Recipes for Change: Trees of the Playground at Pier 25

The Fourth 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 Playground at Pier 25

The Tot Playground in Washington Square Park and Playground of the Americas are two examples of older playgrounds that seem only to host up to two species of shade trees. Still, newer playgrounds, such as the Playground at Pier 25, in TriBeca host three or more tree species.  The shade trees in the Pier 25 playground are honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos), dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), and goldenraintree (Koelreuteria paniculata).  All three species are listed on the NYC Parks approved street tree list (PDF).

The dawn redwood is a deciduous conifer meaning that it drops its needles in the fall.  There are only five genera of deciduous conifers Glyptostrobus, Larix, Metasequoia, Pseudolarix, and Taxodium.  Dawn redwood was first described in 1941, based on fossil data.  In 1944 or 1946 live specimens were found in China but, due to World War II, were not classified as a new species until 1948.  In that year, the Arnold Arboretum in Boston brought the first seeds (PDF) to the U.S.  Another deciduous conifer that is commonly planted in New York is the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  It “does well on city streets” and its wood is used to construct the water tanks seen on top of many New York apartment buildings (Day, 2011).  Our favorite dawn redwood is the 100-foot one growing in the Liz Christy Community Garden on Houston at Bowery; it also happens to be the tallest Dawn redwood in the borough!  Dawn redwoods can attain heights of 150 feet at maturity.  The species grows quickly – three feet per year after it is established, so the playground’s trees should be 100 feet in a generation.



Like the dawn redwood, the honeylocust is a fast-growing tree.  Its maximum height at maturity is 100 feet.  The species is one of the first to bloom in the spring, and Leslie Day describes the scent as “extremely fragrant.”  The flowers are also attractive to pollinators.  According to Harold Harrington’s How to Identify Plants, the fruit is a legume or “a dry one-celled, one-carpellate fruit splitting down two sides.” The pulp surrounding the seeds within the legume, or pod, is eaten by wildlife such as squirrels and starlings.  The pulp can be eaten by humans but Plotnik offers the following caution: “Not off city streets, perhaps, especially not after the green pod has gone mahogany brown.”  These unappetizing pods make great musical instruments – shake one and hear!  The pods are considered “litter” and seedless varieties were developed.  Similarly, the species was “declawed for the city” when a natural thornless hybrid was discovered (Plotnik, 2000).  Honeylocust is incredibly tolerant of urban conditions.  Its ability to “shake off heat, drought, air pollution, salt spray, and root drenching” accounts for its popularity as a street tree.  In the city’s 2005-2006 Street Tree Census, it was the fourth most common tree in the city and the most common species in Manhattan and the Bronx.

The goldenraintree is significantly shorter than the dawn redwood and the honeylocust at maturity.  Its maximum height is listed at 40 feet.  The species tolerates a range of growing conditions and thrives as a street tree.  It has showy fall flowers – said to be attractive to bees – and its fruit – a type of capsule – persists into the winter adding further seasonal interest.  Wind is an environmental factor when matching species to planting locations.  Interestingly, we have read conflicting accounts about the wind hardiness of the goldenraintree and are curious about its mortality on the pier.  Finally, in contrast to the honeylocust, the goldenraintree is a relatively “new” street tree, but its arrival in the U.S. can be traced back to 1809 (PDF) when aristocrat and botanist Madame de Tessé sent a shipment of seeds to Thomas Jefferson.

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