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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

Leeds Pond flora or, becoming an amateur arborist

Updated: Oct 24, 2022

Let’s talk plants for a bit please. Look out your window, how many trees

do you see? Looking out both of the windows here in my office I can count only a few standouts, the rest blend into a wall of verdant green colors and the occasional splashes of red on the American Holly tree (Ilex opaca). It was October when this was written and the trees outside had barely started changing colors, but that was more down to the local slight drought and warm-ish weather that Long Island experienced when this was written. Conditions like these will always affect the rate at which the trees change color each year

On the property of the Science Museum, we have a great deal of variety, both good and bad of flora. Walk around the grounds and you’ll readily see the large tree smack in the middle of the field and at the top of the hill; commonly known as the Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). If you’re here and you find leaves on the tree, take one off and rip it, take a sniff and you might smell a sweet smell. Come here later in the fall and you’ll find their trademark sweet gum balls, burrs or “spike balls” as children are known to call them. These "spike balls" are really just the long-stemmed, woody, burr-like fruit. Approximately 1½" in diameter these "gum balls" are eaten by many animals such as eastern goldfinches, purple finches, sparrows, mourning doves, northern bobwhites and wild turkeys (none of which I've ever seen or heard here on the property). Small mammals such as chipmunks, red squirrels and gray squirrels also enjoy the fruits and seeds.

Author's photo looking out over the great lawn, Fall 2020

There used to be a LARGE tree on top of the hill, a Red Maple (Acer rubrum). Nicknamed “Dimitree”, these are one of the most common deciduous trees in North America. These trees get their name from the vivid red color that their leaves change as the fall creeps in. And since it is a maple tree, it can be used in the production of syrup but its cousins, Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Black Maple (Acer nigrum) are more traditionally used. Sadly, tropical storm Isaias dealt the tree a wound from which it would never recover and, it was found out, the inside of the tree had become dangerously rotted (and had to be taken down).

UPDATE: A large slice of the the trunk and a slice of it's largest branch have now been preserved and are on display on the first floor of the museum. Make sure you find it when you're here and admire the tree that was estimated to be planted before the nickel was introduced into American currency!!!

Walk towards the woods at the bottom of the hill and you’ll come across two more (non-native) maple species. Look for the long, skinny leaves of one of our Japanese Maple trees (Acer palmatum) and inside the woods you’ll find a local scourge. The Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) was introduced to North America somewhere between 1750 and 1760 as a shade tree before making its way to the northwest of the US about 110 years later. These tall maples (can produce sugary sap, enough to make syrup but also) naturally produce Phytotoxins-substances that are poisonous or toxic to the growth of plants- that create soil conditions detrimental to the growth of other, native trees like Sugar Maples. They also produce a full canopy of leaves, further starving the forest floor of light, but fortunately, can be toppled in windy (i.e., a tropical storm). This is due to their shallow root systems. Come visit the forest and you’ll see a hole in the canopy from where a few trees fell last August 2019.

But it’s not all invasive and cut down trees, look closer and you’ll find edible plants that grow in and around the grounds and paths of the Preserve. Take the humble Taraxacum officinale, or as you know it, the Dandelion. This “weed” is FAR more interesting that you might have initially thought. In various places around the world, dandelions are grown and harvested as a leafy vegetable! (We even feed the leaves to some of our animals here!) The leaves can be eaten raw or cooked and put into soups! These leaves aside, those who choose to, can grow the flowers and ferment them to make wine and beer! There is also the diuretic properties known to traditional Chinese medicinal properties for two millennia! You can even get yellow dye from the flowers!

Look even closer and you’ll surely see a group of long-stemmed plants sticking out of the ground, looking like long, thin green straws. Scientifically known as Allium canadense, the common name is Wild (or Meadow) Onion. Like their cultivated cousins, these onions can be eaten raw or cooked and eaten in early spring, as some Native American tribes continue to do. And like humans, there are multiple varieties with different characteristics and locations where they are found, from New Brunswick, Canada to Florida and on to Texas and Montana. It is also found in Cuba as well. Regardless of location it flowers in small spherical clusters of pink, white or pale purple flowers.

A view of the Ginko tree from the 3rd floor of SMLI's main building. Courtesy of author.

We’ll end our discussion with the longest-existing species of tree on the preserve, which is also right next to the mansion...Although there's another hiding if you look for it. This species is part of a group of trees whose origins date back 270 million years and the only species of the division Ginkgophyta. Scientifically speaking, this “living fossil” is called Pterophyllus salisburiensis, Ginkgo macrophylla or Salisburia adiantifolia, it’s more commonly known as the Ginkgo biloba or “Ginkgo” or “Gingko” tree. They are also somewhat unique around Leeds pond as they will lose ALL their leave in the span of a day or two! When this happens, you'll see a yellow carpet of Gingko leaves. However you spell or classify it, this tree species has existed on earth for millions of years, watched some of the dinosaurs come and go and a few even survived the atomic bomb attacks in Japan!

Originating in the Permian period, roughly 270 million years ago, Gingkos are native to China and was cultivated early in human history, is used in traditional medicine and is a source of food! A tall growing tree, up to 160 under good conditions, these trees are resistant to most disease and insects, making them a long-lived tree. These trees and their fan-shaped leaves are the official tree of Tokyo and have a peculiar habit of dropping all their leaves over the course of a few days, often creating a carpet of yellow leaves. Their hardiness was put on horrific display in 1945 when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Six Gingko trees that were between one and two kilometers survived the blast! Charred but alive, these six incredible trees are still alive with the name “Hibakujumoku”, Japanese for “survivor tree”. The incredible heat produced by the blast damaged the portion of the trees above ground but largely leaving the underground portions alive and intact, allowing the recovery.

If you want to know more about the various flora here on the preserve the “PlantNet” app is a great tool! Enjoy yourself as you walk around but just remember what the teachers tell the students while we walk through the woods of the preserve, “If you don’t know what it is, don’t touch it… There is poison ivy here but it’s not going to jump out at you. You have to touch it to get itchy.”

Fall 2019 after many trees have lost their leaves, sunset over Manhasset bay. Courtesy of author.

Scratch the itch to learn about all the interesting flora around Leeds Pond and enjoy, just stay away from the poison ivy.

Happy learning!

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1 Comment

Semara Hasian
Semara Hasian
Oct 15, 2023

It's really fascinating that you use this tree for both food and medicine. I know that in my country, the leaves of the bush are usually used for pickles . But it's really cool that there are so many functions of one tree. I'm really fascinated by multifunctionality in general. For me, it's like a kind of motivation that you need to be versatile and have a knack for more than just one thing.

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