Distinguishing Trees: A Scavenger Hunt for New Yorkers
September 12, 2012

Distinguishing Trees: A Scavenger Hunt for New Yorkers

We were running errands on our stretch of Broadway and took a detour down West 111th Street, heading east toward Amsterdam Avenue. We were in search of building 518, not so we could drop in on a friend or leave a note on the door, but so we could finally, definitively identify a Black Locust tree, or Robinia pseudoacacia. Fortunately our children, Riley and Halina, are game for such tree-focused side trips.

We switched over to the south side of the street to count down the even-numbered buildings, and then there it was: the very tree we were searching for, in all its green glory. It stood tall outside number 518—and up and down both sides of the street as well. Since finding and identifying the Black Locust, we now of course see it everywhere.

The Emerald City: Many Different Shades of Green

New York City is known to be an exceptionally leafy urban place, but outside of a visit to the New York Botanical Garden, the High Line, the Queens Botanical Garden, Kissena Park, and other places that identify the trees with little markers, until recently we rarely stopped to ponder trees or focus on the great variety of them that surrounds us.

Leslie Day’s excellent new book, Field Guide to the Street Trees of New York City, finally opened our eyes to the wonderful world of trees that envelops us, effectively turning the entire city into an arboretum.

You can use the book in several ways. The “Introduction” is an excellent overview of the history and current events surrounding street trees in New York City. From there, the first chapter, titled “Leafy Neighborhoods of the Five Boroughs,” explores the trees and the people that maintain them in distinct sections of each borough. From this chapter you gain a real appreciation for the individuals who help keep the city greener and healthier for us all. Each of the neighborhoods described in this chapter could be treated as an excursion unto itself.

Next are chapters on “Tree Terminology” (Pop quiz: What’s the difference between monoecious and dioecious trees?  How about staminate or pistillate?) and an “Illustrated Glossary” on the anatomy and arrangements of leaves, flowers, and twigs. In this latter chapter, the depth and beauty of Trudy Smoke’s style as an illustrator starts taking hold.

Let the Search Begin

The fourth and biggest chapter is simply titled, “Trees.”  It is broken down by tree types, and within categories such as Deciduous Conifers or Simple, Unlobed Deciduous Broadleaf Trees, Day and Smoke teach us about 50 different trees that we can find along our very streets. Initially we tried matching a given leaf to an illustration in the book, but standing on the street, flipping through pages, was impractical with two kids who are in need of more action. Also as novice leaf peepers, we couldn’t be completely confident that we were looking at a Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) or a White Ash (Fraxinus americana).

Going on a hunt for specific trees has the right mix of action, adventure, and for the most part, success that Riley and Halina, ages 9 and 6, enjoy. It’s a little like geocaching, without the GPS.

Here’s how it works: each of the 50 tree descriptions starts with a section titled “Where to See” that provides addresses in all five boroughs where that particular species can be found. Thus focused, on a recent spin through Hamilton Heights in northern Manhattan we found the Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) and White Mulberry (Morus alba) near St. Luke’s Episcopal Church at Convent Avenue and West 141st Street. We weren’t, however, able to find the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) outside 518 West 135th Street in the same neighborhood. Just west of this address, there was a tree stump that appeared to be recently sawed off. Perhaps that had been it? 

Tree Talk

After finding a specific tree that we’d searched for, it doesn’t take much for Riley and Halina to zero in on the other trees, vines, and flowers right around it, remarking on the huge size of some leaves, or the pinkness of particular flowers. It’s been a great way to appreciate the outdoors without even dipping into a park.

What trees are on your street, or along your everyday routes?


Leslie Day is also author of Field Guide to the Natural World of New York City, which is a must-have for understanding the biodiversity that teems within parks in all five boroughs. Both books are published by The Johns Hopkins University Press.


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Devise a local treasure hunt with a hand-made map, or practice your more formal map and compass or GPS skills.

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