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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Central Park's Trees

Air Date: Week of

Throngs of people walk through Central Park each year barely noticing the thousands of trees which give it its natural flavor. Ken Chaya, with his colleague Ned Barnard, has spent the last two years counting and mapping 19,933 trees to publish ‘Central Park Entire: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map’. Host Bruce Gellerman learns about the landscape’s history, design and botanical value in a short stroll around the park. Photo: American Elm (www.cirrusimage.com)



GELLERMAN: It’s 7:30, Saturday morning. I woke up in the city that never sleep, and here, at the West 72nd street entrance to New York’s Central Park, dogs tug on leashes and joggers yawn and stretch, getting ready to run.


GELLERMAN: Take just a few steps into the park and the air quickly cools, and the city quiets. Nearby a dogwood tree and next to it a tall, lean man in khakis with a backpack and binoculars turned the wrong way around. He’s using them as a microscope to study a leaf.

CHAYA: My name is Ken Chaya, and I’m a New Yorker and I’m a graphic designer and an artist. I’m just a guy that really got interested in the Park and its wildlife and its plant life, and I’ve been walking around the park as a birder for 20 years and only in the last few years did I discover the world of trees.

GELLERMAN: And how! Ken Chaya and Ned Barnard spent the last two years surveying every square inch of Central Park’s 843 acres, counting and mapping virtually every single tree of significant size. The result: “Central Park Entire: The Definitive, Illustrated Folding Map.”

CHAYA: All 19, 933 trees on this map represent real trees in the park. It’s a work of many, many hours and miles walking through the park and identifying trees and placing them precisely where they occur.

GELLERMAN: So if I pull out your map…


GELLERMAN: I want you to find this tree.

CHAYA: Okay. We’re standing in Strawberry Fields. Strawberry Fields is this teardrop shape.

GELLERMAN: Right off 72nd street.

CHAYA: And there’s the Imagine Mosaic just across the path. And we’re here - and this is the American Elm we’re looking at, right here.

GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) That’s unbelievable - that you’ve mapped every single tree.

CHAYA: And American Elm has these lovely serpentine limbs that reach out and snake around.

GELLERMAN: It’s enormous!

CHAYA: Oh, yes it is. Here in Central Park you will find the largest stand of American Elms in the world, in the entire world, and that’s on the mall. There’s also the largest line of American Elms on 5th Avenue, just outside the park, and that runs for nearly two and a half miles, from 59th Street to 110th Street.

GELLERMAN: Which is the length of the park.

CHAYA: That’s correct.

GELLERMAN: Let’s take a walk.


CHAYA: People come here and think, this is what Manhattan really looked like before the city grew up and it’s not true. This area that we call Central Park was actually a desolate swamp.

GELLERMAN: Then in 1857, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead and his partner Calvert Vaux won a design competition. And over the next 16 years, they transformed the swamp into Central Park.

CHAYA: And what I discovered, as I began to walk through the park and learned how to identify trees and learned how to appreciate them, I began to see Olmstead’s vision. I began to see how he used trees the way an artist uses color and texture, and how he created walls, corners, curtains, all sorts of textures by his use and his masterful planning of trees.

GELLERMAN: This place that looks so natural is totally contrived. He designed every nook, cranny, rock, tree, blade of grass.

CHAYA: It’s the most natural-looking unnatural place, probably, on the planet.

GELLERMAN: I was reading about Olmstead, and he would play tricks - optical illusions - with foliage and trees. He would put dark trees in the foreground and then the light-colored trees in the background, and it would give the sense of depth.

CHAYA: Yes. Frederick Law Olmstead was an illusionist - he was also a brilliant mind who people said could think and see in terms of decades. So as little saplings were being put in, he could actually envision what they would look like 10 or 20, or even 30, years later. What he wanted to do there, I believe, was take people out of the congested, concrete, sea level city experience and give them an open, wide, pastoral experience here in Central Park.

Once this enormous masterpiece of American design and landscape opened, I think it taught the people of New York - and then the nation - that cities could be beautiful. They didn’t need to be all buildings and tenements, and you can have a nature experience in the middle of one of the most populous cities in the world.

GELLERMAN: Okay, so - let's keep walking.


CHAYA: Over in that grove over there is at least two trees that are one-of-a-kind in the entire park. There’s an unusual tree called a Frank Linea, the only one in the park. And just beyond it, if we were to take this walk around, there’s an olive tree, a Russian Olive - the only one in the park.

Frederick Law Olmsted (www.fredericklawolmsted.com)


CHAYA: Over here I want to show you something because this is a real rarity. If we walk over to this little rock outcrop - and actually right here, this is good - if we stare straight through, we’re looking at three very tall trees at the end of this meadow. These trees are known as Dawn Redwoods. Now the interesting thing about Dawn Redwoods is they were believed to be extinct until 1941 when a grove of them was discovered on a high mountaintop in China. So here we are - we're looking at something that history had written off with the dinosaurs and there’s three of them at the north end of Strawberry Fields.

GELLERMAN: I have a question for you. I’m not a tree guy - I'm going to guess that this is a sycamore.

CHAYA: You are half-right. This tree is a London Plane. It’s a hybrid between an American Sycamore and an Asian Sycamore. London Planes are hardy trees that tolerate drought, compacted soil, air pollution, people on cell phones, you name it - they're tough New York trees!

GELLERMAN: (Laughs.) If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere!

CHAYA: Absolutely. And Robert Moses, who was the park’s commissioner in the 1930s, planted almost all of the London Planes we’re seeing now in the park. This probably wouldn’t have been the choice of
Frederick Law Olmsted to plant that many, but this is the way the park has evolved from its earliest days to today.

GELLERMAN: This…I’m looking - you can almost not take a perspective here, a view, without seeing birds and birds and birds. Look at that.


CHAYA: Yes, we’re hearing robins, catbirds…I hear a red-eyed vireo right above us. The trees create this wonderful habitat for birds. I’ve been birding for two decades in Central Park - it is one of the world’s most famous places to bird. I’ve met people who have traveled here from Asia and Europe just to bird in Central Park. Forget about Broadway and Times Square - they come here for the birds. (Laughs.)

And one of the reasons we have so many birds in Central Park - well I can give you two very good ones. Central Park is located right on the Atlantic flyway, so it’s an important stop right on the migration route. But two, the variety of trees that we have here that produce food for birds in all seasons, whether you eat insects or you eat seeds or you eat fruit or you eat sap or you eat insect larvae that’s underneath the bark - there are trees here that provide all of that. It’s an abundance of food source for birds in all four seasons, particularly during the migration in the fall and spring.

GELLERMAN: It smells fantastic. It’s amazing - it's like being in a flower shop or something!

CHAYA: Well I’m so glad you mentioned that because we have wild roses here in front of us.

GELLERMAN: Oh is that - is that what that is?

CHAYA: Yes. We also have - and these are all plantings of course. We also have Linden Trees that are still in bloom that we’re getting some fragrance from. And when you realize that many of the flowers on the trees are only here for a short time - we have a very, very small window to enjoy the lovely colors and the aroma - and it only happens once a year. And maybe we have 10 days, or maybe 12 or 14 days. It makes me think deeper thoughts about time, and the environment, and decisions that I want to make about my life.


CHAYA: Well I could…I could decide to spend a good portion of my time in an office, and I’ve done that for 30 years. But what I’ve discovered in the last two years is this was my office. I was working in the park for two and a half years. There were times when I had to convince my wife over dinner table discussions that I was in the park all day, but, really, believe me - I was working!

And of course she and my son - Joan and Lucas - both would sometimes roll their eyes and say, ‘Well there goes Dad, talking about trees again and he’s been in the park all day again today.’ But now they’re seeing, with the map being out and orders coming in, and I’m grateful for that because I want to share my experience and what I’ve discovered and the appreciation I have for this wonderful place called Central park with other people.


GELLERMAN: Well Ken, thank you so much - that was great fun, I learned a lot, thank you.

CHAYA: Thank you, Bruce, it was my pleasure, and anytime you want to come back to Central Park and take a walk with me, just give me a call.



Visit Chaya and Barnard’s website

"New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area" - By Edward Sibley Barnard

Frederick Law Olmsted


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