City’s Oldest Tree? It’s Anyone’s Guess

By A.G. Sulzberger
New York, NY (October 7, 2009)- The question is asked every few years when another living landmark tumbles down: What is the oldest tree in New York City?
The answer isn’t easy. “The oldest tree in New York?” said Edward S. Barnard, the author of “New York City Trees: A Field Guide for the Metropolitan Area” (Columbia University Press, 2002). “God only knows.”


There are 5.2 million trees in New York City, and tree canopies shade roughly one-quarter of the city, according to estimates by the United States Forest Service. Conventional wisdom, with all its caveats and contradictions, currently holds that the oldest may be the enormous tulip tree in Alley Pond Park, called the Queens Giant. (It is also believed to be the city’s tallest tree.)
Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times
Bruce Kershner, an environmental scientist and naturalist, examined a tulip tree known as the Queens Giant in Alley Pond Park in 2002.

The plaque on it says it is more than 400 years old, although the calculation is a bit less than scientific. In fact, the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation, which did not even mention the tree in a book it released nine years ago, “Great Trees of New York City: A Guide,” is unsure of the origins of that estimate and cannot say whether the margin of error is measured in years or centuries, said Fiona Watt, an assistant commissioner. “Tree age is one of the great mysteries of urban forestry because you cannot necessarily correlate size with age,” Ms. Watt said.
Other arborists have estimated that the Queens Giant may be closer to 250 years old. “It’s probably a little bit optimistic,” conceded Mr. Barnard, who wrote the text for the plaque citing the 400-year estimate, noting that it predated the Dutch founding of New York City. “But it sounds good, people enjoy it and they respect the tree.”
The age of the Queens Giant is likely to remain a mystery- even after the tree eventually dies- because at the center of the trunk, where telltale rings often reveal the age, is a gaping hollow large enough for several people to stand in.
The same problem will probably mask the true age of the Great White Oak, a sprawling tree that has been chopped down over the past few days, leaving Douglaston, Queens, the small community on Little Neck Bay where it towered, in mourning.
Local lore says the tree (the second-largest single trunk specimen in New York City, to get technical about it) is more than 600 years old, and that figure was embraced by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, but the rotted-out center of the trunk was filled with concrete decades ago. While some arborists back the claim, others have expressed doubt that the species could live so long, though they say it is possible.
“Once the center is gone, there is no way to really know,” said Neil Hendrickson, an arborist with the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratories in Charlotte, N.C. Because many factors affect tree size, height and width provide little insight into the question of age. Trees the same size are often decades apart in age. (A relatively small post oak in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx was determined through a core sample to be 236 years old.)
Trees that grow up in the stressful conditions found in most urban environments- where soil may be limited to a compact square cutout of the sidewalk, or where conditions may include air pollution, lack of light, and limited water- may grow far more slowly.
Experts pointed to two common ways to determine tree age, though neither is fail-proof.
One way is to study tree rings, either by taking a core sample from a living tree or by examining the stump of a felled tree. However, taking core samples often requires skill and guesswork to do correctly, and not all trees produce just one ring a year.
The other way is to search for documentary evidence of trees, in photos, blueprints or elsewhere. Many trees date back to the construction of the house, building or road they grace.
There are exceptions. Mr. Barnard, who is working on a book about the trees of Central Park, says he suspects he has found two trees in the park that predate its construction. (After a powerful August storm, he raced to the park to conduct ring analysis on the largest of the felled trees, though the oldest was only about 160 years old.)
So why does he care? “It’s exciting for people like me to look at, to touch something that lived” so long ago, Mr. Barnard said. “There’s something sacred about these ancient living things.”
Related Resources:
New York Times- City’s Oldest Tree? It’s Anyone’s Guess