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Prospect Park, Brooklyn

Prospect Park, Brooklyn

If you wander through the beautiful landscape of Prospect Park in Brooklyn, you will encounter many lovely sights: vistas of pastoral splendor will open before you filled with fields, trees, forests, streams, and lakes. There are stately statues, Victorian villas, gazebos, and landscaped gardens aplenty in the huge park–but there oddities too. Beside the Beaux Arts boathouse which floats above the lake like a huge elegant wedding cake, you will come upon a strange sight.  Completely bounded within a gothic ironwork fence, a horribly twisted and mutated tree is held together with bolts, crutches, and wire.  Although the tree’s trunk and limbs are monstrous, it is only 4 meters (twelve feet) tall and it is covered with lovely deep green hand-sized leaves in summer.

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The Camperdown Elm in Winter (by Jim Henderson)

The tree is a Camperdown elm (Ulmus glabra ‘Camperdownii’) a bizarre mutant elm brought as a graft from the old world.  It was planted in 1872–the year that Ulysses S. Grant was reelected president (and also the first year that Arbor Day was celebrated). This particular tree has survived Dutch Elm disease, which wiped away America’s splendid elm-lined avenues, and the wizened tree somehow stayed alive during the urban decay of the 1960s-1990s (indeed its limbs are carved with obscure yet strangely familiar graffiti).  The wires, crutches, and supports are the work of gifted tree surgeons, brought in by the Prospect Park Alliance to keep the ancient tree alive.  It remains bonsai-like in its own little yard, a testament to the vigor of trees.

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The Camperdown Elm in late summer (By Yi Jun Zhang)|

The story of how the weeping elm was discovered is likewise a strange trip into the past.  Between 1835 and 1840 David Taylor, who was the forester for the Earl of Camperdown, discovered a bizarre mutant branch of what seemed like an elm tree growing along the floor of the forest outside the Earl’s huge Greek revival manor house in Scotland.  The forester grafted the branch onto a normal Wych Elm and discovered that the resultant tree was a twisted weeping mutant.

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

The Camperdown Elm (by Will Woerner)

During the Victorian age, there was a trend towards interesting and bizarre specimen plants in aristocratic gardens and arboretums (the perplexingly self-referential name of the aesthetic movement emphasizing such specimens was “gardenesque”).  Prospect Park’s Camperdown elm tree rode this movement across the ocean to Brooklyn where Olmstead and Vaux were putting the finishing touches on their masterpiece park.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

The original grafted sport of Camperdown Elm in Dundee Scotland. It was once surrounded by Wych elms but they were killed by Dutch Elm disease.

Argh!

The winter is gradually passing away into spring–which should be an exultant season for flower gardeners.  Yet the results in my back yard are extremely discouraging because the ferocious squirrels of Brooklyn have eaten all of my crocuses!  Despite planting an immense number of the hardy little flowers, I am still bereft of spring color.   I guess I should have expected something like this after the infernal bushy-tailed rodents ate all the glass bulbs from the Christmas lights…

The Saffron crocus (Crocus sativus)

As it turns out, squirrels are not the only ones who love crocus flavor.  One of the world’s most precious spices is made from the little flowers.  The gourmet spice saffron literally consists of the harvested stigmas of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus).  The saffron crocus plant has been domesticated since antiquity to provide the costly spice and the plant literally owes its existence to human appetite for the powdery threads.  Crocus sativus is a descendant of Crocus cartwrightianus, a wild crocus from the rocky skree of southwest Asia.   As humankind selectively planted the plants with the longest stigmas (and hence the most delicious saffron) the little crocus developed into a completely different—and completely dependent—species.  Crocus sativus now has magnificent spiraling stigma covered in deep yellow pollen, but the artificial selection came at a terrible cost.  The plant is a male sterile triploid, incapable of sexual reproduction thanks to its extra chromosome.  Saffron crocuses can only reproduce asexually and they require human assistance to prosper.  The spice is still prohibitively expensive since the little plants must be planted and harvested by hand.

A majority of the world's saffron currently comes from Iran.

Saffron is known to recorded history as early as the 7th century BC (when it was mentioned in a Assyrian botanical treatise) however archeological and genetic evidence suggest that saffron has been harvested for at least 4 millenia!  Since saffron contains over 150 volatile and aroma-yielding compounds, I am not going to try to describe it to you—you’ll just have to get some yourself.  My favorite dish which uses the yellow pollen is mussels, saffron, vermouth, and cream!

Of course I am cheating a little bit by writing this article in the spring–the saffron crocus is really an autumn flowering plant.  However I felt like my slaughtered crocuses deserved some sort of memorial tribute.  Of course if I really wanted to commemorate the slain flowers I could turn to my paint box. In addition to being a spice, saffron is also a color—a deep orangey gold reminiscent of foods prepared with the spice.   Strangely, for a color so steeped in the sensory joys of living, saffron has also come to represent worldly renunciation.  Buddhist monks wear robes of deep saffron and the top bar of the Indian flag is the same rich orange-yellow.  The flag’s designers hoped that the color would inspire India’s leaders to set aside material gains and dedicate themselves to the welfare of the people, but, alas, in all societies such selfless dedication is even rarer than the rarest spice.

Buddhist Monks in Laos

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