HORT travels

Exploring the horticultural beauty in every adventure.

About that tree in Brooklyn (or… Adventures in Finding Free Things to Do in the City…)


Lily Pond at the Narrows Botanical Garden

Lily Pond at the Narrows Botanical Garden

Perhaps you read the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.  {{Spoiler alert}} The tree in the story was an Ailanthus altissima or Tree of Heaven. This tree is known for its ability to thrive in even the harshest of conditions, hence its use as a metaphor for the strength and tenacity of the main character in the book.

“There’s a tree that grows in Brooklyn. Some people call it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed falls, it makes a tree which struggles to reach the sky. It grows in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps.  It grows up out of cellar gratings. It is the only tree  that grows out of cement. It grows lushly…survives without sun, water, and seemingly without earth. It should be considered beautiful except that there are too many of it.” Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

The “ghetto palm” (as my inner-city high school interns once described it to me) has become a bit too successful dominating roadsides and vacant lots in all but 6 of the states. Introduced from China as an ornamental plant Ailanthus was planted widely throughout the Northeast in the first half of the century. It fell out of favor with the horticultural crowd but despite its lack of popularity continued to insert itself into devoid and neglected areas of our landscape.  In his book Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast Peter Del Tredici asks us to take a different look at these weed plants colonizing waste spaces.  He suggests that these “weedy” and “spontaneous” plants benefit the cities by creating forests and the ecological benefits associated with forests, at no cost to the residents. Hmmm. Del Tredici says these are as important part of the urban landscape as the native plants restricted to protected natural areas and the highly maintained cultivated gardens on display throughout the city.

I am still digesting this point of view as it flies in the face of everything familiar to me. While I appreciate the sentiment, science and statistics, it is still hard for me to promote the embrace of invasive, weedy plant species to the detriment of native plants and the wildlife they support.  As I continue to consider and explore this topic, I visit those highly manicured cultivated garden spaces that are also an important part of the fabric of a city. This trip takes me to Brooklyn.

Lured by the promise of the best Mac and Cheese I have ever eaten, my sister escorts me into Brooklyn. She has the address for the restaurant and I have the address for a number of small garden spaces I would like to visit on this adventure. These small hidden green spaces are beautiful, well maintained, and FREE. You may have visited, or least may be familiar with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG)  which is a stellar example of Public Horticulture, visited by thousands of people yearly. If you haven’t been you should go. The garden is beautiful in any season, the educational exhibits are as worth the trip as the plant displays, so don’t wait, just go.

While your are in the borough, perhaps take a peek at these two lesser known garden spaces.

Narrows Botanical Garden

Tucked along Shore Road with a view of the Narrows Waterway, (this according to their website as I am so directionally and geographically challenged I rarely know exactly where I am in relation to anything else on this earth – sad to say. Like my lead foot, I am sure this trait is genetic) this long skinny garden boasts many features. From butterfly garden to zen garden volunteers care for everything here. Some of the areas were locked up tight on the day we visited, but the garden is arranged in such a way most of the space is visible just by walking the perimeter.  While that means not getting up close and personal with a turtle in the turtle preserve we still got a glimpse of one basking on a log in the little pond.

If you are into ponds, and really who isn’t, there is a pond in the sidewalk at this garden too. According to their signage, it is the only street-side lily pool in the City of New York.

Birds and bees are provided with homes with a view and butterflies are welcomed into a garden providing food for both caterpillars and adults.


In addition to the butterfly garden overlooking the highway and the water, you will find a zen garden, native plant garden, rose gardens, a conifer garden and an interesting collection of succulents and arid region plants you may not expect in New York. The mild climate of this space tempered by its waterside location certainly allows the gardeners to take some liberties with plant selection. Endangered in its native Chile and Argentina you can even examine a Monkey Puzzle Tree (Araucaria araucana) up close in this garden.

I encourage you to take your time looking for the details in this unique space. Even with construction going on all around and the hustle and bustle so typical of the city, as you enter the gates of this oasis you find peace and quiet, nature and unique details. Be sure to take in the views both near and far, you will see rock carvings as well as sights of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry and the Statue of Liberty.

Green Dome

The Green Dome Garden is named for the domes of the Russian Orthodox Church right across the street

The Green Dome Garden is named for the domes of the Russian Orthodox Church right across the street

After lunch of pretty darn good mac and cheese, certainly one of the best I have had out, and some tasty beer we headed out to another Brooklyn garden space. Located in McCarren Park in Williamsburg Brooklyn, Green Dome is named for the domes of the Russian Orthodox church located just across the street. The garden is a community garden implemented to create a haven for birds and bees. The informal natural plantings reflect this purpose. Meandering cobble pathways takes one through the garden, past a variety of plants hardy in this urban culture including crape myrtle, clematis and my favorite, oakleaf hydrangea.  Once again we weren’t able to get inside this garden as the gate was padlocked. The nice thing about these spaces is how they spill through their gates and fences, allowing for close viewing of flowers, vines and leaves. The gardens are small and surrounded by pathways so you can get the feel of the garden with out stepping foot in it. An experience unique to these small pocket gardens.

Have you found a pocket garden or hidden garden around you? Have you been to these or any other clandestine gardens? I would love to learn about them. I am always looking for more to add to my list of places to explore.

2 thoughts on “About that tree in Brooklyn (or… Adventures in Finding Free Things to Do in the City…)

  1. Pingback: Sumac | HORTravels

  2. This one’s my favorite! And you’re welcome for the geographically challenged genes 🙂

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