By Jay Watson
When outside exploring nature, many people are drawn to the animal kingdom. Animals have observable behaviors, not to mention a pair of eyes staring at you; the owl in a tree, the fawn in a clearing, the frog on a lily pad or the squirrel in the grass.
The plant kingdom, on the other hand, is a mysterious place holding many secrets. To many folks, plants are just part of the scenery, less interesting perhaps because they are less easily knowable.
A pair of Jareds – documentary filmmaker Jared Flesher and botanist Jared Rosenbaum – are hoping to inspire more love for New Jersey’s native plants through a new web series, “Rooted,” which recently launched on YouTube.
Each episode of “Rooted” tells the story of a different native New Jersey plant; where the plant is found, the habitat it calls home, how it can be identified and whether it has edible or medicinal value.
“It seemed like a good time to be telling stories about native plants,” said Flesher. “Without plants doing what they do, there would be no animals, including humans. If you pay attention, they are really interesting.”
Flesher, whose previous credits include “Pine Mud” and “The Critter Show,” is behind the camera.
Rosenbaum, the co-owner of native plants nursery Wild Ridge Plants in Pohatacong, is the on-screen plant expert.
The two first worked together during the filming of Flesher’s 2011 documentary “Sourlands,” about central New Jersey’s Sourland Mountains region.
The debut season of “Rooted” focuses on native plants of the Highlands region in northwestern New Jersey, a place of rolling mountains and dense deciduous forests.
The premiere episode features wild ginger – a plant unrelated to cultivated ginger roots found in supermarkets – and the presence of a single patch Rosenbaum discovered in a park whose name was not disclosed to prevent poaching.
Wild ginger has heart-shaped leaves and bell-shaped flowers that bloom in May. The flowers are purplish-brown in color and grow so close to the ground that a person would have to get down on their hands and knees to notice them.
Because the blossoms are on the ground, they attract forest ants, which crawl inside and pollinate the plant. Later in the season, ants eat the fruit that surrounds the seeds.
The wild ginger patch is an area that was covered by glaciers during the last ice age 11,000 years ago. During the time when slow-moving glaciers scraped the ground bare, wild ginger populations were pushed as far south as the Carolinas.
So how did wild ginger find its way back to New Jersey and repopulate as far north as Canada? And how did that lone patch of wild ginger end up in the middle of a 2,000-acre Highlands forest, atop a former marble quarry? Those are mysteries that fascinate Rosenbaum.
Plant populations migrate, but extremely slowly. Wild ginger migrates through seed dispersal, Rosenbaum explained, with forest ants as their primary vehicle. The ants carry the seeds away from the plant to eat their flesh, but rarely move them more than a meter (3.28 feet).
“How could a plant that is dispersed maybe a meter a year get here?” Rosenbaum asks on-camera. “We don’t really understand how ginger could have gotten here.”
Besides ants, two other theories are that wild ginger seeds could have gotten stuck in the hooves of migrating mammals, or they could have been carried northward by hurricanes.
Flesher offered a humorous off-camera suggestion: “Alien gardeners?”
Rosenbaum laughed. “Aliens are always a good explanation for everything.”
If the patch of wild ginger is an unlikely discovery in the midst of a 2,000-acre forest, Rosenbaum is an unlikely botanist and native plant expert.
“I grew up in New York City and was a city kid,” he says at the beginning of the episode. “I didn’t know the difference between a maple and an oak.”
He felt angry and critical of society and just wanted to play punk rock music.
But holding onto anger was not a solution.
“I needed something I could care about … so I could help be a healer,” Rosenbaum said. “I fell in love with plants.”
At age 30, he moved with his wife Rachel Mackow to the woods of northwestern New Jersey and they co-founded Wild Ridge Plants.
Rosenbaum has extensive experience in stewardship and monitoring of natural communities and is a certified ecological restoration practitioner.
He has written a children’s book, “The Puddle Garden,” and has a new book on edible and medicinal plants, “Wild Plant Culture,” coming out this fall.
Rosenbaum and Flesher are planning to release new episodes of the “Rooted” series each month through September.
July’s episode will feature bee balm, a plant that co-evolved with hummingbirds; and the August episode will feature another Highlands plant, black cohosh. They haven’t decided on the subject of September’s episode yet.
In the future, the pair hopes to film seasons of “Rooted” in other regions of New Jersey, including the Pine Barrens, the Delaware Bayshore and the Jersey shore.
This state of ours, the most densely developed state in the nation, is home to a remarkable array of species, some that are globally rare and a couple that are “endemic” to New Jersey, only known to grow here.
As “Rooted” shows, every plant has a story to tell; a story of New Jersey’s natural history.
To view the first episode of “Rooted”, go to the YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/watch?v=4FiYGSwOjiI&ab_channel=Rooted
The non-commercial series was funded by individual donors and supported by the New Jersey Conservation Foundation.
Jay Watson is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.