Big Brooklyn Tree

A recent post by my fellow naturalist co-conspirator Melissa at Out Walking the Dog mentioned “state champion trees.” I was curious to find out more about these. To be on NY state’s Big Tree Register, trees are awarded points based on their height in feet plus trunk circumference in inches plus 1/4th of average crown spread in feet — is there an app for this size-queen calculation yet?New York City also has a listing of Great Trees, determined not only by size but also by species, age, and historical significance. The listing, which I could not find on-line, was last updated in 2000 and celebrated with a book written and photographed by Benjamin Swett. Edward Sibley Barnard’s New York City Trees field guide has the list, for you old-fashioned book people (of which I count myself). Most of Brooklyn’s are, unsurprisingly, in institutional settings, in the Botanic Garden and Prospect Park. But of course, there are many other notable trees in the neighborhoods.

Which brings me to this backyard beauty. The enclosed congeries of backyards made by our grid-pattern blocks often hide natural history wonders from the street. Here, in the middle of Washington, Gates, Fulton and Waverly in Clinton Hill, a mighty tree grows. It is, I think from a binocular-reduced distance, a Chestnut Oak, Quercus montana. Caveat: Chestnut Oak is similar to Swamp White Oak, Q. bicolor, and Basket Oak, Q. michauxii, although I’m guessing the terrain here is not very bottomlandy, favored by both Swamp White and Basket, and more like the upland/dry woods favored by Chestnut oaks; an additional thought is that oaks, once thought to be very hybridize-able, are now believed to just have many individual variants within species.

Whatever it is, it seems somewhat improbable for a Brooklyn backyard, where freelance Ailanthus, Norway Maple, Pin Oak, and Paulownia are more likely to be found, along with ornamentals (magnolias, dogwoods, various pines, etc.) planted by proud home owners and fruit trees planted by the homefruitsick. Even given the distortion of my leaning-out-the-window angle, it still towers over the four-story row houses on Waverly, which used to be lined with carriage houses for the mansions on the next street to the west, Clinton Avenue. I’d love to know who planted this, when they did it, and what the neighborhood looked like then.

Forgive the out-of-scale, butt-ugly apartment building on the right: they know not what they do, developers, and those in charge of controlling them are often in bed with them. Here in Brooklyn, we call that kind of love (from the Latin charitas) martysexual after our boddle-enriched Borough President.

2 Responses to “Big Brooklyn Tree”


  1. 1 Out Walking the Dog November 9, 2011 at 10:10 am

    What a beauty, tucked away in there. Thanks for clearing up the mystery of what it means to be a tree champion – although I liked your other explanation better – that they wrassle each other.

  2. 2 Erik Danielson April 12, 2016 at 12:58 pm

    Old post I know, but I’d suggest Swamp White Oak (Q. bicolor) as more likely. For suitability to urban conditions, it seems counterintuitive but trees adapted to swampy conditions are often those hardiest to living between pavement. Consider Pin Oak (Q. palustris, as in palustrine wetlands)- in its natural setting flooding often limits the availability of oxygen to the root system. That same tolerance of poorly oxygenated roots allows it to do well in sidewalk margins. Swamp White Oak is popular as an urban tree for the same reason. Chestnut Oak, on the other hand, is adapted to well-drained soils and is almost never seen as a street (or yard) tree.


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