Recipes for Change: The Trees of Evelyn’s Playground

The Fifth and Final Installment of this Week’s #RecipesForChange Blog Series:
“The Trees of Five Playgrounds, from Union Square to TriBeCa”

Come back each day this week for more from this week’s guest blogger, Georgia Silvera Seamans at Local Ecologist!

About this blog series: E.F. Schumacher, the British economist famous for coining the phrase “Small is Beautiful” told us to plant a tree. But which one should we plant? ioby’s guest blog series this week from Local Ecologist gives you a quick introduction to the arboreal lives of Manhattan’s playgrounds and, in it, a guide to trees tough enough for city life. 

About Recipes for Change: ioby equips leaders across the country with the tools that they need to make changes in their neighborhoods. Recipes for Change is a new series from ioby, aimed at providing the resources and expertise that you need for your environmental project to succeed.

Got ideas for more #RecipesforChange? Give @ioby a shout!


Today’s Featured Playground: the Trees of Evelyn’s Playground, Union Square Park

There are a lot of trees in the Union Square Park playground!  And the species palette is diverse, too: dawn redwood, goldenraintree, Japanese cryptomeria (Cryptomeria japonica), Northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa), and saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangia).  We have already discussed the dawn redwood and goldenraintree so we will profile the other species here.

Of his choice of the Japanese cryptomeria (PDF) the landscape architect for Evelyn’s Playground, Matthew Urbanski, said that it would “provide a more complex layout for imaginative play….kids can imagine it’s a forest.”  Depending on the variety, the Japanese cryptomeria can reach 60 feet tall and 30 feet wide at maturity in a non-wild setting.  The species is not notable for fall color or showy flowers and its fruit does not have wildlife value, but its pyramidal shape and reddish-brown bark are regarded as “outstanding ornamental features.”  Matthew Urbanski is a principal at Michael van Valkenburgh Associates.  You can view fabulous photographs of the playground on the firm’s website.  The cryptomeria tree is the national tree of Japan where it is known as Sugi.  The trees line Cryptomeria Avenue, the approach to Hakone Shrine.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the trees were planted between 1628 and 1648 and “over 13,500 of its original 200,000 Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) trees survive” today.



The exuberant spring flowering of the saucer magnolia has passed.  The magnolias, along with goldenraintrees, provide a deep line of green along the eastern and southeastern edges of the playground.  The tree’s saucer-sized flowers appear on the tree before it leafs out.  The species in the Magnolia genus are pollinated by beetles!  Magnolias produce pollen but not nectar; the former is high in protein and a food source for beetles.  Three other commonly planted magnolias in the city are star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), Loebner magnolia (M. x loebneri), and southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).



The lower leaves on one of the Northern catalpas in the playground looked bedraggled on a hot early May day, though the species is known for its heat tolerance.  The species’ “abundant showy blossoms” appear in late spring.  The flowers look like orchids, and perhaps the tree should have been named orchidtree just as the tuliptree is named because its flowers resemble tulips.  The catalpa’s fruit is a long seedpod that resembles the string bean but is not a legume.  There are several features that distinguish the northern catalpa from the southern catalpa (C. bignonioides).  First is the leaf; the southern species has “a smaller, thicker leaf with a shorter point” (Plotnik, 2003).  Second is the flower; Plotnik notes that there are “considerably more blossoms on each panicle, with more lavender or purple coloring.”  Third is the seed; southern catalpa seeds are bearded and pointed, while the northern ones are rounded.  The fourth distinguishing characteristic is the smell of the leaf.  Crushing a leaf from a southern catalpa releases a strong odor.

The large heart-shaped leaves of the northern and southern catalpa are the only host plant for the catalpa sphinx moth caterpillar (Ceratomia catalpa). Luckily for the Northern tree, catalpa sphinx moth is most common in the southern portion of the tree’s range.  If you fish, you might want to visit this tree in early to mid-spring; the caterpillars are great fish bait!

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