There are a number of trees scattered around Kingsbridge and Spuyten Duyvil — exactly 3,184 of them, according to the city parks department. But one in particular is special than most.
A cottonwood tree stands tall on the corner of John Collins Place and West 239th Street. In fact, Matthew López-Jensen, an urban tree and forest advocate from Norwood, believes it is about 50 or 60 years old.
But this cottonwood has much life in it — it has at least another 50 years if preserved well and if it avoids harm, according to the city’ parks department.
The tree is also so tall, making it impossible to miss. It stands about 70 feet high. A resident on the fifth floor of an apartment building can easily see the top of its branches.
It is the largest non-park tree in quite a radius.
What actually makes this tree important for the Bronx community?
López–Jensen walks around a lot and one time found his way to Kingsbridge. He eventually came upon this huge tree that he originally believed to be an elm — also large and rare — and took a picture of it. He sent the photo to a friend to ask if they were familiar with it. Unfortunately, his friend was not.
Afterward, admiring its “beauty,” he took a second to examine its surroundings. It was in a parking lot of a construction zone. And “someone is going to put a big building here someday,” he said. “We should try to celebrate it before someone cuts it down without thinking.”
According to López–Jensen, say for example there was a construction site in the middle of Manhattan, but work was stopped on that site where a cottonwood tree was. A year later, if the tree was not knocked down there will most likely be a baby cottonwood nearby that would grow because of the seeds being blown around.
“They’re kind of magical,” López–Jensen said.
At the Kingsbridge site, there will be a building there — actually, a school.
In 2021-22 the city school construction authority announced it was going to build a school next to the proposed affordable housing building planned for 160 Van Cortlandt Park South. It had its eyes on the property ever since the Vatican closed the Church of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and its parochial school, the land was deconsecrated in 2017.
SCA went through a set of hearings to win council approval to acquire a half acre of land.
Now the cottonwood tree that can fit inside a six-story building is in the hands of SCA. But for now, they do not yet know what they would do with the cottonwood despite the design phase being near completion and construction set to begin the end of the year.
“It can really be a service to the building that is built,” López-Jensen said. Like a “living air conditioner.”
The proposed school might wind up being the same height as the tree, which could provide well-needed shade.
Plus, air conditioning has been a sensitive topic within public schools. Former mayor Bill de Blasio promised universal air conditioning by 2022.
The city poured more than $400 million into upgrading electrical systems. Students could even play outside without dripping in sweat, as the school wants to add a playground for the youngest. However, they are still discussing the layout.
But more than that, the cottonwood can benefit the building in other ways. It can suck up stormwater that would otherwise end up in the basement.
According to Nature at the Confluence, an Illinois-based new urban center, cottonwoods consume large amounts of water in their growth cycle; a mature cottonwood tree uses 200 gallons of water a day.
Of course, not everything about this tree is perfect — it has disadvantages. For instance, a female tree produces cotton in the spring, which can be a nuisance near air conditioners. But there have not been complaints.
Meanwhile, since the tree is so large — the branches become weak. And then they collapse, which can cause property damage.
But, tree cabling is visibly seen at the very top of some branches. Its an effort to prevent such damage to buildings and people.
“The Botanical Garden will do that to their larger trees,” López-Jensen said. “And somebody did that to this tree, so someone loved it at some point.”
The male tree can grow 2 to 3 feet per year — minus the cotton, said Julie Forney, who has 25 plus years of experience of gardening. She wrote an article about cottonwoods and how they relate to home improvement and real estate that was published on the broadcasting reality television network HGTV website .
“I always think there’s a really like, kind of a magic and an energy around a tree that has somehow fought for its right to exist in a city in a block hasn’t been torn down,” López-Jenson said.
SUB: Trees that faced the axe before
According to The Nature Conservancy — a global nonprofit — an estimated 41 million trees are chopped down daily. The Bronx is familiar with losing some of its greenery.
Recently, at 5445 Palisade Ave., an owner chopped down a tree to get a better view of the Hudson River from the property. Also, in 2022, out of Community Board 8, Mosholu Parkway residents fought for trees that were facing the axe.
The park agency told the Daily News its routine housekeeping and maintenance that included removing a few trees.
Dozens were chopped down. It reminded the residents of the “Mosholu Massacre” in 1987, where 67 Norwegian trees were chopped after standing for 100 years. They were planted in memory of World War I fallen soldiers.
More about cottonwood
Cottonwood trees are living landmarks. They are commonly found along rivers so it can tolerate wet conditions. Early pioneers desired to be near cottonwood trees as it signified water on an often-parched land area.
The tree allowed the early American pioneers to use the leaves for animal fodder and herbal teas, its canopy for shelter and its wood for fire.
But, the history of cottonwood goes even further back. Native Americans have found them sacred. There are stories where its roots were used as masks, rituals, and ceremonial objects.
Some Native American tribes created canoes from cottonwood trees.
Tribes used the leaves to treat wounds and swelling. It is believed to be “anti-inflammatory with anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties. Herbalists today still use the cottonwood tree for many remedies,” Nature of the Confluence stated.
To be more specific, cottonwood trees have the same medical compound that gives aspirin its pain-relieving benefits.
“They are amazing trees but undervalued by the city,” López-Jensen said.
In Norwood, “we have a grove on Mosholu and the largest, I think in the Bronx down by the river.