Magazine

Sprucing Up the Place: The Evergreen Trees of Central Park

Over the decades, and especially this year, Central Park has remained a consistent source of peace, renewal, and comfort to visitors and Conservancy staff alike. While the Park’s beauty is evergreen in nature, only some of its trees and shrubs are truly evergreen—keeping their leaves on year-round. This holiday season, get to know the science and history behind the plants that keep their hue throughout the winter, offering a dependable splash of color to New Yorkers when they need it most.

Thy leaves are so unchanging

Evergreen trees hold their leaves for longer than one growing season, maintaining their green color for most of the year. Deciduous trees, on the other hand, are trees that shed their leaves seasonally due to factors like temperature and climate. Of Central Park’s 18,000 trees, almost 1,000 are evergreens.

These spruces, hemlocks, pines, hollies, and cedars—to name a few—can be seen throughout the Park, especially in areas like the Arthur Ross Pinetum and Cedar Hill. While each is distinct from the next, evergreens are easy to spot in the winter months because of their dark green foliage and needles. Some of these trees, called conifers, are cone-bearing, which also helps with identification. These scaley, sticky cones protect and disperse the seeds that lead to future generations of trees.

Snow on the branches of a tree in the Pinetum

Unlike their deciduous counterparts, evergreen trees keep their needles for longer than one growing season. These trees can be identified by cones, berries, and needle clusters.

Talking scents

Beyond their aesthetics, evergreens are distinguished by their intoxicating scents. Perfume and detergent companies wisely capitalize on this, using the sweet, musty fragrances of pines, spruces, and cedars to sell their products. It turns out that phytoncides—the natural scents that trees emit to protect themselves from bacteria and insects—not only smell nice but can elicit happiness.

Florence Williams’s book The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative explains that these “nice tree smells,”—“the turpenes, pinenes, limonenes and other essential oils emitted by evergreens”—were shown in studies to reduce stress in those who breathed them. “It sounds totally hokey, even unbelievable, that evergreen scents […] could help us live longer,” she explains. And yet, the science proves it so. According to the Japanese Society of Forest Medicine, the practice of shinrinyoku, or forest therapy, provides “natural aromatherapy” to those who practice it.

A winter view of pine trees at the Pinetum

Central Park’s pine trees are a feast for the eyes and the nose. These evergreens emit phytoncides—the stress-relieving, intoxicating scent we often associate with the holiday season.

Resin for the season

These traits have helped evergreens become a focal point of holiday traditions. The ancient Druids revered the holly tree as a symbol of protection, citing its strong, prickly leaves and bright red berries as what kept the earth beautiful through the grueling winter months. Ancient Hebrew, Egyptian, Polish, Pagan, and Chinese cultures worshipped evergreens as symbols of eternal life and prosperity. These trees were especially important in celebrations of the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year.

Before evergreen coniferous trees were associated with the Christmas holiday, they were used in medieval era “mystery plays” to share the biblical story of Adam and Eve. In these productions, trees were hung upside down and decorated with apples to represent forbidden fruit. After the Protestant Reformation in Germany, however, evergreen trees became incorporated into a Christmas tradition that spread throughout Europe and eventually to the rest of the world.

The pointed leaves and bright, red berries are featured in this close-up of an American Holly tree.

The bright red fruit and prickly green leaves on the American Holly tree stand in welcome contrast to an otherwise bare, wintry sky in Central Park.

Pining for more

Central Park designers Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted were also big fans of these timeless trees. Their original plans for the Park included a “Winter Drive” of pines, spruces, and firs from 72nd to 102nd Street, but this whimsical vision was short-lived. By the late 1800s, when these evergreens needed to be replaced, planners used deciduous trees instead.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that philanthropist Arthur Ross set out to return pines to Central Park. “The man loved trees,” says Conservancy Historian Emerita Sara Cedar Miller. Ross funded the planting of his beloved Himalayan pines north of the Great Lawn—the four-acre area now named after the donor—simultaneously greening up the space and blocking the unsightly maintenance buildings on the 86th Street Transverse Road. Pines, after all, are great for privacy.

“I don’t know if Arthur Ross knew about Olmsted and Vaux’s intention for the Winter Drive,” explains Sara, “but their two visions coalesced to bring and keep evergreens in the Park, and the Conservancy has carried on that legacy.” Today, the Conservancy tree care team cares for 17 species of this universally celebrated evergreen at the Pinetum, including Ross’s original Himalayan pines that now stand 50- to 60-feet tall.

A rustic fence defines the view of the Pinetum under a blanket of snow.

On a snowy day in Central Park, Olmsted and Vaux’s vision for a “Winter Drive” is clear at the Arthur Ross Pinetum.

Opposite, alternate career paths

For two of the Conservancy’s arborists, budding careers on opposite ends of the world both led to Central Park. Becki Yanosko started her tree care training in Portland, Oregon, through a program called Oregon Tradeswomen. “When I started, I thought I was going to get into elevator repair work,” recalls Becki. “But one day, a woman who worked in tree care walked in the door and I said to myself, ‘I want to be her.’”

Jamie Lim felt similarly motivated by her surroundings. After graduating from college with a degree in biology, she worked as a forester for Singapore’s National Parks Board. “I was lucky to have coworkers who were incredibly passionate about the field. It all took off from there.”

Both Jamie and Becki enjoy working as arborists in the Park because of the wide range of trees—and ultimately, responsibilities—at their fingertips. With over 18,000 trees to care for, there is no shortage of learning opportunities. "In Singapore, which is a tropical country, we don’t have pines or spruces, and our firs are different,” Jamie says. “So when I came to Central Park, I was very eager to learn more.”

Arborist Jamie Lim, in tree-climbing harness, lowering herself to the ground

Central Park Conservancy arborist Jamie Lim got her start as an urban forester in Singapore. In the Park, her responsibilities include scaling trees for routine inspection and maintenance.

A new leaf

The Park’s evergreen trees serve as a reminder of nature’s steady splendor, even in the darkest, coldest months. As constant in their commitment as these trees are in their beauty, Conservancy staff are ready for the year ahead. “In all seasons, this Park is so scenic,” says Jamie. “It’s been amazing to work in such a beautiful place.”

This winter, and during all seasons, enjoy the sights (and smells!) of Central Park’s evergreen trees through a self-guided tour, and don’t forget to consult our Tree Guide for further practice with identification. Remember: keep an eye out for waxy green needles, prickly cones, and bright berries. If you’re visiting the Park online, enjoy our Weekly Walk series to learn about Cedar Hill and the Pinetum from one of our Conservancy guides, or treat yourself to a Central Park ornament to place on a tree of your own.

Holiday Lighting Ceremony 20191205 09443

A beloved winter tradition at Central Park’s Harlem Meer, this flotilla of evergreen trees welcomes the winter season. The use of trees in holiday celebrations is rooted in many ancient traditions from around the world.