Spring in New York City is exciting for anyone who vibrates to the pitch of trees greening and beginning to bloom. Streets are transformed. Branches bare and brown for months are softening with blossoms and greening with tiny leaves. If the city’s unfurling spring streets are appealing, the park-like grounds of Historic Green-Wood, a cemetery and 478-acre arboretum in Brooklyn, is glorious. Green-Wood welcomes visitors daily, and, since the worst days of the pandemic, has kept all its pedestrian gates open at all its entrances, allowing stressed New Yorkers easy access to one of the most beautiful and serene places in the concrete jungle.
Let’s walk. It is mid-spring. Our grassy path is green on a misty day. Migrating birds are flitting above our heads and a robin leads the way. There are trees to meet.
Photography by Marie Viljoen
Green-Wood is an accredited Level III arboretum, meaning it has “at least 500 species of woody plants, employs a collections curator, has substantial educational programming, collaborates with other arboreta, publicizes its collections, and actively participates in tree science and conservation,” according to the Morton Register of Arboreta. It does all that, and more. The grounds here contain over 7,000 trees that represent nearly 700 species and cultivars. Green-Wood is a rich outdoor classroom and living museum—or, simply, a green haven in the largest city in the United States.
Founded in 1838 by Henry Pierrepont, Green-Wood lies on land that in 1776 reverberated to the sounds of the Battle of Brooklyn during the Revolutionary War. Its high ground and hills are rare in New York City and were of strategic significance as Washington led his troops in retreat from the British across the Hudson.
The only sounds at Green-Wood now are birdsong, the breeze in the branches, and the hum of an airplane high overheard, on approach to La Guardia. (Interspersed with the occasional whine of a saw in the well-tended trees, or grumble of a lawnmower rolling across the grass.) And sometimes a bagpipe, mourning on a hill.
One of the most loved urban trees of spring is the effusive ‘Kanzan’ cherry, and they are strewn across the cemetery.
The plush blossoms with double petals persist as the youngest cherry leaves emerge, giving the tree’s branches Instagrammable opulence. These ornamental cherries are hardy from USDA Zones 5 – 9 and require full sun for optimal bloom.
Green-Wood’s varied topography gives one a sense of perspective achieved easily by climbing one of the many steep paths that lead up the hills and ridges.
Native to North America and Asia, crabapples represent a dizzying number of hybrids and cultivars of the Malus genus, all characterized by their small, tannic fruit produced in summer and ripening in fall. Unlike the plush but scentless cherries, crabapple blossoms are deliciously perfumed. Lying beneath their branches in full bloom and breathing deeply is blossom-bathing at its best.
Crabapple blossom-colors graduate from burgundy to pink-and-white to pure white. They are hardworking small trees, able to withstand compacted soil and city pollution, and are happy in full sun in containers or in-ground. Their seasons of interest are spring, summer, fall, and often winter, too, when their fruits persist on branches to feed a wide range of birds. Plus, their little fruits make exceptional jelly, can be roasted as a dessert, or pressed and fermented into homemade vinegars or ciders.
Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) may be an understory tree, naturally, but thrives in full sun, its buds and blossoms persisting for a couple of weeks. It is hardy from USDA Zones 4b – 8.
While Asian species of early-blooming magnolias are well-represented at Green-Wood, native magnolias and their cultivars begin to bloom later, around mid May, when their leaves are already present.
Several ponds and small lakes create contemplative spots within the Green-Wood grounds. The Crescent Water is flanked by weeping cherry, crabapples, and magnolia.
Spring trees are not all about bright blossoms. Beneath the fine-cut leaves of a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), its samara—winged seeds—are a vivid, ornamental scarlet.
The oldest trees at Green-Wood offer a cathedral-like sense of wonder.
The stately oaks—some of the largest in the city—are festooned with catkins, which produce pollen (atchoo!). The female flowers are demure and unobtrusive, situated below the new shoots, where the acorns will form.
Sweetgum flowers also reward close attention. The male part of the flower is upright and showy, while the female is the single small ball below (it becomes the prickly gumball, when pollinated).
And then sun breaks through, and our walk comes to an end. There is a lot more to see: electric azaleas, meadow grasses in bloom, and a wealth of spring perennials.
Perhaps we’ll come back tomorrow.
For more plant musings from Marie, see: