Risky ‘locomotion’: Deadly weeds line bike path

A very large patch of potentially deadly Jimsonweed a.k.a. locoweed outside Chelsea Piers is reportedly flourishing and still there, according to Adrian Benepe. Photos by Adrian Benepe

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | It’s getting loco out there on the Hudson River Park bike path!

Not necessarily because cyclists are whizzing by too fast (though some are), but because potentially fatal locoweed — also known as Jimsonweed — and another toxic plant, black nightshade, have been flourishing in the untended planted areas bordering the bikeway.

Adrian Benepe, the former commissioner of the New York City Parks Department, is currently the director of city park development for the Trust for Public Land. He rides his bike along the greenway on weekends up to Inwood Hill Park or down to the Battery for exercise and to “watch how people use the parks.”

For several years now, he’s been upset about the lack of maintenance on both the Hudson River Park bike path’s border area and also on the planted median on Route 9A (the West Side Highway), which has seen both areas become filled with high weeds and trash.

So when he was recently biking home from the Greenmarket and noticed the potentially deadly weeds — in a large clump by the bikeway near Chelsea Piers — it was the last straw, and he tweeted about it.

It wasn’t Boy Scout training that allowed him to identify the locoweed, but his experience working the city’s parks.

“It comes with spending 27 years at the Parks Department and asking questions of smart experts,” he told The Villager. “It’s a very unusual-looking, quite distinctive plant. Once you see it, you don’t forget it!”

Jimsonweed — sporting oak-leaf-shaped leaves and trumpet-shaped white flowers with purple tips — sickens livestock. It’s sometimes used by humans for medicinal purposes and as a hallucinogen, but is potentially fatal in overdoses.

“If you eat it in the wrong amount or the wrong time of year, it could be deadly,” Benepe noted. “If you’re a shaman and you know how to use it [maybe it’s safe to use]… . [But] it’s a highly toxic plant growing in close proximity to a public park, in front of Chelsea Piers. Lots of kids go in there.”

Asked if he had alerted the recreational complex about it, he said, no.

“It’s not on their property and it’s not their responsibility,” he said.

Similarly, he said, the poisonous plant patches are neither under the purview of the Hudson River Park Trust nor the city’s Parks Department. Instead, according to Benepe, it should be the Department of Transportation — either the state or city agency — that tends the foliage both along the bike path and in the Route 9A median. It was the state D.O.T. that built both back in the late 1990s. Benepe said if the two agencies want to reach an agreement, state D.O.T. could possibly share the maintenance responsibility with city D.O.T., or give it all to city D.O.T., but that one of these two agencies must take control of the situation.

Former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe posing with some pretty but innocuous hibiscus flowers on the Hudson River greenway in Chelsea.

In fact, up until about five years ago, state D.O.T. used to give the Trust $1 million annually, which the Trust used to hire contractors to maintain the Route 9A medians and the medians between the greenway and highway. The loss of that funding is the main problem, Benepe said.

“The result is very high weeds that you can see throughout, including the Jimsonweed, as well as dead and dying trees and litter along Route 9A,” he said.

A call to state D.O.T. for comment was not returned by press time. A Trust spokesperson confirmed that funding state D.O.T. used to give the authority for the medians had been cut off.

“It is much more than just one plant,” Benepe subsequently reported after riding along the park bikeway again. “It’s actually about 100 square feet or more of many plants, all in the same area at 21st St. near the entrance to Pier 61, between the bike path and the roadway. I also found another large Jimsonweed plant at 48th St.”

Furthermore, after spotting the Jimsonweed, Benepe notified The Villager that he had spotted a variety of black nightshade next to the bike path.

“It’s all over the place,” he said. “It’s a very common tall-weed shrub. Its leaves and the immature berries — that is, the green ones that are all over now — are known to be toxic, and can be fatal to children.

“While it can be found all over along the greenway, its biggest shrubs — almost the height of normal adults — can be found along the construction fence adjacent to Pier55 and Pier57 [between W. 13th and 17th Sts.]”

This black nightshade growing along the bike path outside Pier 57 was recently cut down.

All of these plants are “self-seeded, due to lack of maintenance,” he said.

Benepe said he is sure about the Jimsonweed. To confirm that the other plants were indeed black nightshade, he sent his photos to a plant expert, who said he was correct, and that the sample, in fact, looked “extra-healthy.” Nightshade is typically found in “disturbed places,” the expert noted, so it makes sense it sprouted up around the park construction sites.

Over this past weekend, Benepe, after spinning by the spots again on his bike, reported to The Villager, “As of yesterday, all the Jimsonweed was still there in both locations. However, the largest grouping of black nightshade — in front of Pier 57 — has been cut down with all the other weeds there. There is still a lot of black nightshade along the greenway, however, including between 48th and 50th Sts.”