Posted tagged ‘Riverside Park trees’

Eden on the Hudson

May 4, 2010

Yesterday, New York pulled summer heat and humidity out of seasonal storage, and transformed itself, as it does every summer, into a tropical city.

Upper Broadway sizzled.

Hot sounds

Hot colors.

Hot painted ponies.

Scorching hot ATM at Juanito's Barber Shop

In Riverside Park, workers plant new trees to cool the paths and hillsides.

Sweaty struggle with recalcitrant root ball

“Looks like a big job,” I say.

“Nah,” says the man. “Only fifteen trees.”

Oh, only fifteen.

Big baby tree throws itself to the ground

Back on Broadway, I find further proof, if proof were needed, that my city is a tropical paradise.

The Garden of Eden is in New York.

I may not live in the garden – they say Eden is guarded by an angel with a flaming sword – but I can shop there.

Later, a pigeon takes a break from parental duties at its nearby nest, and surveys the schoolyard,

where the blazing hot walls scream: “Save the animals” in bright blue paint.

Save the Animals

After sunset, a hawk flies home to its nest high on Saint John the Divine to tuck its three fuzzy babies in for the night.

Home for the night

(This post is part of My World Tuesday, a weekly blog compilation from around the world.)

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.

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