The Second Installment of this Week’s #RecipesForChange Blog Series:
“The Trees of Five Playgrounds, from Union Square to TriBeCa”
Come back each day this week for more from this week’s guest blogger, Georgia Silvera Seamans at Local Ecologist!
About this blog series: E.F. Schumacher, the British economist famous for coining the phrase “Small is Beautiful” told us to plant a tree. But which one should we plant? ioby’s guest blog series this week from Local Ecologist gives you a quick introduction to the arboreal lives of Manhattan’s playgrounds and, in it, a guide to trees tough enough for city life.
About Recipes for Change: ioby equips leaders across the country with the tools that they need to make changes in their neighborhoods. Recipes for Change is a new series from ioby, aimed at providing the resources and expertise that you need for your environmental project to succeed.
Got ideas for more #RecipesforChange? Give @ioby a shout!
Today’s Featured Playground: Playground of the Americas
On the border between Greenwich Village and SoHo sits the Avenue of the Americas Playground. The playground is located on the southeast corner of Avenue of the Americas (aka Sixth Avenue) and Houston Street (the “Ho” in SoHo). The playground parcel was acquired by the city in 1925 and placed under Parks Department jurisdiction in 1934. It was formally designated Houston Plaza in 1998 and then given its current name in 2000. We would like to suggest another name change for this 0.079-acre playground in honor of the lone mulberry (Morus) growing among six London planetrees – Mulberry Tree Playground – but there would always have to be a mulberry tree growing there!
We were surprised to see an edible fruit tree in a playground! A search for “mulberry recipes” in Google Recipes yielded over 71,000 results. The Playground of the Americas mulberry appears to be intentionally planted unlike the other ones growing between the playground and the adjacent apartment buildings. It is likely a white mulberry or Morus alba, which was first introduced to the U.S. from China in 1623 to develop a colonial silk industry. The initiative failed but the white mulberry thrived especially in urban areas because it can “tolerate drought, salt, compact soil, high winds, and air pollution,” according to Plotnik (2003). The fruit can also be eaten by wildlife, primarily songbirds. In New York the list of songbirds might include Cardinal, Catbird, Mockingbird, Robin, Sparrow, Starling, and Thrasher. The red mulberry (M. rubra) is native to the U.S. It has a limited presence in cities, occurring “mainly as a park-thicket tree or a natural hybrid with the white mulberry” (Plotnik).
The fruit on the mulberry in the Playground of the Americas is green – an indicator that the tree is a white mulberry. An additional marker is the shiny upper side of the leaf. Despite the “berry” in its name, the fruit of the mulberry is not a true berry! In his 1957 book, How to Identify Plants, Harold D. Harrington described the mulberry fruit as an exemplar of the “multiple fruit” type meaning it a fleshy fruit formed from several to many separate flowers. These flowers have superior ovaries which may become fleshy but other parts of the unit may also be succulent.
Despite the fact that the (white) mulberry provides an ecosystem service to humans and to wildlife in the form of edible fruit, it is not beloved by all people. The fallen fruit is considered litter, and some cities have banned planting the tree while others recommend fruitless (female) trees. Female flowers produce fruit while male flowers produce pollen, but a mulberry tree can be monoecious or dioecious. If the tree is monoecious, it produces both male and female flowers on the same tree, but if it is dioecious, the male and female flowers are borne on separate plants. In Washington, D.C. female ginkgos are sprayed to halt fruiting. At least we have not heard of municipalities spraying female mulberry trees. Better to organize a fruit-harvesting brigade!
Finally, if you cannot visit the Playground of the Americas, you can find mulberries throughout the city. Check out Edward S. Barnard’s New York City Trees for a short list. The male red mulberry near the Central Park Tennis House is an official Great Tree of the City. For more information, take a look at the guide to “the Great Trees of New York City” written by Benjamin Swett in 2000.