An Arboreal Census of Central Park

Photographs by Nathan Harger

It’s been a tough twelve months for the trees of Central Park. Last August 18, a severe storm came sweeping off the Hudson and slammed into the north end of the park. In 30 minutes, more than 500 trees, roughly 2 percent of the park’s total, came down. Another thousand were damaged enough to need immediate attention. It was the most destruction Central Park had ever sustained, and the recovery will take many years.

Nor was that the only bad day of the year. Just a few weeks ago, a limb snapped off a tree next to the entrance to the Central Park Zoo, killing a 6-month-old child and severely injuring her mother. It was the third serious accident in eleven months.

Yet the trees of Central Park remain one of the city’s most alluring natural attractions, with a rich and compelling history. Implausibly enough, the Central Park Conservancy has counted every single tree over six inches in diameter, and horticulturists can download each one’s vital statistics by simply walking up to it with a GPS gadget. Every one of those 23,551 trees is, of course, worth a look. The 23 here are only the most notable.

A straight, handsome pin oak near 88th Street tops out at just about 110 feet. Pin oaks are found throughout the park (there are 1,917 of them) and may be distinguished in winter because their brown leaves can hang on until they’re pushed off by new growth in the spring.

Unlike many wooded areas in the Northeast, the park has relatively few evergreens. Though many were planted at the beginning of the park’s life, almost none survived. There is one major exception, though. Starting in 1971, an enthusiast and park supporter, the philanthropist Arthur Ross, started planting a grove of evergreens himself, near the Ramble. In those first years, they were repeatedly dug up and stolen for use as Christmas trees, but he persisted. Today, the four acres called the Arthur Ross Pinetum contain more than 425 evergreens. Among the biggest successes have been fast-growing Eastern white pines; today, 80-foot examples like this one handsomely frame a large clearing.

The biggest concentration of flowering trees in the park, more than 350 of them, is along the Cherry Tree Allées at the sides of the Reservoir. Having arrived as a gift from the government of Japan in 1912, they’re now reaching the end of their life cycle and are gradually being replaced.

London plane trees are everywhere in New York (including in the Parks Department’s logo), and this one, near 96th Street, is by far the largest London plane in the park. This is most likely because it’s next to the reservoir, with few close neighbors: It gets all the water it wants, and doesn’t have to share sun or other resources.

On August 26, 1986, Robert Chambers and Jennifer Levin left an East Side bar and, at around 5:30 a.m., ended up under this elm tree behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Chambers later said he and Levin had rough sex that got out of hand; Levin’s story was never told, because she was asphyxiated. The so-called Preppie Killer spent nearly fifteen years in prison for manslaughter, and was released in 2003. (Five years later he was convicted on drug charges, and he is now serving a nineteen-year sentence.)

Hands down, the spot to seek out is on the edge of a small clearing in the Ramble. A huge tupelo tree turns every possible hue from yellow to purple, and the result is almost iridescent. Visit between October 26 and 28 for peak color.

On October 12, 1860, the Prince of Wales”Queen Victoria’s son Albert, who later became King Edward VII”presided over the planting of a pair of trees on the northwest corner of the Mall. The English oak and American elm, meant to symbolize transatlantic unity, lived a good five or six decades. A nice array of elms, next to the Eagles and Prey bronze, stand nearby today.

In 2005, the Whitney Museum of American Art launched Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan Island, an eccentric project sketched out by the artist Robert Smithson before his death, in 1973. The piece”a barge covered in greenery, towed by a tugboat”included seven trees, including this petite European beech. After its week on the water, it ended up on the edge of the East Meadow, where it’s thriving.

Originally planted with all-American specimen trees like oaks and sycamores, this area has come to be dominated by weedy, self-seeding varieties, especially black cherry. They’ve turned the area into the densest woods in the southern half of the park, crowding out the dramatic shade trees and choking off undergrowth. The Ramble was once known as a spot for late-night male pickups; today, its biggest fans are bird-watchers, who say it’s one of the best birding sites in the Northeast, and have recorded more than 200 species.

Five of the six old trees that shaded a small playground at West 100th Street came down in last August’s storm, including the largest of the group”a 156-year-old turkey oak that rose right through the jungle gym. The Conservancy didn’t replace the oak directly, in part because a young tree would be pulled apart by children before it could get established. Instead, there’s a ring of saplings just outside the playground, and this new linden tree inside the fence but on the periphery, where it’s less likely to get shredded by toddlers.

That’s a judgment call, of course, but Sara Cedar Miller, the park’s historian and official photographer, says she and her colleagues have a nominee. This American elm, on the edge of the East Meadow, is probably one of the original Olmsted and Vaux plantings, and it has it all: shape, height, size, majesty, health. The open meadow allows parkgoers to step back and get a good look at it, too.

There are 171 species of trees in the park, but only one variety is represented by a single specimen. It’s called a Chinese toon, Toona sinensis, and you might mistake it for a locust or sephora at first glance, because it has similar compound leaves. (Those leaves have an oniony flavor and are sometimes eaten in China.) It’s next to the Seventh Avenue entry on Central Park South.

When that falling branch killed a baby next to the Central Park Zoo in June, it was not just a horrifying news story: It brought up the question of how attentively the park’s trees are maintained. According to a Daily News report, however, an arborist’s survey found no sign of decay in this honey locust, suggesting that the limb was healthy when it snapped. “An act of God” is how Mayor Bloomberg put it.

After an area near 103rd Street was stripped bare by the storm, Neil Calvanese, the Central Park Conservancy’s vice-president of operations and all-around tree guru, saw a chance to plant something he says he always wanted to try: a little grove of dawn redwoods, a.k.a. Metasequoia glyptostroboides. They’re beautiful trees, with delicate-looking needlelike leaves that have been seen in fossils that are about 50 million years old, and they can grow to 200 feet at maturity.

The American elm is an arboreal aristocrat: Big and brawny yet delicately shaped, it can live for 300 years and shows fantastic fall foliage. Elms were once everywhere in American cities, but decades of Dutch-elm disease have thinned their numbers, and Central Park holds one of the last great stands in urban America. The two best spots to see them are along Fifth Avenue and especially here on Literary Walk, where they arch over the promenade. The park’s arborists keep an extremely close eye on these trees: At the first symptoms of Dutch-elm (typically yellowing leaves), branches are amputated fifteen feet down into healthy wood, and root systems are cut off and quarantined with trenches.

A hybrid elm, well-established and healthy, near 70th Street. A little bronze plaque at its base reveals that it was planted in memory of Joyce Kilmer, the New Jersey poet best remembered for “Trees” (“I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree”).

Another gift from a British visitor is still around. It’s a small English oak nestled on a hillside in Strawberry Fields, planted in memory of John Lennon by Yoko Ono and the mayor of Liverpool, on what would have been his 58th birthday, in October 1998.

On April 22, 2004, two men spent an afternoon in this larch tree, allegedly having precariously balanced oral sex. The 32-year-old pre-op transsexual and his 17-year-old boyfriend said they were protesting familial disapproval of their relationship. At one point, the older man issued a demand for a soda; handed a can by a policeman, he threw it back, shouting “This is a Coke. I wanted Vanilla Diet Pepsi!” After about four hours of taunts from above and coaxing from below, the cops got the two men down, and sent them off for psych observation.

Norway maples are fine-looking on their own, but they are in fact pests. Their dense root systems crowd out everything else nearby, they suck up a lot of water, and they propagate quickly. Park managers have thinned out the Norway maples significantly”there are about half as many in the Ramble, where this one lives, as there were in 1982.

In the seventies, during the Dutch-elm pandemic, one Chinese elm near 72nd Street showed uncommon resistance. The philanthropist Arthur Ross funded a study, and that one tree has since been widely propagated, as the Ulmus parvifolia subspecies “A. Ross Central Park.” The original came down in an early-nineties storm, but two of its descendants can be spotted just south of West 79th Street.

As part of the post-storm recovery, 180 “canopy trees” (the big shade-creators, like oaks and chestnuts) were planted in the past year, along with a sprinkling of evergreens and smaller flowering trees like crab apples and holly. But they’re being strategically placed: For example, some of the Great Hill’s slope down to the Pool will be left open, to become a new recreation and picnic area with lovely views of the skyline over the treetops. (“I like to think of it this way: The park is getting bigger,” says the Conservancy’s president, Doug Blonsky.) The newest tree in the park is this shingle oak, planted in June a short walk down from the Great Hill, at West 100th Street.

A likely candidate for the park’s oldest tree, and one that certainly looks the part. This immense English elm, near the park’s entrance at the reservoir at 90th Street, appears in a photo from the twenties, where, says Calvanese, it “looks the same as it does now.” Its trunk is nearly seventeen feet around.

An Arboreal Census of Central Park