A Seed Artist Germinates History

About 140 years ago, a botanist named Addison Brown noticed an unfamiliar red-tendriled plant growing around Red Hook, Brooklyn. Trade had lately picked up, he told readers of the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club in 1879, and as ships arrived, they dumped thousands of tons of ballast — earth and stones used to stabilize ships — that carried seeds from far-off lands: The red plant, among several new species growing along Gowanus Creek, was Amaranthus crispus, native to South America.

“Amaranth,” said Marisa Prefer, a gardener leading a group through the same neighborhood last week, picking up a stalk of the crumbly plant, which was spilling out from a crack in the sidewalk like a Medusa head. “These wild urban plants can survive in the craziest circumstances.”

This year, a few dozen New Yorkers have been learning about and growing plant species that were inadvertently brought to the city in ship ballast as part of “Seeds of Change,” an ongoing exploration of the phenomenon by the artist Maria Thereza Alves. Ms. Alves, whose exhibition on local ballast plants opens on Friday at the galleries of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School, is the most recent winner of the Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics. She has spent nearly two decades uncovering long-buried colonial histories using ballast seeds, which can lie dormant in the soil for hundreds of years, only to sprout in the right conditions.

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Marisa Prefer, the resident gardener at Pioneer Works, lifting the leaf of a stinging nettle. Photo

Lindsay Benedict, who teaches at the New School, holding a sprig of Virginia pepperweed. Photo

Lindsay Benedict wiping the hand of Simone, her 2-year-old daughter, as they repotted plants at Pioneer Works. Photo

New School students and faculty replanted seedlings grown in dorm rooms and offices on campus.

Born in Brazil, Ms. Alves has explored several European and British port cities, creating a floating garden using seeds native to Africa and North America found in the soil of Bristol, England; documenting exotic plants from Asia and elsewhere that turned up in people’s yards in Reposaari, Finland. “I liked the idea that these plants were witnesses to things we would never understand, to paths of trade that we no longer have information about,” said Ms. Alves, in a phone interview. “They are living there in our midst and saying ‘hi.’”

This is Ms. Alves’s first look at ballast seeds brought to the Americas. The exhibition, “Maria Thereza Alves, Seeds of Change: New York — A Botany of Colonization,” will include examples of local ballast flora, watercolor maps, and drawings and texts by the artist exploring two centuries of maritime trade, including the slave trade.

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