The beloved shade-giving Washington Square Park English elm tree (Ulmus procera), which provides cavities and foraging for birds, squirrels, and raccoons, among other wildlife. All photos by Georgia Silvera Seamans

This is the first in a series by Washington Square Park Eco Projects Director Georgia Silvera Seamans showcasing the stalwart and storied trees of Washington Square Park in Manhattan. A Washington Square Park Eco Projects map of the park’s trees can be found here.

The park is located on the unceded land of the Lenape people, specifically the Munsee language group. The author acknowledges this fact to honor the significance of this land to the Lenape and their ongoing relationship with Lenapehoking.

The ecological and cultural history of the park also includes, in reverse chronological order, a military parade ground, a cemetery, African farms, and a forest-marsh ecosystem.

The Washington Square Park English elm in late winter/early spring.

Georgia Silvera Seamans:

An urban park tree older than the park it grows in, the English elm (Quercus procera) in the northwest corner of NYC’s Washington Square Park is over 300 years old. (The park was designated in 1827 and formally designed in 1871.)

In the past, English elm were common in fields, hedgerows, and farmlands in Britain where they are native, but the species suffered tremendous losses from Dutch elm disease since the 1960s. The existence of such a tall (131.2 feet/40 m), big (67.2 inches/171 cm DBH), and old English elm in NYC is special indeed. There are three additional “great” English elms in the city.

I find elms a tricky group to identify, but a good field mark for English elm is to feel for rough hairs on the upper surface of the leaves. Another characteristic of the species is the notch at the apex of the fruit (samara). The single seed within the fruit is set just north of center. English elm trees flower and fruit before the leaves emerge. Each flower is inconspicuous but its red color is somewhat showy en masse. The bark’s ridges and furrows are an unassuming grey.

Author Georgia Silvera Seamans with the storied English elm in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park.

While the species hasn’t undergone a formal name change, researchers have shown Ulmus procera to be Ulmus minor var. vulgaris, a clone of the Roman-era field elm. The Dutch had the market on U. minor var. vulgaris and during the Enclosure Acts, the British planted these English elms to demarcate private property. Might it be that the English elm in Washington Square Park was planted to mark the boundaries of a land deed?

No records exist of the English elm’s planting in Washington Square Park, but the tree has been witness to many significant events in the park’s history, one of which I will share here.

Between 1787 and 1825, the City operated a burial ground for the poor, indigent victims of yellow fever epidemics. The potter’s field, as it was known, was on the eastern two-thirds of the current parkland. People were also executed by hanging on the potter’s field. The legend that the English elm was a hanging tree for traitors to the American Revolution, prisoners, and enslaved people is just that, a legend. There are no records that the elm was a hanging platform. I find the perpetuation of this myth problematic. It obscures a significant public execution that occurred in the park.

Rose Butler was born in November 1799, the year in which New York State established its gradual abolition law. Under this law, children born of enslaved mothers after July 4, 1799 would be freed after laboring for their owners for 25 years (28 years for males)! In 1818, Rose Butler’s owners, the Morrises, accused her of attempting to burn down their house. Her crime resulted in “light damage and no injuries.”

Butler was arrested on March 5, 1818. The lower courts ruled for death by hanging. Because no woman in the state had been hung previously, Butler’s case made it to the State Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the State upheld the ruling of the lower court. Rose Butler was hung on July 10, 1819. She was the last person to be executed by hanging in the State. On March 31, 1827, New York State abolished slavery but it was not until July 4, 1827 that enslaved people were emancipated.

Butler’s race and the nature of the crime played a significant role in her prosecution. She was an enslaved person, and both the country and the state of New York were not completely committed to abolition and emancipation. Furthermore, Black people have always been prosecuted more severely than White people. In addition, nineteenth-century New York City was a wooden city so fire could be devastating. Fire was so greatly feared that in 1808, New York State declared residential arson a capital crime.

Winged seeds of English elm.

Eco Projects monitors biodiversity in Washington Square Park, so we keep track of plant-animal interactions in the landscape. Birds and squirrels eat the elm fruit. The list of birds who forage in the English elm include American goldfinch, blue jay, house finch, red-tailed hawk, American redstart, northern parula, black-and-white warbler, downy woodpecker, northern flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, tufted titmouse, white-crowned sparrow, brown creeper, and white-breasted nuthatch. Squirrels regularly nest and shelter in the English elm’s hollows, but they are not the only ones. On November 13, 2019, I noticed a raccoon using one of the hollows!

English elm crown showing two codominant leaders that endure.   

English elms (winter hardy to Zone 5a) are known to be tolerant of air pollution, a wide range of soil pH and soil textures, some salt spray, and they can grow in sun or partial shade. The many virtues of the English elm would make it an excellent urban tree. However, because of their vulnerability to Dutch elm disease, they are not practical as new additions to the urban landscape. This makes the presence of the rare mature English elms, like the enormous specimen in Washington Square Park, that much more special. 🌳