The Bronx's Old Growth Lab

By Nixon, Will | American Forests, Autumn 1995 | Go to article overview

The Bronx's Old Growth Lab


Nixon, Will, American Forests


Deep in the heart of the Bronx, you can find something very rare in the United States - an old-growth forest. In fact, it's the largest remnant of the original forest that once existed in the New York metro area. Some 40 acres at the New York Botanical Garden have slipped between the cracks of progress to remain a green retreat from the urban world.

Wood-chip paths lead visitors through forest that features an odd combination of scattered towering red oaks and tulip-trees, skeletal hemlock groves stripped by woolly adelgid blight, and fire hydrants. Granted, these 40 acres aren't a museum tableau of the forest that Henry Hudson found in the region in 1609, and they've been trampled and managed so much they probably no longer meet the spirit of old-growth, but they're a valuable research site for ecologists studying the disruptive effects urban civilization has on natural forests.

For the past decade, scientists from the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, have had a particular interest in the forest's soil, finding that it holds more lead, copper, and nickel than rural dirt. It also repels rainwater, a trait called hydrophobicity, and generates nutrients more rapidly because earthworms there digest the leaf litter much faster than fungi does on the forest floor in rural areas (see As the Worm Turns, page 34). But these studies have simply laid the groundwork for new research into why plant and tree species prosper or fail in this environment.

"All we know now is that there are differences in the soil and in the forest structure between the urban and rural forests. Certain species are increasing, and others are not. We don't know why," says Janet Morrison, a forest ecologist who joined the NYBG staff in October 1994. Do some species produce more seeds than others? Do squirrels and rabbits prefer certain seeds? Do some seeds germinate better than others in this soil? In short, researchers must study each step of the life cycle to learn where and why each species falters or gains.

The losers are oaks, which for uncertain reasons haven't regenerated, and hemlocks, which have declined for much of the century. "We have beautiful old archival photos of hemlocks that were 250 or 300 years old," she says. But years ago, as a precaution against fires, the NYBG staff removed fallen trees from the forest floor. …

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