On Saturday, April 13, the MSNH joined botanist Daniel Atha from the New York Botanical Garden, for a guided botany walk in Central Park. The walk began at the corner of 81 street and Central Park West near the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Daniel started by pulling out a poster of a too-often neglected map of Manhattan, made by Edgar Viele in 1865. Looking at the Viele map, we were able to see what the area we were standing on looked like more than 150 years ago, and he noted how studying that map is still critical to architectural changes all across Manhattan today. Daniel pointed out how the AMNH's campus was once a park called Manhattan Square; it had been quite swampy and had a creek running through it. Landowners not wanting to build on the park due to the creek was, coincidentally, what made the land affordable and accessible enough to the founders of the AMNH. By showing us the Viele map, Daniel also emphasized how knowledge of the history of NYC's landscape helps us understand the present, including the current flora and fauna.
After explaining what Central Park would have looked like when the first settlers arrived, Daniel began to point out native plants that would have grown in the same area prior to the park's construction but which often go unnoticed by many a New Yorker who are often distracted by the many colorful exotic species surrounding them. To help us with our plant identification skills, Daniel showed us a neat citizen science, free and user friendly app called iNaturalist. By taking a photo of a plant (or any organism for that matter) and uploading it to the website, one can get an identification in an instant! We tested it on a few species and were able to get 100% accurate identifications as confirmed by our expert botanist! (Although he wasn't too thrilled at the prospect of being replaced by a machine!)
The walk ended with a visit to an ash tree which, according to Daniel, is one of the most poorly studied species in the world. Ash trees are dioecious, meaning that they have separate male and female trees. Daniel pointed out how the particular ash tree we were under had not been documented in New York City until he and a colleague stumbled across it during a walk in the park only a few years prior, although the tree was clearly much older than that. After bumping into this particular tree, they were able to locate several other trees in the city including a few males that are found in the park. The walk, though it did not cover much geographic ground, revealed an enormous landscape and story just beyond the path's edge. While experts like Daniel will always be indispensable resources for education and scientific research, we also learned how we have the power to better educate ourselves and appreciate the flora and fauna around us, even in the oft-manicured "concrete jungle" of New York City.
To view more photos from this event, please visit our gallery. All photo credit goes to Glenn Doherty.
iNaturalist - An app used for identifying plants an animals.
NYC Street Tree Map - Website which includes a map with species names for every tree in New York City!
Edgar Viele Map - Biography of Edgar Viele and map of Manhattan in 1865
New York Botanical Garden - Home of the New York Botanical Garden
Daniel Atha is a botanist and the Director of Conservation Outreach in the Center for Conservation Strategy at the New York Botanical Garden. He has conducted fieldwork in all 50 states of the US as well as Vietnam, Bolivia, Mexico, Belize, and several states of the former Soviet Union, and has collected over 15,000 plants, including two species new to science. With his colleagues, Regina Alvarez and Ken Chaya, he will soon publish a complete catalog of the Central Park flora. He manages the New York City EcoFlora, a community science project to document the wild plants of New York City.