No Longer at Liberty
By Dan Rosen
South of Manhattan in upper New York Bay, wedged between New York and New Jersey, sits Liberty Island. The island is shaped like a bean with the Statue of Liberty perched on its eastern shore facing Governor’s Island and Brooklyn beyond.[i] Much of it is dotted with trees from around the world. There are Yoshino cherry trees from Japan, London planetrees and Littleleaf lindens with ties to Europe, and just behind the statue itself, a Norway maple stands in the shadows. The maple is tall with a dark trunk brushed in winding ridges. About six feet up, it splits toward the sky in every direction, creating a thick web of sturdy branches reaching high like Lady Liberty’s right arm.
Like many immigrants that passed the statue a century ago on their way into the country, the Norway maple came from Europe and southwest Asia. On its native soil, it had proved itself hardy, able to thrive in adverse conditions. It has the widest range of any maple there, reaching from southern Scandinavia all the way south to northern Iran.[ii] In the U.S., it became increasingly popular following its introduction. It was planted on sidewalks and parks across New York City, including on Liberty Island. And even today, the Norway maple remains one of the most common street trees around. Yet these days, its reputation has been tarnished in a way its early proponents never could have imagined.
The Norway maple owes its prominent place in New York in part to a Pennsylvanian: John Bartram, who was a noted colonial era botanist. It was during Bartram’s time that interest in plant and animal species from abroad exploded in England. British ships were traversing the oceans frequently then, carrying plants, seeds and other specimens back home, and it became quite popular to collect. Even Augusta, King George III’s mother, aided the development of a botanic garden with exotic species (the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew).[iii]
For plants from the colonies, the British came to look in large part to Bartram. The grandson of an immigrant, he had been born to Pennsylvania Quakers in 1699 and he cultivated a prominent place in American society, a friend of influential figures like Benjamin Franklin. He also developed a deep passion for horticulture, which he nurtured not through a formal education but with his own study. “He has acquired a great knowledge of natural philosophy and history,” a visiting European expert once observed of him, “and seems to be born with a peculiar genius for these sciences.” From the family farm, John and his son, William, ventured out as far north as Lake Ontario and south to Florida to collect native plants.[iv]
For his business, Bartram made a crucial connection in the 1730s when he became acquainted with Great Britain’s Peter Collinson, a fellow Quaker and noted botanist. The two kept up a correspondence for more than 30 years, with Collinson giving Bartram an in to the British market. As a result, Bartram’s specimens were sent to many British collectors, who paid to add North American plants to their gardens.
Americans sought foreign plants from Britain, too, at that time. Through Collinson, according to the author Hazel Le Rougetel, Bartram was connected to the influential Phillip Miller, who ran Chelsea Physic Garden on the Thames River.[v] In 1756, Miller informed Bartram that he had sent him a batch of specimens, which included roses, cedar cones and the seeds of the Norway maple, likely the first to reach the New World. In June the following year, Bartram told his counterpart that he’d received the seeds and had given them to a doctor friend to grow. In return, the doctor had been promised half the crop. “The Roses all died,” Bartram reported in the same note, “but two or three of the Maples are alive, as the Doctor tells me, and one or two is enough for me, of a sort.”[vi]
Because of Bartram, the Norway maple took root in the New World. By the early 1760s, he was offering it to the colonial market—even George Washington ordered a pair from the Bartram nursery, in 1792—and in the following century it spread west to the Pacific.[vii] Americans, like their British counterparts, had little hesitation about disseminating plants. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” Thomas Jefferson once asserted, “is to add a useful plant to its culture …”[viii]
By the turn of the 20th century, the Norway maple was wildly popular across the U.S., particularly in urban and suburban settings. It was tough—like something out of a Horatio Alger story, able to weather the urban industrial environment that flourished at the time. Nurseries discovered that it was easy to reproduce. One advocate, writing on city planting, summed it up in a 1909 article for the National Association of Gardeners:
New York City parks department documents from that time echo the view. The 1908 annual report includes a photo of an unnamed street lined with Norway maples. The photograph is taken from the center of the road, a block filled with brownstones, with roughly 20 trees of the same height spread evenly apart on either side. From the photographer’s vantage point, little is visible of the buildings through the maples’ dense growth. [x] In 1919, the department reported 1,376 of the 1,876 trees it had planted were Norway maples.[xi] As parks commissioner, Robert Moses put down even more. By one estimate, he had two million-plus trees sowed in total in his tenure. The Norway maple was among the most used.[xii]
Dutch elm disease was, in part, responsible for New York’s widespread adoption of the tree. In the early 1930s, the imported illness ravaged native elms throughout the Northeast, including those in New York City. At a conference at the New York Botanical Garden, in September 1933, a pathologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed to have traced the infection to a shipment of logs from France to the U.S. At least 1,000 New York City trees were said afflicted by 1934.[xiii] The following year, the parks department was looking for hardy alternatives. In mid-March 1935, it announced a 4,000-tree initiative that would include “no inferior street trees.” The Norway maple was among the five species to be used in the effort.[xiv]
Today, though, the perception of many foreign species, like the tree, has shifted. We now know that while some plants and animals arrive on a new landscape from abroad and have little impact, a few, including the maple, can turn out to be quite damaging. They’re called invasive species—meaning they’re non-natives whose arrival is likely to be harmful to the local environment, the economy or human health. Though estimating the exact toll these foreign species take can be difficult, it’s clear from those who study the problem that the impact is vast. “Invasive species affect just about everyone,” says the U.S. Geological Survey, “in every state in the country, in urban centers and wilderness areas.”[xv]
In New York City, Norway maples have a tendency to smother the local environment thanks to their impressive density. The tree’s leaves are palmate, meaning they’re shaped like open hands with separate lobes radiating like fingers from the middle.[xvi] As it grows, the tree extends thousands of these hands toward the sky, blocking out the sun and starving the plants beneath of light. Its roots are shallow also and thus sap resources from smaller shrubs. Ultimately, the tree can drown out the surrounding forest, leaving little in the way of native foliage in its wake. Matthew Stephens, a senior forester with the New York City parks department who oversees street tree plantings across the city, has seen it firsthand. “Why anyone in the mid-Atlantic region would plant a Norway maple,” he said, “is beyond me.”[xvii]
[ii] Nowak, David J. and Rowntree, Rowan A. “History and Range of the Norway Maple.” Journal of Arboriculture. 16.11 (November 1990): 291-296. Print.
[iii] Bisgrove, Richard. The National Trust Book of the English Garden. London: Viking, 1990. Print.
[iv] Leighton, Ann. American Gardens in the 18th century: For Use or For Delight. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1986. Print.; Reid, Robin T. “The Story of Bartram’s Garden.” Smithsonianmag.com. 13 April 2010. Web.
[v] Rougetel, Hazel Le. “Philip Miller/John Bartram Botanical Exchange.” Garden History. 14.1 (1986): 32-39. Print.
[vi] Darlington, William. Peter. Memorials of John Bartram and Humphry Marshall: with notices of their botanical contemporaries. Philadelphia: Lindsay & Blakiston, 1849. Print.
[vii] Nowak and Rowntree. “History and Range.” Journal of Arboriculture. Print.
[viii] “Useful Plant Quotation.” Monticello.org. Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., n.d. Web.
[ix] Hastings, Addison T. “Trees for City Planting.” Gardeners’ Chronicle of America. Vol. 9-12, 1909. Print.
[x] City of New York. Department of Parks. “Annual Report.” 1908. Print.
[xi] City of New York. Department of Parks of the Borough of Brooklyn. “Twenty-Second Annual Report.” 1919. Print.
[xii] Jackson, Kenneth T. “Robert Moses and the Planned Environment: A Re-Evaluation” in Robert Moses: single-minded genius. Ed. Joann P. Kreig. Interlaken, NY: Heart of the Lakes, 1989. 21-30.
[xiii] “Elm Blight Is Traced to Imported Logs; Destruction of Infected Trees Is Urged.” New York Times. 9 September 1933: 15.
[xiv] City of New York. Department of Parks. “Park Department to Plant Street Trees.” Press Release. 15 March 1935.
[xvii] Personal interview.