Joe Charap, and Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery as Urban Arboretum

Joe Charap

New NYSUFC Board Member Joseph Charap is the Director of Horticulture and Curator for Green-Wood in Brooklyn. He’s also a new dad—his son Benjamin was born on September 3rd. Charap and his Green-Wood colleagues are transforming the historic landscape of this cemetery into an urban arboretum/public garden and expanding the ways people utilize its many resources.

Joe Charap:

I am a native New Yorker and I grew up in Lower Manhattan. After earning a BA and an MA in English Literature, I began working in a schizophrenia research lab. In my limited free-time, I assisted a professional gardener working in residential gardens around the city. It was during this time that I really began to connect with trees and other plants.

Through this work and other projects, it became clear to me that horticulture was my calling, but that I needed to get professional training. After a chance meeting with New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) Vice President Francisca Coelho in 2013, I applied to and was accepted into NYBG’s School of Professional Horticulture. During my second year of the program, I held an internship at Green-Wood, and upon graduating, I was hired as Curator of Plant Collections. In January of 2017, I was made Director of Horticulture at Green-Wood.

Green-Wood Cemetery was founded in 1838 as one of the earliest “rural cemeteries.” It’s an accredited Level II Arboretum, occupying 478 acres in Brooklyn. We believe we will achieve Level III Accreditation within the next five years, as we continue to diversify our tree and shrub collection. [Level III arboreta have at least 500 species of woody plants, employ a collections curator, have substantial educational programming, collaborate with other arboreta, publicize their collections, and actively participate in tree science and conservation.] 

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NYC Historic Landmark Green-Wood Chapel was built in 1911.

We have well over 7,000 trees and shrubs in our collection. Some of my personal favorites are our champion sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and state champion (and possible national champion) Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha). We have a great collection of American persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) and European beeches (Fagus sylvatica). We’re continually looking to enhance the diversity of our urban arboretum and, as we acquire more species, we will be able to share the story of these trees with our visitors.

Green-Wood’s landscape varies considerably; our location on the terminal moraine includes rolling hills which descend to flat land. We have the highest elevation point in Brooklyn. Most of our microclimates are Zones 7a or 7b, but some are warmer and others colder. Last year we did a planting of live oak (Quercus virginia) trees that we received from the National Arboretum. They survived their first winter here, which is both exciting (because mature live oaks are beautiful) and worrisome (because their success here reflects the reality of climate change).

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The dramatic Gothic revival northern entrance to Green-Wood was built in 1861-65.

Green-Wood has a well-established identity as an active cemetery and as a National Historic Landmark. As we continue to embrace our role as a cultural institution (Green-Wood hosts events, art exhibits, and tours for adults, students and other groups), one of our core identities is as a diverse and sustainable urban arboretum. In addition to managing the day-to-day operations and long-term planning of the horticulture department at Green-Wood, I also manage our collaborations with partners such as the DEC Department of Forest Health, the US Forest Service, Cornell University, and Brooklyn College, among others. The opportunities to create relationships with these supportive institutions and sustain positive changes within a unique public garden space embedded in New York City make my position very special. In many ways it is my dream job.

Green-Wood is a site for scientific research on arboriculture, urban vegetation, and soil science, among other topics. We also seek to interpret our natural features for the general public. Alive at Green-Wood is our soon-to-be-launched interpretive program that will explore the living features of the landscape and our role as an arboretum/public garden space. The interpretation will be offered via a mobile app, signage, and an updated paper map.

I reached out to DEC State Urban Forestry Coordinator Mary Kramarchyk when I first started working here. She and Urban Forestry Partnerships Coordinator Sally Kellogg have been incredibly helpful and supportive and have involved us in DEC initiatives. For instance, we’re working with the DEC Department of Forest Health on scouting initiatives for early detection of and response to insects and disease pests. Since confirming the presence of oak wilt in an infected veteran red oak in Green-Wood, I and members of the DEC and NYC Parks have organized a task force for the region to coordinate the monitoring of oaks in order to prevent further spread of the pathogen. We’re also doing insect rearing in barrels—a collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service. These initiatives deepen our understanding of the potential threats to our collection and to the urban forest at large.

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Data collection in winter. Photo by Art Presson

We’ve worked with Cornell University Professor Nina Bassuk on removing turf from steep slopes and replanting with ornamental woody groundcovers, and we’re in the process of developing a multi-year project with another Cornell luminary, Frank Rossi, on examining and managing the effects of climate change on turf in urban grasslands. Another key mentor, former Cornell Botanic Garden Director Don Rakow, has been instrumental in shaping our vision as an arboretum.

We’ve also worked to bring technology to the forefront of our management practices, and have developed a program with the Alliance for Public Gardens GIS and Blue Raster to manage both our trees and our monument assets. As an arboretum with world class sculpture and monuments, I work closely with Green-Wood Manager of Restoration and Preservation Neela Wickremesinghe on helping trees and monuments exist in harmony.

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Joe Charap (left) presented as part of a panel on “Urban Cemeteries as Public Gardens” with Mount Auburn’s Dave Barnett and Laurel Hill’s Pete Hoskins at the 2017 American Public Gardens Association Conference. Photo by Art Presson

I attended my first ReLeaf Conference this past July, in Queens. Green-Wood Project Manager Sara Evans gave a presentation on an app called Agents of Discovery, which is an augmented reality platform that seeks to engage children in the natural world. When the NYSUFC asked me to join the Board I was very pleased because I wanted to reciprocate the help that Mary and Sally have given to us. I also knew that we at Green-Wood could bring city public garden spaces into the conversation on urban forestry.

We were recently awarded a DEC Environmental Justice Grant, which is a collaboration with Trees New York in which we seek to connect with the community of Sunset Park. We’ve also applied for DEC cost-share grants to address two needs: maintenance or removal of trees on the perimeter of the Cemetery and the drafting of a tree management plan. The latter is very important to help us prepare for future storms; Green-Wood lost 300 trees to Superstorm Sandy. Granted, they were mostly Norway maples, but we continue to see repercussions among our oak trees and other high-value taxa. We’re continually seeking to use Green-Wood to teach about arboriculture and to use the tree collection as a learning resource for academic research and for the community to learn about the diversity of trees and how to maintain them in the face of climate change.

In my free time, I’m spending time with my family, gardening at home, and running.

 

 

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