Trees are the botanical backbone of many urban parks. They create shade, add color, and offer habitats for other species to flourish – crucial functions in any city. In addition to being beautiful, urban trees ease the effects of air and noise pollution by absorbing toxic gases and catching airborne particles. On hot summer days here in Central Park, the shade they provide is noticeable with decreased temperatures that can be anywhere from five to twenty degrees cooler than midtown Manhattan.1
Hundreds of different tree species are represented in New York City. Home to about 20,000 of New York City’s trees, Central Park is an important stopover for migrating birds, thanks in part to its healthy tree canopy. Central Park Conservancy staff may not be able to control climate, diseases, or pests, but, as stewards of Central Park, we are able to create a healthy landscapes for desirable plants and beneficial insects to flourish. Planting the appropriate tree in the right space, giving special care to newly-established plants, and continually monitoring plantings are a few ways we create a sustainable urban landscape.
The Conservancy actively selects trees that do well in the urban landscape. Some that especially thrive in Central Park are the London plane and the black cherry. The London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) is popular in New York City, comprising 10% of the City’s street trees, and grows as high as 70 feet. A hybrid of the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) and American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), the London plane was first formed in 17th-century London. It was cultivated for urban conditions, and is tolerant of pollution, temperature extremes, drought and intermittent flood, and acid to alkaline soil.
The London plane is perhaps best known for its beautiful, decorative bark, which sheds as the tree grows and allows the tree to also shed pollutants that may have accumulated in that bark, thereby helping the tree avoid air pollution damage. Central Park’s hybrid London plane trees contract, and survive, the fungal disease anthracnose every year, but they are more resistant to it than the New York metropolitan area-native American sycamore.
Black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of the most popular trees in New York City and the most populous tree species in Central Park. It grows well, is a food source for wildlife, and displays attractive white flowers. It also tolerates a range of conditions, including woodlands and slopes.
Interestingly, the Conservancy has never planted black cherry trees in Central Park! It’s simply wonderful at propagating itself in urban areas like the Park. It has reproduced thanks to the spreading of seed by birds that eat the black cherry’s fruit. The tree is native to the northeastern United States, and is well-known for its hard, reddish-brown wood, often used for making furniture.
Urban trees are resilient and strong, just like City dwellers themselves! Both the London plane and the black cherry grow throughout the Park, but to see some especially beautiful specimens, head to the north side of the Reservoir and to Grand Army Plaza for London plane trees and to the Ramble and the North Woods for black cherry trees.
1 Margaret Mittelback and Michael Crewdson, Wild New York: A Guide to the Wildlife, Wild Places, and Natural Phenomena of New York City (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1997), 97.