BIG TREES IN THE BIG APPLE
redoak at forestmeister.com
Fri Nov 10 09:37:37 EST 2000
The following is from the NY Times.
A Rendezvous With 2 Giant Trees
November 10, 2000
By MICHAEL CREWDSON and MARGARET MITTELBACH
When we heard that the New York City Department of Parks had
published "Great Trees of New York City," a guide to the city's
most impressive trees, we were intrigued. Although New York has
hulking redwoods, we had heard for years about a monster tree in
Queens that was said to be the biggest in all five boroughs.
According to the tree grapevine, this behemoth is a tulip tree
(Liriodendron tulipifera) growing in an obscure corner of Alley
Pond Park, a 635-acre swath of green in northeast Queens that
stretches from Union Turnpike to Little Neck Bay.
Yet as we flipped through the pages of the guide, we saw that
biggest-tree title was awarded to another tulip tree, one in
Island's Clove Lakes Park. The Queens tree was not even
This left us wondering. Was the Queens giant a myth, the plant
version of Bigfoot? Was it a largish tree that had been
out of all proportion? Or was it a sleeping giant that had been
A series of calls to the Parks Department's press office
there was no recorded data for any "great tree" in Alley Pond
So we decided to go on a fact-finding mission. We would track
both the Queens and Staten Island trees and measure them, branch
branch, leaf to leaf.
Tree measuring used to be a simple affair, an exercise for
teaching schoolchildren a little geometry. You simply paced off
feet from the base of the tree, determined the angle at which
stood to the treetop and performed a little trigonometric
We immediately noticed two problems with this method. First, it
assumed the tree was growing on flat ground. Second, it assumed
were listening during high school math class.
We concluded that bringing in experts would be absolutely
Bob Leverett, a co-founder of the Eastern Native Tree Society,
sometimes called the "guru of Eastern ancient forests." He's the
co-author of "Stalking the Forest Monarchs: A Guide to Measuring
Champion Trees," and describes himself as a "big-tree hunter."
anyone was going to determine the exact height of these trees,
would be the one.
There was only one problem: Mr. Leverett lives in western
Massachusetts, and he is reluctant to take his car into perilous
city traffic. Besides, his tree-measuring abilities are in high
demand. On the weekend we were planning our tree safari, he was
already scheduled to measure big trees in the Adirondacks with
Bruce Kershner, a Buffalo-based forest ecologist. The two men
writing a book together, "The Sierra Club Guide to the Ancient
Forests of the Northeast," due from Random House next spring.
when Mr. Kershner got wind of what we were up to, he agreed to
postpone their Adirondack plans.
Born and reared in New York City, Mr. Kershner had not only
of the Queens giant but had also seen it. He had also roughly
measured the Staten Island tree five years ago, and he wanted
Leverett to get a crack at it.
We rendezvoused with them on a Saturday morning in Bayside, a
residential neighborhood in Queens, and caravaned together to
Road and East Hampton Boulevard, a quiet street opposite
woods. This sylvan site is the reputed home of the Queens giant,
narrow parcel of parkland amputated from the rest of Alley Pond
Park by the crisscrossing of the Long Island Expressway and the
Cross Island Parkway.
When we stepped out onto the street, Mr. Leverett began to
us on the details of tree measuring, tossing out terms we hadn't
used for a while, like hypotenuse. Oh, yes the long arm of a
right triangle. Suddenly, Mr. Kershner stopped the math talk and
said, "I just want to point out how bizarre this is, looking for
giant tree on the edge of a busy highway in Queens."
Both men were prepared for a hard-core trek, with hiking boots,
heavy pants and packs. Normally they do their research in the
wilderness of state and national parks, searching for pockets of
ancient forest. We asked Mr. Leverett, who grew up in a small
in the mountains of Tennessee, what he thought of it all. He
considered carefully before answering. "This is an old city with
lot of history," he said in a soft Southern accent. "There's a
of places for a big tree to hide out."
We wended our way down to a sidewalk alongside the Long Island
Expressway and, ignoring a sign that read "Trail Closed," went a
few yards farther and found a rough trail leading into the
woodland's interior. The blare of traffic dulled slightly as we
were enveloped by green. Before walking even 10 feet down the
trail, Mr. Leverett and Mr. Kershner were identifying trees and
estimating their ages. One big tulip tree, they agreed, was
200 years old, a red oak was about 150 and a beech had to be at
least 80. They knew this, because the beech had "1920" carved
its smooth bark.
"These are big trees," Mr. Kershner said, with an edge of
excitement in his voice. "This looks like an old-growth forest."
Mr. Leverett has logged tens of thousands of miles measuring
in the Great Smoky Mountains, the Adirondacks and New England,
he's seen some monster flora. Yet, as we walked deeper into this
tiny patch of woods, perhaps another 100 feet along the trail,
abruptly let out a shout. "Whooohooooo!" he yelled. "That is a
large vegetable. Ohhh, this is an old tree." Apparently, the
giant was for real.
Our eyes popped when we saw it. If tulips are skyscrapers among
trees the tallest species that grows in this region then
was the Empire State Building. It dwarfed the other trees in the
woods, and its massive arrow-straight trunk shot high into the
canopy. The girth of the trunk was so wide you would need a
team of tree-huggers to embrace it properly.
The only sign that anyone was aware that this tree was special
that it was enclosed by a low, broken- down chain-link fence
offered, if nothing else, symbolic protection. We scrambled over
it, and Mr. Leverett began taking measurements. He whipped out a
tape measure, hooked it onto a furrow of the gnarled, reddish
and slowly circled the tree, disappearing briefly: "18.6 feet in
circumference," he said, noting this down in a black binder.
Getting the tree's height was slightly trickier. We followed
up the steep slope on which the tree was growing and noticed
these woods were a bit of a mess. We passed a discarded shopping
cart, rusting truck springs, a smashed air- conditioner and the
remains of a long-abandoned car. And yet, the soil on the forest
floor was soft and dark, the color of coffee grounds. "It's
wonderful soil," Mr. Leverett said as he climbed past a little
patch of ferns.
To measure the tree's height using trigonometry or as Mr.
Leverett likes to call it, "twigonometry" he had to be able to
see the tiptop of the tree. When he found a vantage point, where
could glimpse the top through the woodland's thick foliage, he
stopped and broke out the latest in high-tech tree-measuring
Taking a $300 Bushnell laser range finder (most commonly used
golfers to gauge the distance to the green), he aimed it at the
highest leaf on the tree, which he called the leader, and
button. Zap. A digital readout on the range finder told him that
the treetop was 126 feet away. He then looked into the eyepiece
another device, a $90 Suunto clinometer, which established the
vertical angle at which he stood to the leader. Using his
and a little basic trigonometry, Mr. Leverett executed the
of measurement in a brisk ritual that left us awed and voilà!
announced that the Queens giant was 133.8 feet high, the
of a 13-story building. Let's see if Staten Island could top
While Mr. Leverett was working on the tree's size, Mr. Kershner
was working on its age. He pointed out a hollow in the tree
that was big enough to sit in. Inside were an old baseball cap
an empty Coke bottle. "Look," he said, "a leprechaun convention
center." He examined bald spots on the bark and said that those
were sure signs of an aged tree.
On the ground he found a limb that had fallen from 50 feet up,
he got down in the dirt to count its rings. "This bough alone is
200 years old," he said when he finally finished counting. "I
say this tree is 350 to 400 years old." That meant the tree was
sapling when New Amsterdam was being settled by the Dutch in the
1600's. "We're not just talking about whether this is the
tree here," he said. "We're talking about the oldest living
in New York City."
Now that we had taken the measure of the king of Queens, we
returned to our vehicles and headed to Staten Island for the
showdown. Mr. Kershner, who happened to have grown up there and
even written a book about it "Secret Places of Staten Island"
(Kendall/Hunt, 1998) led the way. He let us know he was
for the Staten Island tree.
It was not surprising that both contenders were tulip trees.
Except for white pines, which do not grow in the city, tulip
are the tallest and most voluminous trees in the East. They're
fairly tough, able to survive in city parks despite air
and vandalism. Historically, Native Americans and pioneers used
tulip trees' long, straight trunks to make canoes, and their
fine-textured wood is still commonly used to make furniture,
musical instruments and paper products. They're called tulip
because the shape of their leaves and flowers resemble tulip
Mr. Leverett is fond of tulip trees. He grew up in the
of Tennessee in a town called Copper Hill. "It was my favorite
in the Smokies," he said. "Most of those huge Smoky Mountain
trees are 145 to 165 feet tall. The species is capable of living
The scene at Clove Lakes Park was quite different from the
neglected, highway-beleaguered woods in Queens. In northern
Island, just off Forest Avenue and Clove Road, this 200-acre
was well- groomed, its paved paths filled with strollers and
carriages. At the park's northernmost end, a green tree-studded
lawn stretched away from the aptly named Forest Avenue, and in
middle of it, about 200 feet from the street, we saw a mighty
tree dwarfing everything around it.
When Mr. Leverett saw it, he let out a whistle. "This is going
be a horse race," he said.
None of the picnickers and other parkgoers seemed to notice
they were in the presence of greatness. Aside from its humongous
size, nothing distinguished this tree as special except for a
severed lightning-rod cable that hung ineffectually down its
According to the "Great Trees" guide, the Staten Island tree is
146 feet high. If true, it would easily be the victor over the
Queens Giant. But Mr. Leverett is an expert at busting overblown
"We're trying to bring truth into the big-tree numbers," he
The big-tree-hunting world, it turned out, is rife with
measurements. But no arboreal claimant can hide from Mr.
laser range finder. For example, he and his colleagues at the
Eastern Native Tree Society discovered that a red oak in
which was listed as the state champion, was overestimated by 90
feet. "Ninety feet, that's a whole tree," he said.
The Staten Island tree, which we dubbed the Clove Lakes
was clearly younger than its Queens rival, and it had had the
benefit of little competition. Whereas the Queens giant was
its crown, struggling to get enough sun, the colossus was lord
the lawn, spreading out in every direction with abandon. The
hassle it appeared to face was children, running about on its
massive buttressed trunk.
Mr. Leverett measured the circumference of the trunk. He hooked
the tape to the bark and vanished for what seemed to be a long
as he made his way around. At 20 feet, the tape was not long
this time, and we had to put a finger on the spot so he could
measure the remainder. It was a whopping 21.4 feet around,
in circumference than the Queens tree.
Walking backward across the lawn, trying to get a bead on the
tree's leader, Mr. Leverett commented on how easy it was to
a tree in an open field. "It's almost like shooting fish in a
barrel," he said.
He lasered the tree with his range finder and worked his
mathematical magic with the clinometer and calculator. "The
height," he announced, as we waited anxiously, "is 119 feet."
That's 27 feet shorter than the height advertised in the "Great
Trees" guide, but, more importantly, 12.2 feet shorter than the
However, Mr. Kershner pointed out that the colossus had more
and a more massive trunk. And we had to admit that the trunk was
overwhelming. Mr. Leverett, who's no wood sprite, looked like a
finger puppet standing next to it.
But it was all going to come down to calculations he would make
later. Height is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to
determining a tree's bigness. With more measurements (height to
first bough, crown spread), Mr. Leverett planned to use a
mathematical model to estimate the tree's overall volume. "I
to sit down with a pencil and calculator for an hour or so," he
said. "But I can tell you it's going to be a close one."
We headed our separate ways and waited nervously for the
The next evening we received word via e- mail. Both trees had an
estimated volume of 1,750 cubic feet and weighed in the
neighborhood of 50,000 pounds. The Queens tree was probably a
more voluminous, but the Staten Island tree was slightly
So what Mr. Leverett was saying was that it was a dead heat.
further review, we had two trees worthy of being called the New
"At this point," wrote Mr. Leverett, "I would call them
co-champions. Should you want to take the contest further, we
need to have both trees climbed with periodic girth measurements
taken for at least the first 75 feet. Until that is done, I'm
willing to call it a draw."
And so, until some hardy spirit clambers to the top of both
behemoths, bragging rights in this heavyweight-tree contest can
shared by both boroughs. As for the other counties, Manhattan
the Bronx seem to be out of the running and, while trees may
in Brooklyn, they grow taller in Queens and Staten Island.
Finding the Trees
To reach the Queens giant, a tulip tree
measuring 133.8 feet tall and 18.6 feet in circumference, head
a section of Alley Pond Park where the Long Island Expressway
the Cross Island Parkway intersect. At East Hampton Boulevard
the Horace Harding Expressway (a service road of the Long Island
Expressway) look for a nearby trail into the woodlands. The
which is surrounded by a small fence, is a five-minute walk from
The Clove Lakes colossus, a tulip tree measuring 119 feet tall
21.4 feet in circumference, is situated in the northernmost part
Staten Island's Clove Lakes Park near the intersection of Forest
Avenue and Clove Road.
From Forest Avenue, walk south across the park's lawn for about
200 feet to reach the giant tree.
"Great Trees of New York City" is a 48-page guide that
more than 100 city trees of impressive size, age, species, form
historic association. For detailed instructions on measuring big
trees, visit the Eastern Native Tree Society's Web site at
More information about the Ag-forst