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Trees – For Beauty and Benefit

Trees in Central Park NYC

Trees in Central Park – an urban forest

Here in New England we can take trees for granted. Trees line our streets, our roads, and our highways. We do not have to work hard to find a woodland that invites us to stroll and enjoy a period of cool tranquility. The Japanese even have a word, Shinrin-yoku, or ‘forest bathing,’ for the practice of taking a walk in the woods for the health benefits it brings.

And yet, many of us are not familiar with the names of many trees, or the particular benefits any of them might give. When I lived in Heath I was surrounded by trees, but beyond being able to identify a maple, oak or beech tree, I was at a loss. Now that I live in town, and am thinking about what trees could be added to my street I have been paying attention to the specific forms of tree and leaf, and the benefits and needs of any particular tree species.

Central Park Trees and Lake

Central Park Woodland at edge of the Lake

Over the Thanksgiving holiday my husband and I visited friends in New York City. That Sunday in NY was sunny and breezy and the crowds that we joined in Olmstead’s Central Park were taking full advantage. People were strolling through this veritable forest and I am sure we were all gaining health benefits as we took pictures, took rides in horse drawn or bicycle cabs, or queued up for a rowboat to paddle around the tranquil lake. We did pay attention to the trees along the paths, many of which were helpfully labeled. I took particular note of an ancient beech tree with unique leaves.

There are other parks throughout the New York boroughs and it seems the essential element of any park is always a grove of trees. We can see that ourselves in the small Energy Park right in the center of town or the larger woodland of Highland Park.

On Monday, my brother and his wife took us for a tour of Princeton University where Beatrix Farrand created the landscaping plan beginning in 1912 and did not leave the job to others until 1934. It was a park-like aspect that she wanted to create because she said, “We all know that education is by no means a mere matter of books, and the aesthetic environment contributes as much to growth as facts assembled from a printed page.”

Trees at Princeton U.

Trees at Princeton University, a park-like effect

Farrand may have had a special soft spot for Princeton because it was there in January of 1913 that she met her husband, the distinguished visiting professor of history Max Farrand. I heard no stories of any romances she might have had until she met Farrand, but when Max’s sister-in-law heard rumors of a romance she took herself to the campus and watched the ‘bush woman’ directing her workers. Having made her observations she declared that “If that woman really wants Max, she’ll get him!” Readers, she married him before December was done.

Farrand was devoted to landscape gardening beginning in 1872 when she was only 20. She did study under the tutelage of Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum, and was the sole female among the founders of the American Society of Landscape Architects formed in 1899.

She might not have called herself a feminist, but when she was interviewed by a reporter from the New York Daily Tribune in 1900, her response to what must have been an obnoxious question about her work rates was “I have put myself through the same training and I look for the same rewards.”  We women are still fighting that particular battle, but Farrand was there before us.

Sycamore

Sycamore in front of my house

Over the course of her career Farrand designed more than 100 gardens including estate gardens like Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, which I visited earlier this year, as well as the White House, Yale University and many estate gardens in Maine. More locally, she designed the tree lined approach to The Mount which was built by her aunt, the novelist Edith Wharton, in 1901.

I will never plan a landscape or planting of trees on such a large scale, but on our urban plot of land I have new appreciation of the shade of a giant sycamore that was probably planted when the house was built around 1925. Later someone planted the deliciously fragrant Japanese lilac tree and I have the borrowed shade from my neighbor’s maple and oak trees. I have added two clumps of river birch and a small weeping cherry tree, and an assortment of native shrubs like viburnams because they please my eye, but I have been particularly mindful of their benefits to the insects and birds that come to my garden.

Now when I think about what beneficial trees could be added to our street I think about redbuds that bloom so beautifully in the spring, or a stately red maple, or maybe a hawthorn with its bright red berries in the fall.

When I drive by the beautiful new John Zon Community Center on Pleasant Street I wonder what trees will be planted there. Right now the Center grounds look austere. Like any building it needs trees and other plants to create a welcoming and comfortable presence. Will there be an oak that will support 500 species of insects and birds and provide shady grandeur? Will there be majestic tulip poplars? Will there be red maples?

Until spring I’ll be dreaming of the new kinds of trees that may come into my neighborhood and the pleasure they will bring

Between the Rows   December 9, 2017

4 comments to Trees – For Beauty and Benefit

  • How great to hear a story of a female landscape designer from a time when there were so very few! I love one of the descriptions I heard of New England by early European colonists – one wrote back to Europe talking about how there were so many trees that they were actually in their way! Trees are so lovely and such a boon to the environment. Enjoy picking some out for your own property!

  • Pat

    Indie – I am glad you mentioned the wonder and enthusiasm about the trees in the New World by the colonists. In fact, John Bartram, an early colonist himself became a tree and plant hunter, bring those plants back to his nursery gardens in Philadelphia. He is the first American botanist and devised a way of shipping seedling and seeds to England in good condition, working with a nurseryman there. The truth is that many of the great forests being planted on rich estates of the time were born in the colonies. check him out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Bartram

  • Thank you for this, Pat. I enjoyed the story of Beatrix Farrand and your description of some of your recent forest excursions. We take forests for granted in this part of the Midwest, too. This time of year I neglect my needs for forest bathing because of the uncomfortable cold. I need to move beyond that and get out for a hike or a snowshoe excursion. I’ll look forward to hearing about your new neighborhood trees next spring!

  • Pat

    Beth – Up in Heath we were surrounded by trees and it was easy to take them for granted. Now that we are in town, I am more aware of the trees on the streets – and in the parks. They don’t supply quite the same level of forest bathing, though.

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