Recipes for Change: The Trees of Tot Playground

The First 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: Tot Playground in Washington Square Park

Sitting on the southern benches in the Tot Playground in Washington Square Park, we are struck by the treehouse quality of the jungle gym in the sandbox. There are three jungle gyms in this playground, and the most popular is set in the sandbox surrounded by three towering London planetrees (Platanus × acerifolia). Sandpits were installed in the park in the 1930s and were converted to playgrounds between 1965 and 1970 (PDF).  Given the closeness of the trees to the play structure, we assume the trees preceded the jungle gym.  An existing conditions map from 1962 shows three trees in the area of what is now the sandpit in the Tot Playground

According to the Horticulture Department at UCONN, the optimal soil condition for Platanus × acerifolia has been described as “deep, moist, fertile” but the species is “very adaptable.” All signs support this. Although the playground was recently revamped, the planetrees do not appear affected by the construction; in fact, most, if not all, are thriving.  The historic and current eco-hydrology of the park might offer an explanation.

Minetta Brook (Creek) once flowed aboveground through the western section of Washington Square Park to the Hudson River.  If you dig in the sandpit – as many tots do – of the Tot Playground, you will find a brick layer about four feet down!  This infrastructure might be an old privy pit or water cistern of the old Potter’s Field Keeper’s house or part of “the 19th-century brick storm and sanitary sewer that traverses the park” (PDF).

Looking east in the Tot Playground, the foreground is dominated by red oaks (Quercus rubra) all of which are growing outside the playground.  Red oak is native to northeastern U.S. and, to further stoke the NY-NJ rivalry, red oak is the state tree of New Jersey but the state tree of New York is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum), which in a woodland setting would replace (or “succeed”) the red oak.  Like the London planetree, the red oak is urban hardy: tolerant of dry and acidic soil and polluted air (PDF).  The fuzzy growth on the tree in early spring is the male and female flowers.  The red oak is monoecious[EB1] ; that is, both male and female flowers are found on the same tree.  Red oaks reach fruit-bearing age at 20-25 years.  Last year, the area under the picnic tables in the eastern half of the playground was covered with acorns.

Last, but not least, especially at this time of year, are the crabapples (Malus) and cherries (Prunus) that abut the southern fence line of the playground.  Have you seen a “New York City Heritage Crabapple”? Here is an excerpt from “Painting with Crabapples,” (PDF) which describes the formal characteristics of a heritage crabapple:

One singular characteristic to almost all these “vintage” crabs is their shape–branched very low to the ground with multiple trunks or stems spreading gradually upward and outwards. This distinctive growth form is a result of the way trees are shaped and pruned when they are very young. By the time these trees are transplanted from the nurseries to park landscapes, their shape at maturity has already been determined. For some reason, however, local nurseries no longer practice this type of cultivation. Perhaps there was a drop in demand for this form after transplant. Today’s crabapple trees, like other tree species, are trained with a single stem with the first branches occurring at four or five feet from the ground, or higher. This bland “lollipop” form is a marked contrast to the dynamic and beautiful shape of a wide-limbed, low branching specimen.

The Tot Playground crabapples have not been designated as “New York City’s Heritage Crabapples”, but their exuberant flowering is worth seeing.  They are not “bland lollipops”!


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