Posted tagged ‘NYC trees’

Look Up: Men in Trees!

March 8, 2012

What is this man looking at?

Men in trees, of course.

You never know what you’ll see on your morning dog walk in New York City.

Today, with the Hudson River as a backdrop, these guys were as good as a circus aerial act

or perhaps a troupe of nature-loving funambulists,

working with wires and spotters,

but without a net.

On this beautiful spring-like morning, it was like seeing tree spirits come to life

until they touched earth again

and were transformed back into humans.

You know, just, normal young guys with gear.

But don’t forget: these guys really do walk in trees.

Check back soon to find out what they’re doing up there.

The Curious Osage Orange Tree

November 6, 2011

On a recent walk through Morningside Park, Osage Oranges, also known as hedge apples and horse apples, littered the path below Morningside Avenue.

Osage Orange, aka Hedge Apple

Wondering whether the strange orbs provide a seed bonanza for squirrels and raccoons, I gazed up at the overhanging branches where plenty of the softball-sized fruits were still hanging on the branches. (For an Osage Orange fruit dissection, visit Birder’s Lounge.)

Osage Orange on the Tree

The Osage Orange is a curious tree. Native to eastern Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, its wood was used by the Osage Indians to craft superb hunting bows. French trappers who encountered the native population and their bows named the tree bois d’arc, literally meaning “wood of the bow.”  In the Protean, shape-shifting tradition of living languages, the bois d’arc eventually transformed into the Bodark tree.

“Growing up on the prairies of Oklahoma, one of the first trees I learned was the hedge apple or bow dock, as we ungrammatically called it,” wrote Gerald Klingaman, retired University of Arkansas Extension Horticulturist in a brief and lovely article on the Osage Orange. According to Klingaman and other sources, settlers in the Great Plains planted the fast-growing Osage Orange in hedge rows to create a living fence, a thick, thorny barrier that kept livestock in and unwanted varmints out. Barbed wire, invented in the 1870s, would eventually replace the Osage hedge rows, but the trees are used even today as fence posts. A stand of them is said to make a fine wind break.

My trusty field guide to New York City Trees asserts that the “state champion” Osage Orange is growing in someone’s yard out on Staten Island.  (That would be 342 Seguine Avenue, if you care to visit.)  I don’t know what it means to be a state champion tree. What qualifies a tree as a champion?  Is it size or conformation or age or health or connections in high places or … what?

Well, whatever it is, my obsessive research has to stop some time (sadly, I do have other things to attend to), and there are, after all, things in the world that I really don’t need to know. I’m pretty sure the meaning of being a tree champion falls into that category.  So, enough. We will now draw a veil around the New York state champion Osage Orange tree, and move on with our lives.

Until next time.

Mastodons in Manhattan: How the Honey Locust Tree Got Its Spikes

March 29, 2010

Walking south in Riverside Park, somewhere around 91st Street, the ground is littered with long brown  seed pods, some with visible bumps inside, like giant pea pods.

The tree trunks sport spikes, sharp and menacing.

“Aha,” I think, reaching for a nugget of knowledge given to me many years ago by my 5th grade best friend, Janet. “Carob trees. People make fake chocolate with the pods.”

Back at home with my trusty tree guide, I discover the tree is actually a honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos), a relative of the carob.  Both are members of the legume family, and the pods are indeed giant pea pods. The honey locust derives the “honey” in its name from the sweet taste of a gummy edible paste that surrounds the protein-packed peas inside the pods.  The pods are eaten by livestock, including horses, cattle and pigs, as well as squirrels, rabbits, deer and birds.

Now about those stegosaurus-like spikes. The spikes are an arboreal defense mechanism to keep herbivorous predators from browsing the tasty trees.

Fascinating to realize that herbivores, prey for carnivorous predators, are themselves  predators of plants. Since trees can’t run away or attack with tooth and claw, their defenses are stationary, usually involving tough bark, leathery leaves, a variety of sharp thorns and spikes, and even bad smells. Some acacia trees have evolved a symbiotic relationship with fierce stinging ants. The trees provide special food and shelter for the ants, which bite any animal that tries to browse the leaves and shoots.

Which way to the honey locusts?

The honey locust co-evolved with giant herbivores, its impressive spikes serving to protect it from the browsing mastodons and woolly mammoths that roamed North America, including  Manhattan, until somewhere between 6,000 and 11,000 years ago. The tree has not yet lost the adaptation, still sprouting spikes sharp and tough enough to puncture a truck tire. Or a mastodon tongue. They’ve been used as nails and blowgun darts, and Civil War soldiers used them to pin together torn garments.

The honey locust withstands pollution, drought and poor soil. According to New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area, the honey locust is the most common street tree in Manhattan. The trees in full leaf are said to provide a lovely dappled shade. I look forward to walking beneath one in midsummer.

For more on plants and evolution at Out Walking the Dog, read The Burry Man, The Burry Dog and Burdock. For a monthly round-up of up-to-the-minute evolutionary science blogs, check out The Carnival of Evolution.

Seed Pods and Eyeballs: Festival of the Trees #45

February 13, 2010

3/1/2010: The following post is part of Festival of the Trees #45, a blog carnival hosted this week by The Voltage Gate. Visit and enjoy!

I really don’t know trees. Luckily, a friend gave me a New York City tree book for Christmas, and I am starting to use it.

Now I can answer a reader’s recent question about the eyeballs of this fashion-forward snow being.

Sweetgum with identification tag

No, dear reader, the lovely creature’s eyes are not bottle caps, although bottle caps would make starry eyes.

These eyes are hard, spiky seed pods from a Sweetgum tree.

Sometimes called alligator trees for the scaly, reptilian-skin look of their bark, sweetgums (according to my trusty field guide) ooze a “sweet-smelling, balsamic liquid” that has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes and for chewing gum.

Sweetgum seed pods have been falling from the trees since fall. They’re all over the ground beneath the snow, and are still coming down.

It’s true they make fine-looking eyeballs, noses and buttons.

But their purpose, as far as the Sweetgum goes, is not to decorate snow people, but to release tiny seeds to the wind to grow into more Sweetgum trees. Each seed ball, while green and hanging on the tree, holds 40-60 seed capsules, and each capsule holds one or two seeds. When ripe, the seeds disperse, leaving behind holes in the seed pod, which you can make out in the blurry photo below.

Sweetgum pods have a lot of nicknames: gumballs, ankle biters, monkey balls, space bugs, ankle turners, and–my personal favorite–porcupine eggs.

They remind me of mysterious southern nuts and seedpods encountered while out walking the dog in Texas. In a stiff wind, heavy pods showered down around us like hail, while others scuttled after us along the sidewalk like misshapen bugs.

Blink-and-it’s-over Blizzard in Riverside Park

January 10, 2010

A thirty-minute blizzard swept through Riverside Park on Friday morning. Snow poured down on a cross-country skier

on new Parks Department signs letting us know it’s okay to ski here

on a baby evergreen tree

on the Hudson River

on an elderly Asian exerciser

on a soccer team, calling it quits

on a Mutt and Jeff couple: trash can and lamp post

on Esau, happy in the snow

Then, suddenly, the snow stopped.

Today, Sunday, ice floes hustle down the Hudson toward the harbor

The cold remains, but the snow is mostly gone

No skiing today.

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