I started to draw local landmarks soon after I moved from the west coast of Canada to a close-knit, rapidly gentrifying Caribbean neighborhood bordering Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Wracked with useless newcomer’s guilt and a terrible feeling of isolation, I put my pen to paper—as though the careful study and reproduction of the neighborhood could save it, or at least temper my influence on it. As though I could create a home through the sheer diligence of spending forty hours inking individual bricks.

About a year into the pandemic, as the sirens wailed through my devastated neighborhood, I moved to a small, lonely apartment right next to the park and became ill with a mysterious cluster of symptoms. Each day, I dragged myself outside to walk through the park, circling the same loop as my body spiraled into what would be diagnosed as permanent chronic illness. In this doubly strange context, both the world and me spinning into crisis, I turned my gaze to the trees.

I want to say that I was pulled to learn each species by name and to identify them by their leaves, buds, bark, and habits. I wasn’t. The trees in the park were too strange, too seasonal, and too architected; nothing like the impossibly dense, unfathomably green forests of cedar and hemlock where I grew up, where every inch of space is claimed by a living thing. The trees of Prospect Park didn’t create a home for me. I didn’t even experience them as place. They were more like neighbors, with their own private stories, their own reasons for ending up in an unlikely locale, and their own strategies of perseverance.

What I connected with most was simply what I saw as I drew: glorious configurations of light and dark, cluster and line, each one similar but completely itself. I didn’t need to know who they were to hear what I needed to hear from them—a simple invitation towards continuity. I’m grateful to the trees for that, and to arborist Michael Marino of the Prospect Park Alliance, whose contributions to this essay allowed me to finally meet my neighbors. —LT

London Plane (Platanus × acerifolia)
The hallmark of the New York City urban canopy, these trees are known for being resilient, drought tolerant, and dependable. Often overlooked, though, is the beauty of their camouflage-like exfoliating bark and impressive crown spreads. Today’s park boasts many gorgeous specimens, but none compare to the original allées planted during the park’s construction. —MM
Camperdown Elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’)
Certainly the most famous single tree in Prospect Park, the Camperdown elm was donated to the park in 1872. It’s a true veteran: it endured half a century of neglect prior to the founding of the Prospect Park Alliance in 1987, after which it was put on life support in the form of cabling and bracing. Now it is circled by a cast-iron fence. Last year, it dropped a dead limb, which was mostly being held up for aesthetics. We decided to leave the dead branch in place on the ground, putting natural history on display as the limb decomposed and recycled its nutrients back into the tree. The loss of the branch was significant for park-goers, who have an abiding love for this tree. For me, the beauty of the Camperdown elm is the gnarled, naturalistic look it maintains despite being a grafted cultivar. Looking at it, one thinks there must be gnomes or fairies living in it. So far, all we can verify is that stray cats sometimes curl up in its hollows.
Japanese Pagoda (Styphnolobium japonicum)
The Japanese pagoda is an easy tree to love, with its handsome habit and creamy white mid-summer flowers. The Alliance isn’t planting this species anymore, though, as our Landscape Management team is working very hard to promote our native ecosystems. While not officially invasive, the Japanese pagoda is a prolific seeder, and sprouts from this tree are noticed in our woodlands. Nevertheless, we do our best to preserve the existing specimens: after all, they are still gorgeous living things. The specific tree shown here is a good example of the conflicts we face with tree care in the park, both in terms of native/invasive dialogues, and in terms of public interaction with trees. The two sprawling branches on the bottom seem to beg people to climb on them, which is harmful for the tree. We have already lost one branch, and we will likely remove the other to support the tree’s overall health.
American Elm (Ulmus americana)
Prospect Park is lucky to have some behemoth specimens that have made it through the devastation of Dutch Elm Disease, including some mature elms measuring over 50″ diameter at breast height. The Alliance is doing what it can to support these trees, including watering, mulching, protecting from soil compaction, and removing flagging branches. We are also working with the City of New York and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to treat for Dutch Elm Disease.
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Those deeply purple flowers are a real highlight of early spring. Unfortunately, its multiple stems are irresistible to young climbers. The park gets ten million visits each year, and the tree can’t sustain ten million climbs, particularly as Cercis don’t live very long anyway: 50 to 70 years at best.
Willow Oak (Quercus phellos)
My favorite tree in the park is the staggering willow oak at the edge of our woodlands on the peninsula. Three people holding hands could barely reach around its trunk. Aside from this old monster, I like the species for several reasons. They usually occur further south, so they may prove resilient to our changing climate. Willow oaks also seem less affected by bacterial leaf scorch, which has cost us a number of trees in the red oak group. I also enjoy the novelty of an oak with leaves that don’t look like an oak—it’s fun to throw at somebody who is just beginning to identify trees.
Hawthorn (Crataegus viridis)
Along with dogwood and redbud, hawthorns round out a trifecta of native understory trees suitable as landscape specimens, with hard wood and lovely spring flowers. I also value them for their natural defense against human damage: their thorns, which are the reason I avoid planting them near playgrounds, or areas where day camps congregate.

Laura Thorne is an artist and art director currently living in Catskill, New York.

Michael Marino is an ISA-certified Arborist and serves as the Forester of the Prospect Park Alliance.

From “free” to “friend”…

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