PAST TIMES BY JOHN ASHTON
There once was a time when pieces of Pictou County swirled around the shores of New York City.
However, to tell the story we have to go back 112 years ago.
That year in 1902, the New York Botanical Gardens was experimenting with the underwater sea flora, trying to increase the plant life in and around the Pelham Bay area in Long Island Sound.
Organized in 1891, part of the N.Y. Botanical Garden’s mission is “to conduct basic and applied research on plants of the world with a goal of protecting and preserving them where they live in the wild.” Since its inception the Botanical Gardens has had a scientific staff to carry out these and many other experiments relating to study and preservation of plant life.
Each of the scientists had their specialties and on staff during the early 1900s were two scientists, Dr. William A. Cannon and Dr. Marshall Howe. Their areas of expertise were hybridization (combining different varieties of organisms to make a hybrid) and the study of algae or seaweed.
In the spring of 1902 the scientists “thought it would be interesting to see if a particular sea growth could grow in New York. This flora was called “fucus serratus” or serrated wrack. This seaweed is found on the shores in Norway, Scotland, Baltic and the tip of Southern Africa. But, this ocean plant was not very common in North America except for on the coast near Newburyport, Mass. and some area’s around Nova Scotia, including an abundance around Pictou. However in the 1850s this seaweed was wiped out in the Massachusetts area. Since that time period in the 1850s, calls have been issued by the N.Y. Botanical Gardens scientific staff to verify any “fucus serratus” growing anywhere in the United States, none had been reported.
Contact was made to Pictou’s *Dr. Charles B. Robinson and “a number of living fertile plants of fucus serratus, were collected with much care, not only the disk – like holdfast being preserved but in many cases a considerable portion of the rock to which it was attached. The plants were carefully packed with bog-mosses in a wooden box and although four days intervened between the shipment and Pictou, the material arrived in good condition”.
The N.Y. Botanical Garden scientists began the experiment immediately and on May 16 some of the plants were placed at four stations along the coast at “Pelham Bay and Hunter Island in Long Island Sound, between the districts of Bronx and Queens in the city of New York.”
The scientists kept a watch on their Pictou County guests, recording each time they visited their new homes. On June 3 they reported, “the plants are living and appear moderately healthy” and a report on Aug. 14 Dr. Howe commented “they are living comfortably and even if these plants do not live, it is considered reasonable to expect that their children will.”
Today, Hunter Island/Pelham Bay is the largest public park in New York City. It contains a marine zoo, geology and wildlife sanctuaries, memorial gardens, golf courses, beach, nature trails, sports facilities and home to protected wildlife, rare birds and perhaps a Pictou County family of fucus serratus.
*Pictou born Charles B. Robinson worked at the New York Botanical Gardens from 1903-1908 as a scientist. His story was published in the author’s first Past Times book in 2012 “Pictou’s Famous Botanist Dies On The Job.”
John Ashton of Bridgeville is a local historian and the province’s representative to the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.