In Jeopardy: Washington Square's 330 Year Old "Hangman's" English Elm — Is Improper and Inadequate protection during Park's recent construction the cause?

The “Hangman’s Elm” — Oldest Living Tree in Manhattan
Branches Cut at Top of Tree

An English Elm is the species of the tree which resides in the NorthWest Quadrant of Washington Square Park, the tree that is largely (and ironically, somewhat fondly) referred to as the “Hangman’s Elm.” Although there are no records of an actual hanging from the tree, at some point, it was given this name and it stuck. Perhaps because it looks so old, so majestic, and so strong, you can certainly imagine a hanging occurring from the tree in the 1800s, a century the tree lived through. In 1989, the Parks Department determined the age of the tree to be 310 years old, making it now 333. It is the oldest known living tree in Manhattan.

I contacted Bronx-based arborist Ralph Padilla to find out more about the English Elm in general, why healthy trees might get stressed, and if the Parks Department’s plan to trim branches of this tree ultimately made sense.

Padilla says that a healthy English Elm has wood so strong that “ordinarily you could hang a school bus from it,” the exception being when it is under stress or has “a defect or hole.”

Recently, Community Board 2 was alerted by the city’s Parks Department about concerns around the state of the tree and a plan to remove some of the majestic Elm’s branches. Community members were greatly concerned. The Parks Department provided this statement as far as their course of action and why:

Parks Department statement on the status of the Washington Square English Elm:

A ground based visual tree inspection and a subsequent aerial climbing inspection of the Washington Square Park English Elm found evidence of decay and strength loss. Approximately 20% of its crown will be removed in stages to reduce the mechanical stress experienced by its stems and branches and avoid the complete removal of the tree. The tree will also be treated against Dutch Elm Disease in the next few weeks.

When I read Padilla the statement the Parks Department gave in relation to the Hangman’s Elm, he said that it sounded “pretty reasonable.” He said if there is concern about “the vulnerability of the branch” which could break off, instead of removing the entire branch, “the strategy is to reduce weight … to prune away a bit. Now, it definitely won’t break.” Given the concerns, he said the way the city agency was proceeding sounded “very good.” As we spoke, he shed light on what might cause the stress the tree was under and that “decay and strength loss.”

Recent Criticism of City’s Parks Department over Maintenance of Trees

Recently, the Parks Department has been heavily criticized for its oversight of the health of the city’s trees resulting in deaths and injuries. On the one hand, great that they caught the problem with the Hangman’s Elm before something serious happened, but, on the other, is something else being ignored? That something is inadequate protection of our city trees during construction projects.

Padilla said, “Ordinarily with an overly mature tree, you never remove any green parts. There is barely enough food to power the entire system.” He said “the real plant food comes from the leaves which convert sunlight and energy into sugars. These sugars are the only real plant food.” (Fascinating!) He didn’t think, given the assessment, that there was much other option than the route they were taking. But I wonder why is the tree in this precarious state?

Protection around park trees during construction “a joke”

When I mentioned the park’s continuous construction and that the branches that were recently removed were at the top of the tree, he said, “When the branches at the top of a tree die off, the problem is in the root area; a disturbance of the root zone. The root zone of this tree would be far reaching – possibly half way across the park.

He continued, “Construction and trees almost never work out because the protection is so half ass. I didn’t see the protection they took but the right protection for this tree would be a chain link fence 30 feet out from the trunk.”

When I explained that the protection consisted of four rickety wood slats right around the trunk of the tree, he said “that’s a joke.”

This is what the “protection” around all the park’s trees during construction has looked like over the last four years, including the Hangman’s Elm:

WSP Tree "Protection" Could Certainly be Improved
WSP Tree “Protection” Could Certainly be Improved (October 2009)

Basically what happens, according to Padilla: “When the roots get damaged, the tree will sacrifice the tippy top to direct energy into the root system in order to make repairs where the roots were damaged.” (Also fascinating!)

Padilla did say that treating the elm for Dutch Elm disease is smart since the insect that is the vector for Dutch Elm Disease is attracted to holes and the cutting of the branches could make the Elm susceptible.

Can we change the city’s practices and prompt appropriate care of our city’s trees?

So, we have to send some good energy to the Hangman’s Elm. Perhaps it can be a lesson. NYC needs to make necessary and major changes in the way our trees are being protected during construction.

The Bloomberg Administration has made much of its “Million Trees” Initiative while not providing funds for the necessary maintenance of these new trees as well as existing ones. It becomes difficult not to believe it’s all a p.r. ploy. Now, we have the situation before us with the 333 year old “Hangman’s Elm” and its decline and it’s impossible not to point to the construction and the fact that necessary precautions have not been taken.

Will the Bloomberg’s Administration’s dramatic redesign of Washington Square Park be the cause of the demise of the oldest known living tree in Manhattan?

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Very cool Time Lapse video from 7:19 p.m. to 9:35 p.m. of the Hangman’s Elm one day in April 2012 from Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel:

* Wikipedia Hangman’s Elm
How to Prevent Additional Trees at Washington Square Park from Dying – Questions Abound WSP Blog, August 23, 2011
* Training to spot Tree Decay is Urged for Parks Workers New York Times, May 31, 2012
* Kristin Jones’ “Behold,” Slated for Arbor Day 2013, Has Eye on Hangmen’s Elm at Washington Square WSP Blog, December 19, 2011

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14 thoughts on “In Jeopardy: Washington Square's 330 Year Old "Hangman's" English Elm — Is Improper and Inadequate protection during Park's recent construction the cause?”

  1. Hi Georgia, That’s so sad. Thanks for the link; sorry for the delayed response. I have to wonder what led to that… I sure hope the “Hangmen’s Elm” doesn’t end up in that state.
    Cathryn.

  2. Clearly no one should be surprised what is occurring to the WSP tree organisms amid the DPR Capital construction debacle. This same story has been playing out in FULL PUBLIC VIEW for decades and continues to play out across scores of parkland reconstruction projects elsewhere (such as Collect Pond Park (Lafayette / Worth)) that all have the same unfortunate results. And why does this happen? DPR Capital engineers and their administrators continue to follow the lead of the landscape architect with their minimal understanding of arboriculture but who has been allowed to define for that agency what can occur or not occur in the parkland landscape-without question. Simultaneously dismissing what the Forester or Arborist has to offer in terms of his / her understanding of Arboriculture and the needs of trees when exposed to construction activity. With that, despite the Mayor’s PlaNYC2030 call for expanding tree canopy across the City, glorified new tree plantings (i.e., MillionTrees) have become the driving force behind the destruction of existing trees everywhere irregardless of global climate concerns, aesthetics, quality of life or the preservation of relics from ancient times.

    • Since the WSP project is a Parks Capital operation one assumes these young trees were installed as part of that project. With that, the boro forester for Manhattan would have little say on how these Capital trees were acquired, placed, installed or maintained. As you well know tree planting is an involved process. Yet the history of arboriculture in this city has revealed time and time again that when the independent tree authority is absent during tree installations (and b/c of their lacking in the arboricultural skillset, the LA or engineer are not the folk you’d want overseeing the project tree planting component ) – many things will go wrong. A bit of tree forensics is needed here to determine the many possible reasons for poor tree performance;
      1. Did the project landscape architect and engineer partner with a seasoned ISA or ASCA level Consulting Arborist on decisions about the tree planting locations and the condition of the landscape soils where these trees were to be planted?
      2. Independent from the landscaper that installed these trees, was the Consulting Arborist present to inspect the trees at the nursery for condition and approval for planting at WSP, and again upon delivery to the job site?
      3. Were these trees freshly dug nursery stock or simply culls from previous seasons and is that documented by the Consulting Arborist?
      4. Was the Consulting Arborist present at the time of installation to verify and approve compliance to industry tree planting standards (and who would have drafted something of a daily report to the engineer on his/her activities). If not, then why not?
      5. What arboricultural authority signed off and approved the plantings?
      6. Based on the current tree conditions did the Consulting Arborist track and monitor the contractual care and maintenance (and watering) of these trees by the landscaper on a weekly basis for the period of the warranty? If not then why not?
      7. What steps is the project resident engineer now going to take to ensure that poor tree performance is not repeated with any of the replacement trees?

      I hope this helps.

  3. Hi Urban Mole,

    Thanks for your thoughts. They do seem way beyond the way the Parks Department is handling things as far as trees – although I will take note of your comments and use them in an upcoming post.

    best,
    Cathryn
    WSPB

  4. The concern of the future of this tree while it is a historical landmark has somehow been overlooked. Could it be that this particular elm, being 330 years old not only holds its own relevance, but is connected to the burial site that rests on the park grounds. When construction begins it disturbs the infrastructure of the grounds it sits on and its immediate surroundings. Im glad its total destruction has stopped. This historical site must be preserved and maintained as an integral part of manhattan.

  5. Hi John,

    I am not sure if the burial area intersects with that spot but that is a good question. I would have to go check again. The construction definitely disturbed that tree – all the trees, which were all inadequately protected. The fact that this tree was so old and historic, during construction, it should have at least been protected in a much more secure manner than the others. I hope it holds on and yes it must be preserved.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Cathryn

  6. All those that have a fondness for urban trees, especially large urban trees should be alarmed. NYC Parks Forestry is NOT in the tree protection and preservation business, although officials repeatedly state their fondness for trees. The Parks agency maintains an appalling record of managing our public parkland and street trees across all boroughs allowing contractors to abuse, harm and damage those trees despite the protections afforded to them through the NYC Administrative Code.

    When it comes to protecting and preserving this invaluable and irreplaceable public asset (when they have the opportunity to do so) the behavior observed is more akin to a forestry logging operation, denuding the urban forest of its large trees one tree at a time. That is whenever and wherever there is construction and excavation. On the Capital projects it is engineers, projects managers, designers and staff analysts that make the decisions about our parkland trees, an organism that they have no right to be talking about- less making decisions about their fate.

  7. Hi Dr. Gee,

    It is very alarming what you wrote, and, of course, too many of us have seen this way of doing things by Parks – pretending to care about trees while harming and not protecting them properly. Even way back with the redesign of the park, the forestry dept. signature was missing from the plans! And of course we have seen so many trees die.

    Not sure how we get this to change at the Parks Dept. I dont know if you have followed the perpetually dying trees around the Fountain Plaza at WSP and what has been happening there but would be curious for your thoughts.

    Thanks!

    best,
    Cathryn

    • The agencies behavior is far more sinister than you have observed thus far in WSP. The large scape tree losses is part of a hush Trees for Cash program that is driving the denuding of the urban forests of its large spectacular shade trees. I would say that legal action is the only way to force the agency to change and alter its management practices for preserving these invaluable living public assets for the public benefit.

      The observed losses in newly planted trees you noted in WSP is simple to explain. There is widespread non-compliance to the Industry standards by the agency, its foresters and engineers. Absent essential arboricultural inputs and oversight by the tree expert shall increase the chance of tree mortality. And do not assume the agency “forester” knows what he or she is talking about. Many titled Foresters are hired urban or environmental planners, architects etc that are clueless about trees; what it takes to properly install them, knowledgeable about soils and with an assured follow-up care for the period of tree establishment. Many of the Capital tree plantings (and even the Million Tree Program) treat these long lived complex organisms as if they were daffodils.

      As an aid to better understanding the tree installation process (for tree success) look up ANSI A300 Part 6 Standard Practices: Planting and Transplanting, along with the accompanying Best Management Practices guide published by the International Society of Arboriculture http://www.isa-arbor.com/store/product.aspx?ProductID=104

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