Say hello to the Giant, the largest living thing in New York City
This week, I’m looking at the oldest things New York City has to offer, by borough. Today’s subject happens to be the very oldest living residents of the city, the trees of New York City. These would be those trees that have not been transplanted from elsewhere — that would give the botanical gardens of New York an unfair advantage — plants that have stood right where they were since the earliest days of Dutch and British occupancy — and in one case, even before then.
I was not able to find complete info for all five boroughs, and I will indicate where I could not come to a definitive answer. If you have any leads, please post them in the comments section.
I’m obviously no arborist, so the details below are based on the research of others. However maybe someday I’ll trek out to these various sites armed with a tape measure and an layman’s knowledge on how to evaluate tree age.
Hattie Carthan, Brooklyn’s tree saviour
It appears that the oldest tree in the borough — among, as Betty Smith well knows, the many, many trees that grow in Brooklyn — is undetermined. I read one assertion that the oldest tree was near Macdougal and Rockaway Ave in Bed-Stuy, but I’ve been to that corner and I don’t know which tree that could possibly be.
However, one of Brooklyn’s most famous trees is very nearby — a southern magnolia tree Magnolia Grandiflora, brought to Brooklyn from North Carolina in 1885 and located near 667 Lafayette St. It happens to be the only landmarked living tree in the city, thanks to community leader and nature lover Hattie Carthan, back in 1970.
Most likely, however, the candidate for oldest tree is living in Prospect Park, one of 30,000 trees in notably the last remaining natural forest in the borough. Formerly, the title holder was a 220-year old black oak; it was recently uprooted during a storm and tumbled into the ravine.
With the borough’s thousands of acres of park land, the real candidate for borough’s oldest may as yet be undiscovered. However, the leading candidate is currently a handsome white oak tree around the 18th hole of the Split Rock Golf Course in Pelham Bay Park. The oak is well ‘over 200 years old’ although its location by a golf course can’t be good for its health.
Hangin’ around with New York’s oldest and most legendary elm
One might naturally assume Manhattan’s oldest tree must be in Central Park. It’s a very manicured place though, and most of its older vegetation was transplanted here. However, the great London plane tree near the Reservoir (pictured below) is said possibly pre-date its construction in 1862.
There are two other candidates for oldest tree on the island. One is in Washington Heights, a 110-foot elm at 163rd Street and St. Nicholas. Known as the Dinosaur, it reportedly shaded George Washington as he surveyed his shifting fortunes during the Battle of Washington Heights.
The most renown candidate is, of course, the Hangman’s Elm, in Washington Square Park. At a reported 310 years old, this arboreal old man in the northwest corner of the park most likely never really saw any hangings as its legend indicates, but its certainly fun to morbidly gander at its branches.
The top two candidates for New York’s oldest tree have been the fascination of tree lovers since their discovery.
Below: The London plane tree near the Reservoir, most likely Central Park’s oldest tree (pic courtesy Central Park 2000)
The two oldest trees in New York happen to be tulip trees, a common tree of the region named for its flower-shaped leaves. The charming Clove Lakes Park, at Forest Avenue and Clove Road, takes its name from the Dutch word “kloven” or cleft. Its granddaddy entry into the tree race is known as the Clove Lakes Colossus is a monstrous 119 feet tall with a circumference of 21.4 feet.
It’s reported to be well over 300 years old, predating all but the most rudimentary European settlement here in Staten Island. It’s actually a thicker tree than the tulip which is New York’s oldest, but that’s due to more ideal growing conditions. Unlike many other ‘oldest tree’ candidates, Clove Lakes takes good care of its elders, easily located at the park’s north end near a paved path.
Say hello to the Queens Giant (pictured at top), the grandmother of all native New York City plants. Located along a secluded trail in Queens’ Alley Pond Park, this monster is also one of the city’s tallest trees at 133.8 feet — just 20 feet shorter than the Statue of Liberty.
It may be one of the few remaining living things from the era before Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor, with its age calculated at anywhere from 350 to 450 years old. This would make it one of New York’s truly extraordinary natural features. Interestingly, in the past, the city has taken a stance of ‘benign neglect‘ to the tree, arguing that it shouldn’t be better accessed in order to protect it.