Field Notes: Learning Plants and Trees in New York City

Just because you live in the city there’s no reason not to know your plant neighbors – in fact, there may be more resources to do so here than anywhere else.

The following is a list of resources at your disposal in New York to help you learn the names of the trees growing outside your window, or the herbs poking through the cracks in the sidewalk.

1) Go for a walk in the park.
Central Park is a showcase of tree diversity. There are even areas of the park where trees have been given signs to help newcomers identify them by species! The park’s website has a list of trails you can walk in particular where you can get the most biodiversity bang for your buck, on their website, complete with maps!

If you’re looking for a way to learn the trees in your local park, or ones without labels  you can buy or borrow a book with a dichotomous key in the back (this one is my favorite but there are others – they can take a while to get the hang of, but you get used to them with practice) and learn trees that way. I have found this method to be much more challenging but also more effective for memorization. However, these books will not help you with a non-native tree and using it in the winter is a bit of a challenge, so keep that in mind!

2) Or a walk around the block.
Did you know that there’s a database that contains just about every tree planted anywhere in the five boroughs? It might sound wild, but it’s true and it’s a resource most people don’t know about at all! If you put in your location it will tell you the species of the trees around you as well as information like the ecological benefits of the tree and the diameter of it’s trunk.

You can filter by location, tree size, and species – so if you want to learn the trees in your neighborhood firsthand this is a fantastic resource. The site is pretty mobile compatible, so you can also use it on the go if you’re travelling and see an interesting tree you’re wondering about.

3) Visit the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Not only is a visit there a rejuvenating departure from everyday city life, but you can learn a lot while you’re there. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is essentially like a library of plants and trees – there are countless rooms full of plants and trees from all over the world, each of them carefully labeled.

I find it really interesting and inspiring to see what kind of greenery grows in different places, and there’s so much there that I notice something new each time I go. If you’re going there specifically to learn I recommend bringing a paper and pen to take notes and sketch for sure.

4) Take a class at the New York Botanical Garden.
The New York Botanical in the Bronx, like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, is a wealth of plant information itself, but they also have a very active calendar of classes. While both offer courses, The New York Botanical Garden has a more active course calendar, with more classes pertaining to plants and trees.

Whether you want to take a watercolor class and paint leaves in the fall or take a course on native plant survival, they always seem to have something interesting going on. If you’re interested in tree identification specifically you can easily poke around online and find an upcoming one for your skill level and interest! Course Horse is a great resource for this. Keep in mind there tend to be more in the warmer months.

New York City has a plethora of ways to learn about trees and plants that you can explore year round.

No matter which one you pick, if you’re serious about learning I suggest you keep a journal for sketching the plants you’re learning and keeping track of them all!

Like any skill it takes time, but if you have the interest it is fun and rewarding to see familiar trees when you’re on a hike or even a walk in an unfamiliar part of town.

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