I walk past 90th Street on my way down Ridge Boulevard every morning, and this tree lined block, heading toward Third Avenue, has always stood out to me for its enormous and beautiful trees. Walking among these towering botanical beauties can transport you to another place, out of our vast city and into somewhere calmer, quieter. You can hear their hand-sized leaves giving up their hushed song while their branches sway in a gentle breeze. They do not demand that you stop what you’re doing, they do not ask you to stop walking to look and listen, but you do it anyway—before you have to dodge a honking car doing a K-turn at the intersection of 89th.
Have you, like me, enjoyed crunching with your shoes the long, thin strips of fallen bark that coat our sidewalks? Have you ever wondered what those huge, sometimes gnarled, bark-shedding trees were? I assumed they were American sycamores, which I grew up seeing a lot of in the Midwest. It turns out they’re a nonnative tree I’d never heard of: a London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia), a tree with a relatively recent origin and an urban lifestyle. The London Plane makes up almost 10 percent of all street trees in New York City, approximately 90,000 of our one million trees, and is often seen in neighborhoods like Bay Ridge with wide residential blocks settled late in New York City’s growth.
Originating around 1645 in London (obviously), the London Plane was found to thrive even with frequent pruning and significant pollutants, like soot. The tree was planted prodigiously in New York starting in the early 1930s, which made Bay Ridge a prime location for their propagation. The subway reached here in 1916, and a rapidly expanding Bay Ridge needed fast-growing shade-trees for its grid of homes. Providing abundant shade with large leaves—which are so iconic they’re the symbol for the New York City Parks Department—the London does its job well. It’s been known to drop its leaves a little early, but the 12 weeks we have them are worth the trouble of breaking out the rake and (ugh) leaf blower early.