In this installment of a somewhat regular feature, NYSUFC Board Member, author, blogger and Taking Root editor Jean Zimmerman considers the fantastic plants of New York City’s urban forest.

Forests and New York City is not a pairing that would make sense to some people outside the Metropolitan Area. (We always say that, as though there is no other metropolitan area in the world). But majestic trees do exist among the concrete canyons of NY.

I’ve been fortunate to come up close to some of them.

Walt Whitman: Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me? In New York, there are plenty of inspiring Ginkgoes.

But also majestic oaks. I visited a grove in Central Park. Not just any oaks. These were uncommon oaks. There were mature Northern red oaks.

I also saw swamp white oaks and sawtooth oaks.

While you’ll find all three as street trees in New York, here they were massive, ancient, awe inspiring.

And so I go to the woods. As I go in under the trees, dependably, almost at once, and by nothing I do, things fall into place. I enter an order that does not exist outside, in the human spaces….I am less important than I thought. I rejoice in that. So said Wendell Berry.

Some folks on hand didn’t seem much impressed.

But I was definitely taking notice. Especially having recently visited the New-York Historical Society for an exhibit of early New York.

Of course there were many great artifacts, but a special treat was a fragment of oak log from an early Manhattan canal hundreds of years back. That’s how sturdy and strong and lasting oak is.

Just outside Central Park, a line of gargantuan elms strides down Fifth Avenue.

When the infamous elm blight decimated the canopies of urban areas’ Ulmus americana back in the early twentieth century, these elder stateswomen clearly did not take the hint. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger — so said Nietzsche, correct for once.

I recently attended a tree climbing workshop in North Carolina with my daughter Maud.

The old-old trees we climbed were extraordinary. White oaks all around.

And chestnut oaks. Luminous.

Back in New York, I rediscovered the fantastic trees all around. Still some cherries.

Some of the most fantastic specimens thrived far from the posh environs in and around Central Park. It’s linden season, when their magical bracts appear.

I came across a red oak in Queens when I was on a tree preservation job.

Nature thrives in Queens, it’s not just trees. I saw peppy petunias.

Delicate bleeding hearts worthy of any country estate.

Perfect peonies, their fragrance indescribable. Just try. Yes, in Queens.

On frenetic 20th Avenue in Whitestone, down the block from our bioswales trench and just around the corner from some sad, spent ash trees, I saw the Dr. Seuss specimens that are ubiquitous on Queens streets.

But then, this mammoth Northern red oak! Hard to do justice to this ladytree’s girth in a photo. Suffice it to say I could wrap my arms around her a couple of times.

She was kind enough to drop bouquets on the sidewalk and host a clutch of hostas in her lap.

While some stern stone eagles oversaw the scene.

Inspired by a wetter and warmer May courtesy of climate change, I knew I’d find nature thriving at the New York Botanical Garden, a Bronx oasis thronged by both native New Yorkers and tourists on this Memorial Day weekend.

The tone was set by a topiary White Rabbit, complete with pocket watch, part of a Garden-wide Alice in Wonderland display.

All around were clever signs. I overheard a woman say, “The Caterpillar always creeped me out.”

I wouldn’t say that about anything in Alice! What I was thinking about at NYBG was how great it would be to drink a magic potion and crawl into one of the abundant flowers in the ravishing Rose Garden.

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast, said the Queen. Hear, hear.

Hard to do justice to the array of blooms there.

They dazzled as they always do.

Funny, though, whether white, yellow, pink, red or purple, stick your nose in and they all smell the same. Phenomenal, but the same.  Flowers, I ask, must you be so boring?

One guy got into the springtime spirit with his slogan bag.

Just up from the Rose Garden, kids played with another Alice-themed attraction, a monochrome chessboard created by Yoko Ono that suggests the essential futility of ward. We’re all on the same side, after all. Gil tried to set the game up properly, when he wasn’t inciting Memorial Day riots with his George Orwell tee shirt.

We saw other seasonal stand-outs of the urban forest. A Kousa dogwood having its moment.

Some carved beeches I’d probably passed a million times before but never noticed.

There’s always something new to notice when you pay attention.
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver

We walked through the Thain Forest, a certifiable old-growth tract thick with sweetgums that gave me a few souvenirs to bring home (remember, though, take nothing but pictures!)

A tree with critter holes made me again want to shrink like Alice. Anyone home? Mind if I come in?

The trees of the city, the flowers of the city form a promise, an opportunity for optimism and hope in these sometimes dark, despondent time. If they can grow and thrive, if they survive, perhaps we can too. I dwell in possibility wrote Emily Dickinson, she who thought a good deal about nature.

You can’t take a whole forest home with you.

But when you pay attention, the vision of those trees and flowers will stay with you in your workaday life and make you happy, and help you remember your place in the world.

Even if you take nothing but pictures.

That’s my promise.