A Webinar with Margaret Bracken, Landscape Architect for Riverside Park
By Meg A. Parsont
On April 27, The Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group hosted “More than Cherries: The Flowering Trees of Riverside Park,” a webinar with Margaret Bracken, the landscape architect for Riverside Park. The webinar took place the day after what would have been the 200th anniversary of Frederick Law Olmsted, which is fitting, as it was Olmsted who had the grand vision for the park, and who was the genius behind some of its most enduring defining characteristics.
Here is an overview of the webinar. The link to it is at the end of the story.
First, Ms. Bracken presented a concise history of Riverside Park, tracing its various layers from its earliest days in the 1880s and the schematic design of Frederick Law Olmsted through its expansion when Robert Moses became commissioner of the combined parks system in 1934.
To put the epic scope of the creation of Riverside Park into perspective, Bracken explained that it was built entirely from scratch in an area where there had previously been farms. When they blasted through the bedrock in the first stages of construction, they kept and re-used the material in a very “green” and forward-thinking process, creating the mica schist retaining wall that exists today.
The naturalistic style created by Olmsted gave way around the turn of the century to a more formal and classical style of landscape architecture. Then, when Robert Moses came in, he saw the potential for capitalizing on the westside waterfront and doubled the size of the park. Today, Riverside Park encompasses 327 acres.
After walking webinar attendees through the various stages in the development of Riverside Park, Ms. Bracken then delved into the natural beauty of the park, focusing on its flowering trees. Riverside Park is one of the few designated scenic landmarks in New York City and one of Ms. Bracken’s goals is to retain the integrity of the whole park.
In 1909, Japanese citizens planned to donate 2,000 cherry trees to the city, but sadly, the steamer transporting the trees from Japan sank. Another boat was sent over to New York with 2,000 more trees, which were successfully planted in what is now Sakura Park in Morningside Heights. Cherry trees are very hardy and withstand even the challenging conditions directly on the waterfront, but they only live up to a maximum of 40 years. So, none of the cherry trees currently in the park date back to the Olmsted or Moses eras.
Close to 13,000 trees were planted in the two years that Riverside Park was under construction between 1935-37. Today, there are three species of cherry trees in Riverside Park: the white Okame are the first to bloom starting in mid-March. Next to bloom are the Yoshino, which are the cherry trees with the most generous spread and palest pink blooms. Finally, there are the Kwanzan cotton-candy pink, double blooms, which are in full bloom right now. The cherry trees in Sakura Park are mature Yoshino and Kwanzan cherries, probably planted in the 1980s.
In the 1930s, crabapples were planted most likely as a buffer between Riverside Park and the Henry Hudson Parkway. Although they are prone to powdery mildew and other nuisance conditions, crabapples are very hardy and live longer than cherry trees: typically, 50-80 years. Some can even live up to 100 years!
The varieties of crabapples currently growing in Riverside Park are the columnar, white-bloomed Red Jewel, deep-pink Profusion, and the honey-scented Floribunda, with its distinctive multi-stem form. Ms. Bracken has the planting plans from the 1930s for large areas of the park to refer to, and while the park can’t always purchase the same species as what was originally planted, they have gotten trees with the same multi-stem growth pattern from a nursery in Illinois. (Most other trees are “standard” with a single trunk.)
In bloom right now:
• Kwanzan cherry trees: glossy bark with horizontal linear cuts in it, and cotton-candy double pink blooms
• Floribunda crabapples: irregular bark texture, multi-stem form, magenta buds that open into pale pink-white blooms with a lovely fragrance.
• Profusion crabapples: irregular bark texture, generous spreads of dark pink blooms
• Redbud: redbud is unique in that the buds are directly on the stem. Typically, clusters of tiny magenta buds open into rosy pink flowers, but redbud also comes in white, as can be seen around the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial. Pink redbud can be seen all around the park.
• Pink flowering native dogwood
• Pink Japanese flowering dogwood
• Black Locust: very large trees with slightly fragrant blooms
• Hawthorn: the unsung hero of RSP, according to Margaret Bracken. Gorgeous delicate pale blooms that look particularly beautiful juxtaposed next to red horse chestnut, which tends to bloom at the same time. Look for a hawthorn on the West 74th Street Lawn.
• Linden trees: tall flowering trees with a lovely fresh fragrance along Riverside Drive
• Tuilp trees: very tall trees with greenish-yellow flowers that grow high up in the tree. Look for one at 107th Street.
The webinar is available for viewing here.