‘Central Perk’

Those of you who remember the popular sitcom Friends, I’m sure remember the iconic coffee shop ‘Central Perk’. A play on words, this article has nothing to do about Gunther and the rest of the cast of Friends, and everything to do with Central Park and its many green inhabitants. One of the many words used to define the word “perk” is  “privileges”. Wednesday, July 27 of this year was one of those magical days that will stay with me forever! This was yet another installment of my friend, wingman and horticultural demigod John Stella and me on a most excellent adventure looking at trees. The call came to me just a few days before when John said “can you get away for the afternoon on Wednesday?” John and I do this sort of thing from time to time and, I don’t believe, we have ever turned the other one down.

Central Park is just one of John’s many clients! John sells large trees, in some cases huge trees, to many prominent arboretums, parks, landscape architects/designers, private residences and garden centers throughout the country. July 27th was a chance to see some of his “babies” installed and an opportunity to tour privately some of Central Park’s oldest and most grand trees as well as the surrounding architecture.

Central Park’s design was the collaborative effort of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. “The design of Central Park embodies Olmsted’s social consciousness and commitment to egalitarian ideals”(mprnews.org). Olmsted believed that the common green space of Central Park should be equally accessible to all citizens. And what about that green space…where did it come from? The Greensward project, a competitive entry plan submitted by Olmsted and Vaux for the now Central Park, was a parcel of land that was seen as undesirable. More than 700 acres, the land between Fifth and Eighth avenues and 59th and 106th streets, was acquired by the power of eminent domain. The project had irregular terrain and swamps and displaced some 1600 residents who lived in shanties.

Another notable individual, and there were many, who helped shape, design and maintain America’s first landscaped public park, in the United States, was Ignaz Pilat. An Austrian-born gardener, who migrated to the United States, helped work on the design and planting of Central Park. Ignaz Pilat’s accomplishments include studying botany at the University of Vienna and obtaining a position at the Imperial Botanical Gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna. Pilat has been credited for many of the plant choices seen throughout the park, a list so diverse it’s worth the Google search…trees of Central Park.

Our day was filled with so many of these magnificent plant choices and we have a few gentlemen to thank for the experience. Bob Rumsey, ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) Studio Director and Steven Bopp, ASLA, Senior Project Manager, are employees of the Central Park Conservancy. Gracious with their time, forthcoming with their work and responsibilities and all the while mindful of their surroundings, their combined efforts gave what John and I call a “Top 10 Day!”

We entered Central Park, passing hundreds of ‘Pokémon Go’ users who were caught up in their own form of ‘reality’, and immediately came upon “The Mall.” “The Mall” is an intense experience whereby magnanimous American elms, Ulmus americana, are planted in double rows, an allée formation, and their canopies provide shade on ‘Literary Walk.’ We discussed, briefly, these trees and the immediate concerns surrounding them. Compacted soils and Dutch elm disease are but a few of the concerns that the Central Park Conservancy team is always mindful of. This team’s passion for what they do has lead to strong decisions and treatments that are as thoughtful as they are progressive.

Wearing one of my Hall’s Garden Center & Florist t-shirts, Steve quickly noticed our insignia and asked, “You want to see some big Ginkgo trees?” One of the most well represented trees in Central Park, some 350, is Ginkgo biloba. My absolute favorite tree, Ginkgo has been around some 250 million years. Dinosaurs roamed under and around these giants and it’s no surprise this tree was picked, in regularity, given its tolerance and adaptability to virtually anything. The park does have its fair share of female Ginkgo, hence the fruit! An undesirable trait for many, as the fruit ripens, butyric acid is released, that which gives rancid butter its horrible smell. However, despite its vile smell, as the decay happens it exposes the hard inner seed. A popular delicacy among the Asian community, many roast or boil the fruit-like seed while herbalists tout the leaf’s extracts for improved circulation and memory.  This “olfactory infraction” (Central Park Trees and Landscapes) should not negate this trees other outstanding attributes. Superb disease and insect resistance, tolerance to difficult urban growing conditions and its unusual fan-shaped leaf that turns a brilliant gold in the fall, have always been enough for me. The largest Ginkgo in the park is a twin trunked monster whose diameter is nearly 5 feet!

Bob Rumsey felt some pressure recommending our next giant, as he seemed unsure if we would appreciate his find. An American hornbeam or “ironwood/musclewood”, Carpinus caroliniana, was of epic proportions tucked right off a pathway. This tree’s common name is penned for the trunk’s extraordinary resemblance to muscles. A caliper of nearly 24” and well north of 30 feet, you simply don’t see many this size. Complete with fruit clusters in tact this day, musclewood was among the first trees planted by Olmsted’s gardeners.

Another favorite of ours, seldom seen outside arboretums and botanical gardens, is Turkey Oak, Quercus cerris.  Another “rock solid” candidate for poor soils, urban settings and air pollution, like Ginkgo, is this handsome tree. For me, this oak is about as handsome as you get. Rounded lobe foliage, that looks crinkled or waffled to me at times, and cute acorns with the best description I have found to date: “long and turn a burnished deep brown and sport a bristly cap reminiscent of a hat from Dior’s New Look collection in the 1950’s” (www.centralparknyc.org). Touring in our EcoCar, near the southwestern corner of the Reservoir, we spotted many. Named for the country, native to Europe and Western Asia, this tree’s common name is not named after the bird.

The “biggest and baddest” tree of the day, for us, is the same that the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation uses as their logo, the leaf of the Great London Plane tree, Platanus x acerifolia. A hybrid between the native American sycamore and the non-native oriental plane tree, Central Park has more than 1,000 of these beauties. Perhaps its most striking feature is its bark. Thin, peeling, mottled bark flakes off with colors of gray, tan, white and olive. Long lived trees and another tolerant to a wide variety of environmental factors; the largest tree in central Park is a London Plane. John and I quickly asked if we could hug this monster on the northeastern corner of the Reservoir along the bridal path. Plane trees appreciate being well irrigated, thus it’s not surprising this tree is doing so well as the water table is close to the surface here.

The Greensward Plan of 1858 which Olmsted and Vaux wrote had “The Ramble” as being an “American garden.” Dedicated space for the likes of rhododendron, azaleas and spicebush, I was impressed with the voluminous presence of black cherry, Prunus serotina and Sassafras, Sassafras albidum. More than 3800 black cherry are in the park, at last count, and many of them we were admiring for their scaly trunks that look like potato chips. Birds have done an outstanding job dispersing the seed and as a result, not a single black cherry has been intentionally planted in nearly three decades. . My beloved Sassafras is also well represented around the park. Distinct three pattern leaves, deeply furrowed bark, egg-shaped black seeds on red stalks and their entrancingly small flowers in the spring are nothing compared to its brilliant fall color display. However, despite the initial vision of The Ramble, many exotic species from Europe and Asia have found their way in. One obnoxious curiosity that was diligently being plucked by gardeners this day was Japanese knotweed, Fallopia japonica. Again, good stewards of the landscape, this team of gardeners had its hands full, literally, as they were hacking away and removing this aggressive exotic. Japanese knotweed, deemed a noxious weed by many, has invaded many landscapes across the country. A significant threat to riparian areas and others, this plant quickly colonizes and forms dense thickets, bullying out many other plants. Broad oval leaves, and tiny greenish-white flowers may have been pretty to look at initially; this plant has proven to be a nightmare in many landscapes, including Central Park. Bravo to the team I saw removing what they could that day, that was tough work!

Olmsted’s idea to preserve areas of natural beauty for future public enjoyment is heard through his own words. “What artist so noble…as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty, in designing power, sketches the outlines, writes the colors, and directs the shadows of a picture so great that Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he arranged for her shall realize his intentions.”   Olmsted’s attempt to improve society is echoed in his work. His open spaces are seen as “places of harmony” where we can, even today, escape from the grind of our everyday lives to a more perfect place.

Aptly called  “the lungs of New York” (www.centralparknyc.org), Central park has a long history not only acting as a release and haven for the city, but to the point, the trees help to improve the quality of air and water; reduce storm water runoff, flooding and erosion; and lower the air temperature in the summer (www.centralparknyc.org). The Central Park Conservancy is the official management organization in charge and they take their job very seriously. After our tour we were introduced to another principal, Christopher J. Nolan, FASLA, Vice President for Planning Design and Construction. He along with our group sat down and talked about the industry, preservation and future projects and even a few of our own private endeavors, all done with broad paint strokes. Everyone we encountered this day, from the landscape architects to the gardeners in the field were affable and kind. The entire Central Park Conservancy team, we met, proved themselves good stewards to the park and all contributed to our “Top 10 Day!” John and I were both so appreciative of the day and the ‘perk’ we were afforded.