are learned, meaning cardinals will sing songs similar to other cardinals around them. Male cardinals will sing their songs from a high perch to mark their territory and will chase after and fight other males. Both males and females are highly territorial, and will even fight their reflections in water, bumpers, windows, or other reflective surfaces, sometimes for many days, especially during breeding season. They also use their song to warn against predators – falcons, hawks, owls, and other birds of prey consume cardinals, and milk snakes, bluejays, squirrels, cats, chipmunks, and other animals consume cardinal eggs.

Cardinal couples are known for their devotion to one another. Male cardinals will woo female cardinals with their bright coloring, song, and by feeding them choice seeds and berries beak to beak. They generally mate for life and are monogamous, working together to raise chicks throughout the year. The female lays three to four eggs two to four times a year. The father raises and feeds the young while the mother incubates more eggs. Unlike many other birds, Northern cardinals are not migratory and will stay in the same area during their lifetimes. This means families stick together and form relationships with other cardinals around them. In order to keep warm during winter, cardinals will fluff their down feathers to trap warm air and alternate tucking their legs one at a time into their body while perching.

Male Northern cardinal feeding a female beak to beak

Male Northern cardinal feeding a female beak to beak

The relationship cardinal couples have with each other inspired cultures to associate devotion, romance, and friendship with the bird. For example, according to a Choctaw legend, a cardinal once came across a beautiful, lonely maiden looking for companionship. As the cardinal continued to travel, it came across a brave, handsome man. It befriended the man and tricked him into following it straight to the maiden’s home. The maiden and the boy met and quickly discovered friendship, companionship, and romance. The positive qualities associated with cardinals, their distinctive appearance, and their wide distribution contributed to their instatement as the state bird of seven U.S. states and as the mascot and namesake of a number of sports teams.

The Northern cardinal is one of our many neighbors who call Stuyvesant Square Park their home. They frequent our bird baths and are regulars at our bird feeders. Their devotion to each other is reminiscent of the vision we have for the Stuyvesant Square community – coming together to care for one another, cultivate relationships, and help ensure our park is the best it can be for everyone. You can find more information about Northern cardinals here.

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Monkshood

Toxic and Protective

Monkshood, also known as aconitum, aconite, wolfsbane, and devil’s helmet, is a member of a genus of over 250 flowering plants in the Ranunculaceae family. These herbaceous perennial plants are native to the mountainous parts of North America, Europe, and Asia, and grow in mountain meadows in moisture retentive but well-drained soils. They prosper in full sun to partial shade in temperate climates and grow to two to four feet tall and one to two feet wide. The leaves of the plant are palmate, meaning they resemble hands with lobed “fingers” that often have toothed edges and vary in color from light to dark green. The two- to ten-petaled flowers come in shades of blue and purple. However, rare species of monkshood can have white, yellow, and even reddish pink flowers. The plants are not invasive and are moderately difficult to grow. Once planted, they do not take well to transplantation.

The name monkshood is derived from the helmet-shaped petal distinguishing each flower, which is called a galea, also deriving its name from a Roman helmet. The conical shape resembled the hoods worn by English monks. Other common names for monkshood, such as aconitum and wolfsbane, stem from the plants’ most popular trait: they are poisonous. The roots and tubers of monkshood are particularly toxic and contain aconitine and related alkaloids. When touched, numbness occurs. When ingested or absorbed into the skin, diarrhea, convulsions, ventricular arrhythmia, and other symptoms develop, eventually leading to death.

Monkshood galea

Monkshood galea

Monkshood galea

Poisons from the plant were used to coat weapons. The name aconitum derives from the Greek word for dart or javelin, the tips of which were poisoned with the substance. The Minaro in Ladakh used the poison on their arrows to hunt ibex, while the Ainu in Japan used it to hunt bears. In addition, the Aleuts of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands used the toxin on their harpoons to hunt whales. The Greek name lycoctonum, which translates literally to “wolfsbane,” refers to the practice of coating arrows with the poison to kill wolves. In Greek myth, wolfsbane originated from the toxic slobber of a three-headed dog named Cerberus, the fearsome canine guardian to the gates of Hell.

In addition to hunting, the poison was used for warfare, espionage, and protection, inspiring its inclusion in numerous facets of popular culture. For example, the 1931 film Dracula began the trend of associating wolfsbane with protection from vampires. It is only when Mina discards the wolfsbane from her room that Count Dracula is able to approach her. In the Harry Potter series, Remus Lupin, a tormented werewolf, drinks a potion of wolfsbane carefully concocted to control his transformations, inspired by the use of the plant in the Middle Ages to treat lycanthropy and deter wolves. In Game of Thrones, one of Tywin Lannister’s commanders is assassinated by a dart, identified as being coated with wolfsbane.

Despite the toxicity of monkshood, the plant still has medicinal properties. It can be used to reduce fever, as a topical anesthetic, and to treat neuralgia. However, the plant is no longer used for medicine because of the slim margin in determining the correct dosage. The risk of using too much outweighs potential benefit of the toxin.

A few monkshood plants can be found in Stuyvesant Square Park. They are best enjoyed from afar – even gardeners must use gloves when caring for them. Bees and butterflies, however, are immune to the toxins. Although spooky season is over, the plant will offer protection from any vampires and werewolves who may still be among us.

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Hawks

Our Winged Neighbors

Hawks are birds of prey in the Accipitridae (“to seize”) family, which consists of birds of varied sizes and behavior that all have strong, hooked bills. They are found throughout the world, because they easily adapt to multiple environments and climates. Overall, they prefer open spaces, such as grasslands and valleys, where they can easily see and swoop down to seize their prey. Because hawks are so widely spread out, they are opportunistic hunters, and will devour all sorts of small animals, such as mice, lizards, fish, and rabbits. Their excellent vision, which is eight times stronger than that of a human, and their keen instinct make them effective hunters. As adults, they have no natural predators, but the young and eggs can be eaten by owls, raccoons, foxes, and other animals.

Red-tailed hawks (shown in our park in the four images above) are the most commonly found hawks in North America, including New York City. They have rounded wings that span up to four feet across, yellow legs and feet, rich brown outer feathers, a beige underbelly, and a short reddish-brown tail from which they get their name. The females are generally 25% larger than the males, and they can live from 12 to 30 years. Red-tailed hawks have a symbiotic relationship with the City. They provide pest control, while buildings and bridges provide great nesting areas and high perches from which to spot prey. Although it may be tempting to approach these majestic birds, people are advised to admire them from afar and not feed them. Killing, capturing, trading, or transporting these birds are illegal, per the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The goal is to coexist without infringing on each other’s personal space, which is no small feat in New York City.

Totem Pole in Cape Mudge Village, c. 1919-1924, British Columbia, National Museum of the American Indian, NMAI-134_pht_001_P06408

Beginning in early Mark, red-tailed hawks mate through grand aerial courtship displays. The male repeatedly flies up high, then steeply plummets downward toward the female, offering and enticing her with prey, occasionally interlocking talons in mid-air and spiraling toward the ground before eventually pulling away. After the display, both hawks will perch, groom one another, and then mate. In early April, the female will lay one to five eggs. Both parents take turns incubating the eggs for 28 to 35 days until they are ready to hatch. They then care for the young for up to six weeks until they are ready to fly, hunt, and leave the nest. It is common for hawks to live in the same place year after year with the same partner.

Fragment of Temple Relief, 664-332 B.C.E., Egypt, Brooklyn Museum 37.1357E

Many cultures associate certain symbols and characteristics with hawks. Courage, perspicacity, and intelligence are all associated with these birds. A passage in the Book of Job describes their sophisticated migration and behavior as being ordained by God. Hawks are considered guardians and messengers in Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology, and in the traditions of native peoples in North and South America. Totem poles made by indigenous peoples may have a hawk perched at the top, symbolizing power and seeing situations from a higher perspective. Hawk feathers continue to be used in religious rituals and in regalia, and are included in the Eagle Feather Law, allowing only federally recognized tribes to obtain feathers and continue their customs.

Headdress, 1962, Made by the Rikbaktsa, Brazil, Penn Museum 89-1-16

Red-tailed hawks frequently stop over in our park. Next time you visit, look up. You might just find our feathered neighbor perched high on a branch, ready to swoop down on a moment’s notice.

You can learn more about hawks and other birds of prey in New York State by clicking here.

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Camellia: The “Winter’s Rose”

Camellias are a genus of flowering plants in the family Theaceae, also known as the “tea family.” The evergreen shrubs or large trees can grow up to 66 feet tall. Their flowers range in size, shape, and color, coming in whites, pinks, and reds with single or double rows of petals. Depending on the variety, camellias grow during the fall, winter, and/or spring. They flourish in colder temperatures in the shade and can withstand large volumes of water. The camellias in our park (pictured above) are called “Winter’s Rose.” They are a smaller, very hardy variety, and they bloom for four to six weeks in the fall.

The composition of camellias and their color are all thought to represent different aspects of love. The petals of the flower symbolize a person, while the calyx (green part that holds everything together) is thought to represent their partner. Unlike other flowers, the calyx of the camellia falls with the petals, symbolizing unity and undying love between lovers. Red camellias are associated with passion and desire, while white camellias are generally associated with innocent love. Pink camellias are associated with the desire to be with a loved one, and relate to long distance relationships and love that is just out of reach.

Sparrow and Snow-covered Camellia, ca. 1845, Japan The Met JP2535

Camellias and their meanings originate in East and South Asia. The first fossils of camellias were found in Japan and date to the Eocene Epoch, which occurred roughly 56 to 33 million years ago. They are called tsubaki in Japanese, cháhuā (tea flower) in Chinese, and dongbaek-kkot in Korean. Camellias appear as motifs throughout the regions’ histories, in paintings, on ceramics, textiles, and other objects (see at right and below). They are still traditionally used in celebrations of Chinese New Year and Korean wedding ceremonies because of their associations with love and good fortune. The plant can be processed into oil used for cooking and cosmetics, and is used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat various diseases, such as asthma and bacterial infections. Most popularly, the leaves of a particular species of white camellia are used to make tea, which spurred its popularity outside of Asia.

Before 1739, when the first live camellia arrived in Europe, people outside of Asia only knew of camellias through artistic depictions and verbal descriptions. For example, the English name camellia is derived from Jesuit botanist and missionary Georg Joseph Kamel, who worked in the Philippines and described a species of camellia. With the expansion of the tea trade in the 18th century, more varieties of camellias were increasingly imported by the British East India Company and began appearing in greenhouses and in beverages on the kitchen table.

As trade in camellias increased, the flower eventually reached the United States in 1797, when industrial pioneer Colonel John Stevens brought the flower as part of an effort to grow attractions within Elysian Fields in Hoboken, New Jersey. By 1807, the plant was widely found in greenhouses, and then was taken outdoors and planted in the American South. By 1959, it was named the state flower of Alabama, and it can still be found across the States. In fact, Alabama, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oregon, and Georgia each have a “Camellia City,” because of the wide presence of the plant.

Set of Five Camellia-Shaped Side Dishes with Camellia Patterns, 18th century, Japan The Met 2019.193.56a–e

Box with Camellias, 13th century, China The Met 2005.140a, b

The spread of camellias has caused them to hold significant cultural significance outside of Asia. White camellias became a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement in New Zealand and appear on the country’s ten-dollar note. Camellias represent a courtesan’s sexual availability in Alexandre Dumas’s The Lady of the Camellias, the protagonist of which inspired Coco Chanel to use a white camellia as the symbol of Chanel haute couture. The Knights of the White Camellia was an American terrorist organization with ties to the Ku Klux Klan that supported white supremacy and slavery in the 19th century. In contrast, the camellia was also a symbol of Brazil’s abolitionist movement, and it was common practice for abolitionists to plant camellias in a show of solidarity.

Because of their association with longing, the pink “Winter’s Rose” camellias in our park (at right) can be thought to poetically symbolize the distances we have created while in quarantine. We may long for our friends, family, and the nostalgia of pre-pandemic times. Yet, there is also a delicate beauty in our longing that will make the experience of finally being reunited so much sweeter.

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Rosemary: Memorable and Delectable

Rosemary is an herb with fragrant, evergreen needle-like leaves native to the Mediterranean. White, purple, blue, or pink flowers bloom on the plant in temperate climates, but it can sometimes also bloom unexpectedly in the dead of winter. Its name is derived from the Latin ros marinus, or “rose of the sea,” because it thrives at low altitudes, which are associated with the seaside. The plant is hardy; it can survive extended droughts and cold temperatures, and can live for about 30 years.

The first mention of rosemary was found on cuneiform tablets from the Ancient Near East in 5000 BCE. It was considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans and was extensively written about in ancient texts. The plant made its way to China in the third century, then Europe around the eighth century, and was eventually brought to the Americas by settlers and traders in the seventeenth century.

Throughout its history, rosemary was heavily associated with promoting memory and mental clarity. Ancient Egyptians placed rosemary in tombs and used them in bouquets of funeral flowers and embalming practices in order to remember the dead. Students in ancient Greece wore garlands of rosemary around their necks, or braided it into their hair to improve their memory during exams. Others would place it in their pillow the night before to enhance memory during sleep. Rosemary was also heavily used in weddings to help memorialize the occasion. It was incorporated in a bride’s adornments and added to the couple’s wine to help them remember their vows to each other. Quite famously, in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia says, “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance. Pray you, love, remember.” Today, rosemary is still used to promote mental health and memory, in addition to other medicinal uses, such as hair growth, muscle relief, and skin hydration. However, the scientific weight of these claims are still being analyzed.

Rosemary continues to have a plethora of uses. It is used for decoration because of its hardiness, bright flowers, and ability to be pruned into various shapes. It also repels pests, such as cockroaches, mosquitoes, slugs, and snails. But it is perhaps most widely used for consumption as a seasoning for meat, vegetables, fish, soup, salads and more. It has a slightly minty, sage-like, peppery taste with a bitter, woody aftertaste and adds character to meals.

Nestled in one corner of our park is an herb garden with rosemary, mint, thyme, and other plants. Although the section is small and to the side, it still remains “memorable.”

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