Gowanus Lounge: Serving Brooklyn

Urban Environmentalist NYC: Drosera

June 11th, 2008 · No Comments

Here’s one of our weekly features from the Center for the Urban Environment (CUE). This week’s interiew is with Drosera owner Marielle Anzelone. CUE was introduced to her through the Sustainable Business Network NYC, which is a network of businesses dedicated to building a vibrant, diverse and responsible local living economy in New York City. For more information on SBNYC check out www.sbnnyc.org.

Q: Where are you from originally?

A: I was born and raised in New Jersey. I also received my undergraduate and graduate degrees from Rutgers University. I heart the Garden State!

Q: What lead you to botany and garden design?

A: My garden and landscape design business was born of the desire to bring nature to the public, like my Native Plant Display Garden in Union Square Park. I’m inspired by the beauty of the local – our regional plant communities. Consideration is given to ecological relationships, seasonality, textures, and winter interest. Native plant gardens are habitat havens for birds, bees, butterflies, they reflect our local natural heritage and they can be carefree and beautiful when thoughtfully designed.

Q: Yes, the relationship between flora and fauna is an important one, but something a lot of us lose sight of when planting our front and back yards—why do you think that is?

A: Because the sole focus of 99% of the books and magazines on landscape design is aesthetics, with no consideration given to ecological processes. This industry is tends to view vegetation as merely ornamental, like a lamppost. We can’t continue to create gardens and landscapes that don’t address the needs of the environment.

Q: Botany covers a wide range of scientific disciplines—its scope is quite startling. What’s your specialty?

A: I was drawn to the conservation aspects of botany. I specialize in surveys of local flora, urban ecology, and conservation of rare plant populations – so in other words I inventory and monitor plant populations and determine how to preserve them for future generations. People are always shocked to hear this, but New York City is home to nearly 40% of New York State’s rare plants. There is some cool flora in the five boroughs.

Q: The preservation of native plants is a growing trend nationally—even globally. From where you stand is New York City ahead or behind the curve?

A: Sadly, New York City is way behind. The West Coast is much more progressive.

Q: What can NYC do to catch up?

A: New York City should legislate the use of native plants in public landscapes – Westchester County is actually already doing this. And let’s make these landscapes thoughtful spaces – not merely engineering solutions to erosion issues which is how our highway roadsides are treated. Even in the city there are areas where sites rich with trees, ferns and wildflowers are bulldozed, built out, and replanted with exotic species – turf lawn and specimen trees. Instead of treating these plants as garbage, why not salvage them and incorporate them into the planting plan? Or better yet, why bulldoze the entire site when the entire site won’t be built? It should be required that ecologists work with engineers to find solutions to these issues.

Q: How did you choose the location of your business?

A: As a consultant, I work from home, which is Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Q: What do you like best about your neighborhood and /or customer base?

A: New York City is a great location to play with people’s ideas of what nature is. Most think that it’s far away, in pristine wilderness, yet there is valid nature in NYC! I introduced this idea through the first New York City Wildflower Week, which was May 3-10, 2008.

Q: Yes, here at the Center for the Urban Environment we have long understood the rich connection between the built and natural environment in New York City. What are some of the greatest misconceptions about nature that you help untangle in the course of a business day?

A: That nature is here at all. And the importance of incorporating indigenous wildflowers, ferns, grasses and shrubs into our landscapes. People understand the concept of wild animals, but wild plants is harder. There is a phenomenon called “plant blindness” where people see their foliar neighbors as a green backdrop – that is don’t really see these plants at all.

Q: If you got together with other small business owners in your community—what would the hot topics be?

A: There is already a culture of collaboration and exchange of ideas in the “green” community. This has created a growing spirit of mutual support among small businesses that are working on ways to be profitable while promoting the environment. Meanwhile, more large companies are looking to use their resources to achieve many of the same goals on a larger scale. So I think the “hot topic” would be how to stay adaptable as a small business in order to set green standards and dictate how it will all play out.

Q: Does this spirit of collaboration work across scale, so to speak, among small and large businesses in the “green” community?

A: I think it does, as long as you can find a willing partner. They can be hard to find.

Q: What are the salient challenges that face your business?

A: Definitely educating the public about why native plants are so important, because they are the building blocks of our biological diversity. For example, most of our bird species feed their young exclusively insects. And overwhelmingly, these bugs are supported by the tender leaves of native plants. While white oak supports scores of caterpillars (tasty treats for fledglings), the lilac supports less than ten. A native plant garden is thus an important ecological oasis.

Q: What are its greatest rewards?

A: Getting people excited about native plants, especially children. Exposure to nature is critical to our emotional and intellectual health, but as urban citizens, our culture is very disconnected. Native plant gardens are one way to plug into our collective biophilia.

Q: Biophilia is a great word. You speak of it as almost innate—do you think “love of nature” is there to tap into across time and culture, or is it shaped by the hard work and educational efforts of botanists like yourself?

A: E. O. Wilson, who coined the word, defined it as innate. Humans evolved not in kitchens and office cubbies but outside in the natural world. These days, as we spend more time indoors, I think it’s harder to feel that connection to nature – which is why education is so important.

Q: If you could pass a law tomorrow that would help small businesses locally, what would it look like?

A: Tax breaks to empower local culture – small businesses help define the reason you live in a particular place. I remember NYC before Starbucks. What has happened to our café culture since then? New York City should celebrate local business, local culture, local heritage, and local nature!

Q: Well, I can’t let you go before asking you my own garden question. What is a good native plant that attracts birds but is not a tree or a bush. It is not a trick question, just the perennial urban gardener’s challenge with the confines of space…

A: In spring, most birds feed their young insects, so planting most any native perennial would lure them in. Later in the season, birds eat fruits and seeds. Here is one example of small plants for a sunny windowbox (other plant ideas are listed on my website www.drosera-x.com):

Eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipedula), Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa), Smooth blue aster (Aster laevis). The last one also attracts nectaring butterflies and native bee pollinators – when creating a native plant garden, it’s easy to provide for the different wildlife we have in New York City!

(Interview conducted by Rebeccah Welch, Associate Director of Public Affairs at the Center for the Urban Environment. As an educational guide to a greener New York City, the Center is dedicated to educating individuals about the built and natural environments. For more about our work visit www.bcue.org.)

Tags: CUE · Urban Environmentalist