The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

Sewer Berries

with 6 comments

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Another of the vast inadequacies that Our Lady of the Pentacle must endure is the vast ignorance of vegetable taxonomy exhibited by your humble narrator. Seldom can I distinguish common supermarket species from each other, bay from basil leaves for instance, let alone the multitude of indigenous and untamed forms which are routinely observed as they erupt from the cemented loam of this- your Newtown Pentacle.

One day, recently, my path brought me to Provost Street, a two lane artery which adjoins the Temple of Cloacina in storied Greenpoint.


The Praa’s and Volchertsen’s, together, with the Mesorole’s, Calyer’s, Provoost’s, and Bennet’s formed the core of settler farmer families that lived and flourished on the land consisting of Green Point. They and their ancestors would do so for almost 200 years. The fertile land provided enough to supply the needs of the families that toiled on the land, and an abundant excess to trade at nearby markets. Each family kept a large row boat on the river to transport their harvest to the markets downstream in the emerging cities of Williamsburg and Brooklyn, and across the river in New York. Thus, Green Point became a major agricultural center and breadbasket for the area. It’s grains, cereals, fruits, vegetables and livestock made it possible for others to take up other trades in the New World, and contributed to the overall success of the pioneer efforts of that era.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Fiercely industrial, the Whale Creek side of Greenpoint is remarkable for many things, but mention of the place often omits the tenacity of lifeforms which colonize and find an anchor here in the tiny ribbons of soil that form around depressions and cracks in the otherwise concrete veneer.

Ever wonder why this tributary of the Newtown Creek is known as “Whale Creek”?

Think Kingsland Avenue, from wikipedia

Ambrose Cornelius Kingsland (May 24, 1804 – October 13, 1878)[1] was a wealthy sperm oil merchant who served as mayor of New York from 1851 to 1853. In 1851 he initiated the legislation that eventually led to the building of Central Park.Kingsland’s home was at 114 Fifth Avenue (southwest corner at 17th Street), now the site of a Banana Republic store.In 1864, Kingsland purchased Hunter Island, now in Pelham Bay Park, Bronx for $127,501.00. He later purchased a sizeable country home north of the city along the Hudson River, in present day Sleepy Hollow, New York. His sale of this land to the early steam-engine automotive company, Stanley Steamer, helped pave the way for Sleepy Hollow’s awakening as a major automotive production hub for much of the 20th century. A waterfront park in the Westchester County suburb still bears Kingsland’s name, as does Kingsland Avenue in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, which he helped survey.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

These berries, growing around a utility pole, were unfamiliar to me. Perhaps they are a speciation of grape, thought your humble narrator, although they really resembled a blueberry more than anything else. The curious side of my nature was impressed by their implacable attempt at germination, however, and an attempt was made at photographing them despite a condition of high wind which caused them to whip about in the manner of some tentacled beast.

from wikipedia

Spermaceti (from Greek sperma, seed, and Latin cetus, whale) sometimes erroneously called parmaceti is a wax present in the head cavities of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Spermaceti is extracted from sperm oil by crystallisation at 6 °C, when treated by pressure and a chemical solution of caustic alkali. Spermaceti forms brilliant white crystals that are hard but oily to the touch, and are devoid of taste or smell, making it very useful as an ingredient in cosmetics, leatherworking, and lubricants. The substance was also used in making candles of a standard photometric value, in the dressing of fabrics, and as a pharmaceutical excipient, especially in cerates and ointments. Originally mistaken for the whales’ sperm (hence the name), spermaceti is created in the spermaceti organ inside the whale’s head and connected to its nasal passage, among other functions.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

They certainly clung to their stems in the manner of a grape, although color and hue suggested otherwise. Having a near total ignorance of wild plants however, I decided not to hazard a taste- which was probably wise given that the water table in this area is defined and nourished by that nearby extinction of hope known as the Newtown Creek.


To avoid potentially poisonous plants, stay away from any wild or unknown plants that have–

  • Milky or discolored sap.
  • Beans, bulbs, or seeds inside pods.
  • Bitter or soapy taste.
  • Spines, fine hairs, or thorns.
  • Dill, carrot, parsnip, or parsleylike foliage.
  • “Almond” scent in woody parts and leaves.
  • Grain heads with pink, purplish, or black spurs.
  • Three-leaved growth pattern.

Using the above criteria as eliminators when choosing plants for the Universal Edibility Test will cause you to avoid some edible plants. More important, these criteria will often help you avoid plants that are potentially toxic to eat or touch.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The small ring of dendritic structures on the underside of the fruit would most likely assist a botanist with identification, and some effort was made to achieve a clear shot of them.

Incidentally, this image actually contains a hint of that otherworldly “colour” which is oft mentioned in postings here, an otherworldly iridescence that seems like something “from out of space”.


The northeast area of Greenpoint, between North Henry Street, Norman Avenue, and Newtown Creek, has been heavily industrialized and the site of various petroleum industries for over 140 years. Oil refining operations date back to 1834 with the refining of whale oil. Petroleum refining operations began in approximately 1860, with kerosene the major product of interest, as naptha and gasoline were considered by-products of the refining process. By 1870 over 50 refineries were located along the banks of Newtown Creek and by 1892, the majority of the area refineries were purchased and consolidated into the Standard Oil Trust.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Can any of you, Lords and Ladies, identify these enigmatic Sewer Berries? If so, please contact a humble narrator here. I’m leaning toward Pokeweed.

from wikipedia

Since pioneer times, pokeweed has been used as a folk remedy to treat many ailments. It can be applied topically or taken internally. Topical treatments have been used for acne and other ailments. Internal treatments include tonsillitis, swollen glands and weight loss. Grated pokeroot was used by Native Americans as a poultice to treat inflammations and rashes of the breast. Independent researchers are investigating phytolacca’s use in treating AIDS and cancer patients. Especially to those who have not been properly trained in its use, pokeweed should be considered dangerous and possibly deadly.

Ingestion of poisonous parts of the plant may cause severe stomach cramping, nausea with persistent diarrhea and vomiting, sometimes bloody, slow and difficult breathing, weakness, spasms, hypertension, severe convulsions, and death. However, consuming fewer than 10 uncooked berries is generally harmless to adults. Several investigators have reported deaths in children following the ingestion of uncooked berries or pokeberry juice. Severe poisonings have been reported in adults who ingested mature pokeweed leaves and following the ingestion of tea brewed from one-half teaspoonful of powdered pokeroot.

Pokeweed berries yield a red ink or dye, which was once used by aboriginal Americans to decorate their horses. Many letters written home during the American Civil War were written in pokeberry ink; the writing in these surviving letters appears brown. The red juice has also been used to symbolize blood, as in the anti-slavery protest of Benjamin Lay. A rich brown dye can be made by soaking fabrics in fermenting berries in a hollowed-out pumpkin.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 20, 2010 at 1:17 am

6 Responses

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  1. Elderberry, me thinks.


    October 20, 2010 at 10:45 am

  2. […] vantaged from several hundred feet above the Newtown Creek and it’s little known tributary- Whale Creek, and high atop the digester eggs of the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment […]

  3. That’s pokeweed! Pokeberries are the fruit. The plant is poisonous with one exception. The very young plants coming up in the Spring, 6 inched tall or less, may be boiled 2-3 times and the water thrown out (total boiling time 15 min), then eaten. Was a traditional food in the South, and with Native Americans.

    Pokeberries stain and were used as a dye. The ink was used by Thomas Jefferson to write his original Declaration of Independence, and still survives today.

    Medicinal uses of pokeweed may include AIDS treatment.

  4. That’s pokeweed! Pokeberries are the fruit. The plant is poisonous with one exception. The very young plants coming up in the Spring, 6 inched tall or less, may be boiled 2-3 times and the water thrown out (total boiling time 15 min), then eaten. I say why bother ? Unless you are in a wilderness survival situation…


    September 22, 2011 at 10:38 am

  5. Thanks to my sister Melissa who knows everthing about plants, and is founder of Urban Oasis Project in Miami.


    September 22, 2011 at 10:41 am

  6. […] verdant, despite the environmental horror of it all, these “sewer berries” can be observed growing in Greenpoint. I would recommend against their consumption, of […]

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