In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman describes the experience of assessing trees in the Bronx for New York City’s Great Tree Search 2023.

There are many great trees in New York City.

Yes, true. But what about the Great Trees of New York City? This is the brainchild of New York City Parks Department, which is reviving a project that was last completed in the 1985 with the goal of identifying the most iconic trees in all the five boroughs. Ordinary citizens nominate exceptional trees, as many as they want, as defined by their historic, botanical and cultural significance.

Having been fortunate enough to get invited to be a judge for 2023’s Great Tree Search, I am excited to start off on my adventures as a judge. My assigned beat is the Bronx, a great place whose eclectic neighborhoods stretch all the way from the swellegant precincts of Riverdale to the famously underserved South Bronx. It’s also a place I’ve spent considerable time as a consultant on tree preservation for NYC.

This time I go some places I’ve never been before, and discover a fantastic meshing of arboriculture and history. I enlist Gil as a driver, because it’s hard to drive in New York City traffic and spot trees at the same time, even gigantic trees. We have a spreadsheet to guide us that cites peoples’ nominations as well as some of their comments about why a particular specimen is worthy of the distinction.

The first entry on our list is quite civilized. A ginkgo on a small street abutting Webster Avenue.

Ginkgo biloba dates back 270 million years and was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered by a German scientist in late 1600s Japan. A group of Chinese Buddhist monks made it their mission to save and cultivate the species.

It is one of the few trees useful for food foraging in this urban jungle. Yes, the fruits are slimy, smelly. But each one holds a nut at its core (actually a seed) that is sold in Korea, Japan and China as “silver apricot nut.” They are usually toasted prior to eating and used in desserts, soups and with meat. Each fall you’ll see many people in the City gathering this ample harvest. Clearly culturally loved and celebrated today by the local senior center and community board.”

Will I really have to choose among these trees? I’m already asking myself – and I’ve only seen one so far! But let’s continue.

We prowl along to little Perry Avenue in the Bronx and discover a gargantuan willow oak.

What on earth is it doing in this quiet backwater?

Among other things, towering over the houses with health-giving shade, creating a beautiful fall carpet of leaves, and offering shelter for squirrels with a major nest. Oh yes, and uncomplainingly eating carbon and pouring out oxygen for us slackers to breathe.

We find another tree on a peaceful little street, Thierot Avenue.

A silver maple. Now, these trees get a bad rap among urban foresters. They’re brittle, they rain down branches, yada yada. But look at this beauty. “It is the LARGEST TREE in the community,” reads the comment on the spreadsheet. “Could be a hundred years old.”

Huge (of course), three stems, fantastic shaggy bark, spreading her roots all over the place as is her right. And a perfect place for posing schoolkids. Who shout “Save the Trees!” over their shoulders as they scamper away.

We venture to Corona Park, home to several nominees, all of them amazing. First, a majestic American elm at the corner entrance.

A photo really cannot do her justice. You have to mosey underneath those sprawling branches, touch the bark. Gaze overhead at the sky through her crown.

Perhaps the most beautiful tree I’ve ever seen. (And I’ve seen a few, so maybe just the most beautiful of the day. So far.) Then we go elsewhere in the same park in quest of two hefty ashes that grow across a path from each other, seemingly competing for the Venus of New York prize. One is a marvel, yes. “This majestic Green Ash with a trunk size of 54″ is a gem and sits in the center of the pathway along passive lawn areas and rolling hills.”

To locate the tree I ask some folks hanging out with their kids in the nearby playground. They do not speak English, so their seven-year-old translates and they gesture down the way: “Big tree down there, take a turn to the right and you can’t miss it!” An understatement.

Even more impressive, the ash nearby. “Thickest tree in the Bronx, probably NYC too.”

Don’t you mind the fruiting bodies at the base, this one is clearly a survivor.

Wandering out of the park at as the dusk grows all around us I notice a planting that will ensure the health of this urban forest for the future, a baby beech.

Since we’re making these adventures at the end of the workday, we’re lucky enough to visit all these sites at the magic hour, just as the sun is getting ready to set. So we arrive at a spot we’ve heard about but never spent a lot of time, Pelham Bay Park.

We take our nightfall hike on a trail around Hunter Island, 166 acres of wilderness in the heart of the Bronx, right on the Long Island Sound. The person who nominated a post oak here wrote a lengthy treatise on the specimen’s history, saying, in part: “This grove of post oaks dates back to the 1760s. Post Oak is native but rare in NYC. This beautiful specimen is growing right out of bedrock that includes gneiss with stunning seams of quartz, and is right on the Sound. This tree projects the grit and resilience for which the city is renowned.”

Of course, that more than whets my appetite to find this spectacular tree. But it’s not easy.

Entering the park, we find massive white oaks and scarlet oaks. This is a mast year, and all around the ground is carpeted with acorns that crunch underfoot.

A trail takes us through groves of sweet birch.

I wade ankle deep across a mossy inlet, into the darkening woods under a rising full moon.

We see almost no one. It gets dimmer, dimmer.

Whither the post oak? It’s a member of the white oak family, and all these trees have interbred for so long that I think any of them could be the oak in question. Though I cannot find the exact leaf, with its lobes that remind some of a Maltese cross, there are plenty of similar leaves.

We’ll have to come back again, perhaps by the light of day.

To be continued…