The Tall History of Prospect Park’s Trees
Ever enjoyed the shade of a tree on a summer’s day in Prospect Park, or marveled at the beauty of the springtime cherry blossoms or colorful fall foliage?
Essential to the character of the Park, the trees that occupy these 585 acres were no accident and were part of the sweeping vision of the Park's landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted.
During the construction of Prospect Park, large trees with root balls weighing up to fifteen tons and measuring five feet in circumference were regularly transplanted from within the Park and beyond. Park engineer John Culyer designed horse-drawn “tree-moving machines” for the purpose. These wooden wagons had spoked, wooden wheels nearly as tall as a man.
Annual Report of the Brooklyn Park Commissioners, 1869.
The gardening foreman also developed a pruning ladder with extensions to reach the tallest trees. Those with vertigo need not apply.
Drawing of a ladder used during the construction of Prospect Park from the Annual Report of the Brookyn Park Commissioners, 1869.
As Prospect Park took shape, trees were a main focus of the designers and engineers.
New soil was added, dead trees were uprooted, and those that could be saved were pruned, with thousands of new trees sown and existing trees transplanted to soften the contrast between old woods and new.
In 1869, 43,292 trees and shrubs were planted in Prospect Park, and another 107,688 young trees and shrubs were being raised in the Park’s nursery.
Photo of the horse-drawn wagon designed by park engineer John Y. Culyer for transplanting large trees, 1867.
Behind the Prospect Park Boathouse, tree lovers can find an historic landmark: the Camperdown Elm. This rare, “weeping” elm defies all the usual laws of tree growth, its branches drooping almost all the way to the ground.
This unusual elm was produced in the early 19th century from the cutting of a tree with a genetic mutation from Dundee, Scotland. It lacked the gene for negative geotropism—quite literally, it didn’t know which way was up, causing the braches to grow in every which direction.
When it came to the Park in 1872, it was grafted onto a normal Scotch elm tree, which had the serendipitous effect of sparing it from Dutch elm disease. In the mid-1960s community activism saved the almost 100-year-old tree from fatal decay. Today, many of the branches have props and cables to secure it, and it remains in good health under the care of Prospect Park Alliance arborists.
Since its founding in 1987, Prospect Park Alliance has undertaken an extensive restoration of the Park’s natural areas, including the woodlands, which suffered from significant erosion and neglect. The Alliance's work to restore the Park’s woodlands over the past three decades represents a $15 million investment that has encompassed nearly 200 acres of woodlands and the planting and ongoing care of more than 500,000 trees, plants and shrubs.
The Alliance’s Landscape Management team includes ecologists who monitor the health of the Park’s woodland areas, and arborists who evaluate the trunks, limbs and root systems of more than 30,000 trees, which represent more than 200 species. The crew also removes invasive plants while introducing thousands of native shrubs, flowers and trees each year.
Love Prospect Park’s trees? Plant a new tree or adopt an existing tree in the Park with Prospect Park Alliance. Your gift helps replace lost trees and ensure the ecological health of the Park, which is home to 30,000 trees of more than 150 species. The Alliance will work with you on the selection of the tree and location. Learn More.