Each year in early spring, Prospect Park roars back to life after the dreariness of winter. The grasses that carpet the sprawling open spaces of “Brooklyn’s Backyard” start their annual metamorphosis from patchy brown to lush emerald. On nice days, a light breeze ripples through the freshly sprouted leaves crowning the Long Meadow’s trees, many of which rise 20 feet or higher.
And, perhaps most critically for the long-term maintenance of the park, newly planted saplings crop up in critical gaps in the landscape.
The vast majority of these are commemorative trees, planted by donors in honor or in memory of a loved one. And this season will be momentous: 46 trees are slated to be interred across the park through the end of May, the most commemorative plantings in a single season in about 20 years. They’ll be planted by at least 36 individuals, the greatest number of donors ever to give in a single season in the more than 30-year history of the Prospect Park Alliance, the stewards of the park.
Most frisbee-tossing patrons of the park likely know very little about the program, but that’s starting to change. In 2016, the Alliance began tagging donated trees with temporary plaques, which note the honoree and donors’ names along with a brief message. That’s how I—one of this year’s 36 donors—first came across the program.
My father, Gary C. Tepper, always loved trees, and one in particular: a sturdy oak I planted as a one-foot-tall sapling back in 1992, when I was in first grade. That year, my classmates and I each had been sent home with a small tree on Arbor Day, and Dad—ever the supportive father—suggested we plant it in the middle of our front yard. It wasn’t a particularly convenient location, and my father later confessed that he’d never really expected the thing to take root. Today, it towers over my family’s two-story home in Rockville, Maryland, a testament to my father’s stubborn refusal to cut it down, despite the advice of landscapers over the years. In Dad’s mind, the tree was intrinsically tied to me, and he’d no sooner fell it than he would his own daughter.
When Dad died last May after a five-month battle with pancreatic cancer, grief led me to ponder a way to meaningfully honor his memory closer to my current home in Brooklyn. On one of my morning walks through Prospect Park a few months ago, I noticed a small tree planted the previous fall, a temporary placard adhered to the protective fencing surrounding it. Perhaps, I thought, it was time to plant another tree.
Prospect Park’s commemorative tree program has been around since at least 1988, when the Alliance began keeping track of plantings. Since then, more than 1,300 commemorative trees have been installed across the park. Notable plantings include the September 11 Memorial Grove near Grand Army Plaza, which includes several flowering dogwoods, magnolias, and tulip trees; and a grove of dogwoods and stewardia trees dedicated last fall at the park’s 10th Street entrance by the family and friends of David Buckel, the prominent civil rights lawyer who self-immolated in the park in April 2018. Of late, however, the planting trend seems to skew less toward large groves and more toward individual trees, which Alliance staff says reflects a growing sense of personal ownership among park patrons.
“It’s become more popular,” says Prospect Park’s chief landscape architect Christian Zimmerman, who’s been on the job for just under 30 years. “We had times when 20 trees in a season was a big season and now we’re [over] 40. Definitely I think word of mouth has been a big part of this as people come and see those little temporary signs that explain what’s going on.”
Zimmerman helps pinpoint areas in the park that could benefit from a new planting; big open spaces and areas with older trees that won’t last another decade are primo targets. Zimmerman also whittles down the list of trees that can be planted in a given season; for instance, more southern magnolias (which do increasingly well here as climate change ratchets temperatures ever higher) and fewer elm trees (recent Asian longhorn beetle infestations and bouts of Dutch elm disease have wrought havoc on the species). Adherence within reason to the vision of the park’s original planners, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, is also a consideration, which Zimmerman checks against information gleaned by the Alliance’s on-staff archivist.
“We don’t always know the specific species, but we know the general locations,” Zimmerman explains. “We’re trying to bring back the original design intent of the trees standing singly or in small clusters, so you create long shadows across the [Long] Meadow. Then there are areas that are just off of important vistas or views that we’d like to replant.”
Donation fees have varied over the years, but it currently costs $4,000 for an “overstory” planting, which tend to be big and towering, and $2,000 for an “understory” tree, which are usually short and flowering. There’s also an option to plant a promotional tree for $1,500, which gives Alliance staff determination of the tree’s location and species. It’s all quite a lot of money, though considerably less than the $7,500 it costs to dedicate a new bench.
For comparison’s sake, things are less personal and more expensive in Central Park. There, it costs $10,000 to adopt an existing bench. You can endow an existing mature tree for $5,000, or for $500, bankroll the planting of saplings in general. “Wherever you see saplings in the Park, you will know yours is among them!” reads Central Park’s donation website.
Within Zimmerman’s guidelines, selection of location and species for over- and understory donations are largely up to the donor, and Alliance staff often works closely with individuals who have a particular vision for their plantings. I count myself as one of them: I sent a volley of emails and insisted on two on-site walk-throughs (including one with Zimmerman himself) before settling on a shady spot on a gently sloping hill at the base of the Long Meadow’s northern section. Dad’s new tree will be a red maple, which Zimmerman told me will yield shade faster than other available species.
Annie and Sophia Chen, too, were deeply involved in selecting a location for the understory tree and bench they’ll dedicate this spring in memory of their mother, Xiao Qiong Chen, who passed away in February following a years-long battle with ovarian cancer.
“We’d meet up with our dad and go to the park and look around and see the areas where he and my mom would stop and take in the view,” Annie says. Together they decided on an area near the lake for the bench, not far from a pergola their mother especially loved, and a spot in a large clearing on the Nethermead for a tulip tree. The sisters often spent time in the park with their parents; it was a natural meeting point between their respective apartments in Park Slope and the family home in Kensington, where Annie and Sophia were raised alongside their younger brother, Alex. They hope the park will continue to be a gathering place for their family.
“I have a daughter now,” Annie says. “Later on—in 10 or 15 years—when we all have children and we’re taking them to the park, we’ll have a place to show them.”
Barbara Logan similarly hopes that the trees she’s planted will serve as meeting places. A longtime Park Slope resident and a daily visitor to the park, she’s planting a tree this spring to mark the 50th birthdays of several close friends. Previously, she’d planted a cherry tree to replace an old Austrian pine that for decades had served as a rendezvous point for her longtime running group. Members would often leave personal effects at its base before embarking on a run, then find the items vanished upon their return; they dubbed the pine “The Taking Tree.” When the tree died following a drought, Logan’s crew was devastated.
“One of the girls that I run with somehow got bits of the trunk and she made little mementos for all of us out of it—they said, ‘Taker of occasional items, giver of lasting friendships,’” Logan says. “I feel very strongly that people need to know that the park is not free, even though it’s free to enter. To whatever extent you can, you need to support it. And so this is my way of doing that.”
The rising profile of the commemorative tree program comes at a critical time for Prospect Park. Climate change has resulted in a surge of powerful storms over the last decade, which have knocked down or seriously damaged trees across the park. The Alliance estimates that the park lost roughly 500 trees in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and about 100 trees were uprooted and 50 damaged in Hurricane Irene the year before. Years later, the park is still very much in recovery mode.
Although the Prospect Park Alliance oversees other tree plantings each year, they’re part of either publicly or privately funded capital projects throughout the park, or are aimed at woodland restoration. The trees that give Prospect Park its iconic look and feel—the soaring, majestic oaks and romantic, flower-laden cherries—are almost entirely borne of the commemorative tree program, Zimmerman says.
“If you looked at the Long Meadow 30 years ago and you looked at it today, I think you’d be amazed at the number of trees that we have brought back through this program,” he says. “It’s just changed the whole layering and the view. You have more shade, you have more color, you have more variation on the meadow.”
Zimmerman is optimistic that the commemorative tree program will only continue to thrive. If it does, the park’s arboreal prognosis is promising.
“The next time you’re walking in the park, take a moment and look—just think, okay, somebody picked out one of these trees. Somebody wanted to do this,” Zimmerman says. “After 30 years, the change is dramatic.”