Field Notes

Sweet Brook Bluebelt: Where Nature and Function Meet

ONE OF THE RECENTLY OPENED Bluebelts (2017), and the most impressive to me, is the Sweet Brook Bluebelt in Woodrow. Unlike the Bluebelt by the dam at Meisner, which has no trails around it (although the White Trail borders it), Sweet Brook Bluebelt is surrounded by a graveled, handicapped accessible trail, and has four separate entrances from surrounding streets. Where possible it seems that the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has attempted to make the Bluebelts not only functional, but accessible, and it has succeeded admirably here.

As far as I can tell (looking at historical Google Earth views) only two years ago it was mostly several ponds surrounded by an extent of bare, graded earth; but now it’s thickly grown up with a fine variety of native plants, both shrubs and wildflowers. Its catchment area is very large, comprising three connected detention and stilling ponds, each at a successively lower level, which eventually drains off toward the Raritan Bay. Unlike most of the other Bluebelts, these pools have rustic stone steps built in by which one can go down to pool level. These must comprise the largest Bluebelt basin on Staten Island.

The plant palate employed there is quite varied, especially the wildflowers. When I was there—three times within the past two weeks—most noticeable were bright yellow members of the composite group: Echinacea and Sunflowers, etc.; but among them I saw scattered blue Monkey flowers (in the blossoms of which some manage to descry the face of a chimpanzee, although I can’t see it myself), spikes of deep blue Great Lobelia and a lavender-colored favorite of butterflies and bees, Bee-balm—its common name most apropos. Going down the steps to the ponds brought me close to the water where I found what’s become a rarity in our ponds—Narrow-leaved Cattail. Past flowering now, the cattails were all topped with a sausage-like cluster of seeds, but none of these had as yet the ratty appearance that signal that they’ve become a winter home of Cattail moths. Scattered here and there below them were bright blue spikes of Pickerelweed. White and yellow summer flowers hadn’t abandoned the banks above. Here and there was Queen Anne’s Lace, or Wild Carrot, very few of which sported the tiny central blue floret that we often see, and lots of tatty Sweet White clover, a straggly plant that attracted numerous kinds of small pollinating bees. Here and there also groups of Joe-Pye Weed had reached the end of their blooming season. I expected to find stands of brilliant purple New York Ironweed, but didn’t see any. No doubt I had missed a lot of different flowers hidden in the profusion, and lots must have bloomed earlier in the season.

As in the other Bluebelts, the DEP no doubt seeded a great variety that will in time sort out to a lesser number of surviving plants, but plants ultimately more successful in that particular environment. While the process goes on, I think it will be interesting to see what continues to grow there, and what does not find it to be a habitable niche and fades away. The neighborhood is fast making use of this new amenity; in my three visits I saw people of all ages sauntering around the pools, a few with baby carriages, and several joggers. Notably there were small groups of teenagers. The only jarring notes were a few plastic bottles seen along the path and some floatable debris in the middle pool, I hope washed in by storm water. The annoying stuff in the middle of the pools will be difficult to reach and remove. The DEP has an Adopt-a-Bluebelt program, and although I do not know if some or all of Sweet Brook has been adopted, I suspect (and hope) that enterprising neighbors will band together to keep the site clean. Such an amenity certainly deserves care!

—Don Recklies, Fall 2018