A Tree Cycling Tour Around Hartford

By Steve Grant
Hartford, CT (September 5, 2009)- What Ed Richardson of Glastonbury has done over the past few decades amounts to a priceless gift to Connecticut. Quietly, Richardson has traveled around the state- especially the Hartford area- identifying hundreds if not thousands of trees that are truly special. Some are the largest known specimens of their kind in the state or New England or the nation. Some are historic; some are extraordinarily rare; many are simply huge.

His work has taken many hours, all on a volunteer basis. The information is out there, some of it in pamphlets, and we should use it. September is a great month to visit some of these trees. They are still fully leafed out, and temperatures this month are typically pleasant.
Mindful of the many special trees in and around Hartford, I got out a map and put together a bicycle tree tour. It involves traveling about 16 miles, and also could be done by car.
I began at the Institute of Living. There is a booth at the main entrance on Retreat Avenue, open 24 hours a day, where you can pick up a map of the notable trees Richardson identified on the institute’s grounds, which were laid out in the early 1860s by Hartford native Frederick Law Olmsted, regarded as the father of American landscape architecture. Prominent on the expansive lawn in the center of the campus is a massive paper birch, also known as white birch or canoe birch, a native species. It is the largest known paper birch in Connecticut. This tree doesn’t just rise from the ground, it presides.
Nearby is a massive pecan tree, believed to be the largest in New England and likely planted even before Olmsted designed the grounds. There are many other trees worth viewing here, some almost certainly part of the original Olmsted design and now 1 1/2 centuries old. You could easily spend an hour here.
From the institute I pedaled over to Asylum Avenue and followed it to the grounds of St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center. Richardson told me to look for the sassafras tree, among others. The sassafras, which is native to Connecticut, is ordinarily a small- or medium-size tree, sometimes little more than a shrub. There is nothing shrub-like about the sassafras among a cluster of trees at the corner of Woodland Street and Asylum. This sassafras holds its own with the towering oaks and maples beside it. Sassafras trees are easy to identify; some of their leaves are shaped like mittens, very distinctive.
I continued up Asylum into West Hartford and took a right on Trout Brook Drive to the University of Connecticut campus. There, you can’t miss the largest white oak in Connecticut. It’s on the grass behind the parking lot. The white oak is the official state tree, and the university itself uses a stylized oak leaf in its logo. This tree most likely predates the American Revolution; Richardson estimates it is 300 years old. One of its lower branches, the equivalent of a tree itself, extends horizontally over the lawn and touches down on the grass, as if weary of supporting itself all these years.
There are many potential variations on a bicycling tree tour in the Hartford area. Nearby, Elizabeth Park has some championship trees, too, but on this day, I continued down Trout Brook to Albany Avenue, took a right and pedaled back into Hartford. At Main Street, I hooked a left and followed it to the Old North Cemetery, a historic landmark. The cemetery has not been kept up, alas, but it nonetheless has some gargantuan trees. Among them, look for the tulip trees, another native species. These are towering trees, scattered about the cemetery. As long as you are visiting Old North, take a look at the Olmsted family burial plot, where Frederick Law Olmsted is buried.
From the cemetery’s main entrance on Main Street, follow the road in, and take the second lane on the right. Just before the Olmsted family grave site is a massive tulip. Tulip trees also are easy to identify; their leaves are scalloped at the top, like a tulip.
From Old North Cemetery, I biked the short distance to Riverside Park, where the original landscaping was designed by Olmsted’s sons, who carried on his landscaping business well into the 20th century. One of the features of that project was a double row of swamp white oaks, another native tree.
Richardson said there once were many more swamp white oaks in the double column, but they apparently were cut down when I-91 was built in the mid-20th century. Best I could tell, 11 of them remain. They are easy to find, just to the right of the road into the park, before reaching the boathouse area. Swamp white oaks are not difficult to identify, either; the leaves are distinctive: dark green on top, silvery below.
Riverside is a good spot to stop for a snack or lunch, taking advantage of the stone benches overlooking the Connecticut River. If you are riding your bike, you can continue through the park and follow the path to Mortensen Riverfront Plaza, then on to Charter Oak Landing and to Reserve Road and Van Dyke Avenue, and work your way west, continuing to Main. Take a right onto Retreat Avenue, and continue to the Institute of Living, where we started. If in a car, you can return to Main Street from the park.
If You Go: Which Trees To Look For
* Institute of Living, 200 Retreat Ave.: paper (or white) birch and big pecan tree
* St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, 114 Woodland St: sassafras tree, situated among a cluster of trees at the corner of Woodland Street and Asylum Avenue.
* University of Connecticut’s West Hartford campus, 85 Lawler Road, West Hartford: white oak, the largest in the state, situated on the grass behind the parking lot.
* Old North Cemetery, 2053 Main St.: tulip trees – these are towering trees. Enter the main entrance on Main Street, take the second lane on the right leading to the Olmsted family gravesite to find a massive tulip tree (their leaves are scalloped at the top, like a tulip).
* Riverside Park, 1 East Service Road: double row of swamp white oaks just to the right of the road into the park, before reaching the boathouse area; leaves are distinctive, dark green on top, silvery below.
NOTE: Mapquest or a GPS navigation device can provide more specific details. A field guide to trees is nice to have along; an excellent new guide is the National Wildlife Federation’s “Field Guide to Trees of North America” (Sterling Publishing, 2008, $19.95).
Related Resources:
Hartford Courant- A Tree Cycling Tour Around Hartford