These Prospect Park Trees are Beautiful, but are they “Nature”?

Something like nature is springing up here in Brooklyn. You might see a Yuppie couple taking a walk on a break from their remote work and look at these Prospect Park trees and say something like, “Ah Nature!” And then remark how lucky they are to live in Park Slope.

And they are beautiful. The tree on the right, the Carolina Silverbell, a beautiful deciduous tree that bears white bell-shaped flowers in early spring, and the tree on the left, the Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) is a large deciduous shrub or small tree native to eastern North America, with pink, pea-like flowers that bloom in spring.

But they aren’t exactly nature!

Of course, Prospect Park is an artificial, human-made enclave; only 20% of the trees in the park are native to the area. The specific Carolina Silverbell shown above, for example, was planted as a commemorative tree by Patricia Ackerman in memory of James Ackerman.

But neither of these trees existed in nature, both are ornamental species cultivated by humans for their rather unnatural beauty. The Carolina Silverbell, for example, which attracts hummingbirds and bees, was introduced into the landscape fairly recently, in 1756, and has become a favorite of carpenters and craftsmen for its soft and fine wood, and of wealthy homeowners for the way it grows together, creating privacy. The Eastern Redbud is older; it was introduced into the landscape in 1641.

It may be that as many as 90% of the trees that currently cover planet Earth are original varieties, but many that are currently thought to be original may be cultivated breeds that are so old that their origin has been forgotten. Indeed, humans have been cultivating trees for ornamental purposes for a long time, dating back to ancient civilizations, as early as 2000 BCE. Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings from 1500 BC show evidence of ornamental horticulture and landscape design. The wealthy pharaohs of Amun had plenty of lands to grow all different kinds of ornamental plants. The Romans also had a passion for ornamental gardening, especially topiary, which is the art of shaping trees and shrubs into geometric or animal forms. They used native and introduced evergreen trees and shrubs for edging ornamental beds in courtyards near the houseThe ornamental gardener was called the “topiarius” back then. And certainly some of them escaped their gardens and became invasive species. For example, the beautiful Bradford/Callery pear tree, cultivated from a tree native to China and widely planted as a street plant and in suburban landscapes from the 1960s to the 1990s, escaped its confines, spread along roadways and into natural areas through reseeding, where the wild offspring of different cultivars interbred and produced thorny thickets that outcompeted native vegetation and reduced biodiversity across various American states.

So by all means enjoy them, but don’t imagine that the most beautiful trees in your local parks were created by God, or evolution (or whomever you worship). We humans have our fingerprints all over everything.

^^^

Content and photographs by Oblivioni. 

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