Speaking for the Trees

Speaking for the Trees

Last week, a bloom of garden writers cropped up in Schenley Plaza. There was laughter, there was garden conversation, there was… a flash mob to the song “Happy.”


Did we mention that garden writers are a rowdy bunch?

The 600 or so party animals gardeners from across U.S. and Canada were in town for the Garden Writers Association convention and made a special stop in Schenley Plaza to see the award-winning gardens that are on display there — for free! — all year long. They were also there to scope out the Every Tree Tells a Story exhibit, made possible by Davey Trees and the Cultural Landscape Foundation and going on now around the Mary Schenley Memorial Fountain.

During their stop, we asked them to do what they do best — tell some stories! Davey Trees recorded 70 or so really amazing tree tales, which are posted to their YouTube channel. Here are some of our favorites:

And our Most Favorite Video Award goes to…

Have you visited the Every Tree Tells a Story exhibit yet? Catch it before it ends on September 1st!

If you would like to speak out for the trees, we invite you to join us at our Park Tree Fund launch event on Thursday, August 21st. The Park Tree Fund exists to maintain and strengthen our urban forest. With your support, we can keep Pittsburgh’s trees growing strong for generations to come. Now that would be a great story to tell.

We want to hear your tree story! Post your stories to the comments section below. 

A Race with the Red Queen

No disrespect to the ancients, but the best time to plant a tree was not 20 years ago. It might be this spring.

A variety of leaves from trees planted last fall in Highland Park. Photo by Taiji Nelson.

Whether plant, animal, virus, or bacteria, all living organisms are locked in battle with the pathogens, pests and parasites in their surrounding environment, using the tools and tricks nature’s equipped them with to keep them in the game. One of the strongest tools in this arsenal? The ability to adapt, to one-up opponents in a constant arms race.

One huge task that the Parks Conservancy faces is shoring up this arsenal for the trees in our care. The founders of these fine parks left quite the legacy, not only in the consideration that they gave to the design and experience of the parks, but also the impressive diversity of the urban forests.

It’s tough to overstate the importance of biodiversity to healthy parks. Voracious pests and sneaky diseases gain a slight foothold within the bounds of our parklands and spread like wildfire, faster than we can catch and quarantine them — even with sharp eyes out at all times. Our trees need their natural defenses as they stand on the front lines of these attacks, especially since they face added stresses of living in the city: polluted water, poor air quality, micro-climates, and human intervention.

London plane tree in Schenley Plaza.

A general in this battle, the Parks Conservancy’s Director of Park Management and Maintenance Phil Gruszka is a seasoned veteran. Phil has been rocking war paint for years now. Since conducting a study with Dr. Cynthia Morton of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, he’s realized that our legacy park trees are impressive in their biodiversity… but that we have to really work to keep it that way. Their study found that tree stock from major nurseries across the country have actually been whittling down the tree gene pool.

“When London plane trees were first introduced to the United States, one nursery had a tree that did very well. But they couldn’t get it to reproduce from seed, so they started getting cuttings to grow out. Then they released it to the trade and named that cultivar ‘Bloodgood.'”

Selected for it’s superior resistance to the fungus anthracnose, the cultivar (a plant chosen for its particular genetic makeup) Bloodgood has been spread around now for about 30 years, dominating nursery stock of London planes. Plane trees bought from nurseries have identical genetic material to every other plane tree — they have not been grown from seed from two parent trees. They’re clones.

“Today, if I wanted to replace a London plane, I can only buy the cultivar Bloodgood.”

But trees from Schenley Plaza and around the park surprised them. “The Schenley Plaza trees were all genetically different, very diverse.” The park trees, planted before Bloodgood started to gain popularity, were much more diverse than the current nursery stock. The surviving 100, of the 200 that were planted years ago, were of a strong and diverse population, toughened from years of fighting off pests and disease.

Then, they widened their net. Was this true only for London planes? How much more diverse are our park trees than trees sold around the country? After polling nurseries from various parts of the country, they found that ten common trees used all over the U.S. were clones — their genetic diversity was actually getting less and less diverse.

Red oaks with oak wilt in Schenley Park, soon to be cleared.

Why has this study been so important? As the Parks Conservancy has taken on ecological restoration projects in the parks over the years and established the Park Tree Action Plan with the City of Pittsburgh, TreeVitalize, and Tree Pittsburgh, we’ve actively worked to increase biodiversity in the parks. Taking cuttings of our own heterogeneous tree stock, we’ve started growing new trees around the park and city in our own sort of diversity study, learning as we go about resistant new cuttings that withstand biological threats. This knowledge gives us only a peek at the immeasurable value of Pittsburgh’s parks; less mature forests and parks elsewhere are markedly more homogeneous, posing a threat to themselves and surrounding forests against the pests and diseases that have shown an uptick in recent years. Our trees are better equipped to keep our parks healthy and beautiful.

This week, a large stand of red oaks — about 50 trees in total — will be cleared from Prospect Drive in Schenley Park. Oak wilt, discovered earlier this year by an observant park user, got a stranglehold on the interlocking root system of the trees, infecting an entire grouping of trees. Left there, the trees are a risk to the health of other park trees. It’s terrible to have to take down so many trees, but it’s something that needs done for the overall well being of the park. And when these trees are replanted in the spring, a variety of new and diverse tree stock will be added to the expanding biodiversity and health of the park.

Wondering about the title of this post? Read more about the Red Queen Effect here.

Finding Love in the Park

It all started with Lucinda Williams.

Actually, let’s rewind a bit. Back to a time when a young Paul Alessio and Lynne Glover were just kids, finding adventure and foul baseballs in the woods and ballparks of New Castle and Penn Hills. In those days, you could find both youngsters exploring and playing in the parks and creeks around their neighborhoods all day long, swimming and climbing until the street lights came on.

“I remember one time, at a park, at a picnic, my best friend and I getting lost. We had no idea where we were. But it was one of the greatest adventures, you know? It was exciting!” That sense of being lost, being scared, was a childhood adventure that for Lynne was one of the many reasons to love the outdoors.

Lynne and Paul never lost that passion for being outside, especially when they found each other.

At one fateful Lucinda Williams concert, Paul made the fortunate mistake of stepping in front of Lynne just as the music was starting.

“I thought you were tall enough to see!” claims Paul.

Lynne and Paul on their wedding day at Schenley Park Cafe.

Years later, Lynne and Paul, along with their family and friends, found themselves in a place most fitting for this new chapter in their lives: their wedding in Schenley Park. Both lovebirds had at one time been Pitt Panthers, finding escape in the park on bike rides and hikes, getting back to nature to keep the stress of college away. They came across the Schenley Park Cafe sometime during their wedding venue search shortly after its renovation, and knew that it was the perfect spot to exchange vows.

“That venue brings nature into the building. Our family and friends were walking down that Belgian-block trail on our wedding day,” remembers Paul.

“Everyone says that that was one of the best weddings they’d ever been to,” says Lynne.

Lynne and Paul smooching as husband and wife.

Paul and Lynne with their family.

Following a honeymoon chock-full of park visits on the West Coast, Paul and Lynne have now celebrated eight years together. Lynne, Communications Director at VisitPittsburgh and Paul, Project Manager at the Urban Redevelopment Authority, are change-makers across Pittsburgh and in their community of Lawrenceville. They share time in their neighborhood park, Arsenal, with their kids and grandchildren and enjoy two of their big loves — music and nature — at the outdoor concerts at Schenley Plaza.

We love stories with happy endings. Two people who loved to get lost in nature find themselves with their better half. And in two years, we’re excited to wish Paul and Lynne a happy ten year anniversary at the exact spot where they were married — Schenley Park.

Paul and Lynne, eight years strong.

Lauryn Stalter for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy

Sometimes, it’s great to lose yourself in nature. But for those times when you want to find your way again, we have just the thing. Check out the new MyPGH Parks app, where you’ll have access to all of the trails, sites and events in Schenley, Highland, Frick, Riverview and Emerald View Park. It’s free and available now on Android and iPhone platforms.

Bee Concerned – an appeal on behalf of our parks’ hardest working volunteers

Six years ago, honeybees began to vanish. If you’re predisposed to a squeal and an awkward dance in public every time an airborne stinger comes your way, you may not be too bummed about this. Good – you might think – less likely to embarrass myself at this year’s company picnic. Truthfully, you should be concerned (and yes, a little embarrassed).

Bees on the roof at The Porch – photo courtesy Mark Broadhurst of Eat ‘n Park Hospitality Group

The disappearance of bees could radically change the food we eat and how much we pay for it. According to Stephen Repasky, Vice President and Apiary Director for the local bee-loving non-profit, Burgh Bees, honeybees are responsible for pollinating over one third of the food we eat citing apples, pumpkins, berries and cucumbers as examples. There are many foods like almonds, which will not grow at all without pollination from honeybees. The Agriculture Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture (ARS) estimates that “Bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.” Not to mention how vital they are to the flowers we all love in our parks and gardens.

Recently, we’ve been losing about 30% of the honeybee population annually. While this phenomenon has a name – Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – the cause is still up for debate. According to the ARS, “The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honeybees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honeybee bodies present. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present.” It is widely believed in the apiary community that the cause for CCD is the emergence of a new type of pesticides called neonicotinoids which were developed in the mid-1990s. There have been studies to support this hypothesis, but they have not been deemed conclusive by the ARS. Other theories have included mites, fungal and viral infections, and even cell phone tower transmissions.    

While the use of pesticides in an urban setting is still problematic, Repasky says that people actually pose the greatest threat to city honeybees. “We as a society are too quick to take a can of raid to that nest of ‘bees’,” he says. “The more we can get people to understand that honeybees are a necessity, even in the city, the better off we will be.” He points out that honeybees are actually quite docile, and that since they’ll die if they sting you, they reserve their aggression to protect their hive. They’re also unlikely to care about your picnic lunch or the sugary cocktail you drink on your back deck. “Honeybees are not the wasps and hornets that people usually associate with being stung,” laments Repasky. “Unfortunately society lumps any stinging insect into a ‘bee’ and that is not the case.”

Echinacea, also called Purple Coneflower is a favorite for honeybees, pictured here in Schenley Plaza.

Burgh Bees is trying to change that in Pittsburgh. In 2008 they established to create a community for urban beekeepers and to provide places for them to have hives if they don’t have a place of their own. They created and manage the nation’s first community apiary in Homewood where people participate much in the same way they would at a community garden. They teach beekeeping classes and try to educate Pittsburgh residents on the necessity of honeybees. Recently, they partnered with The Porch at Schenley restaurant in Schenley Plaza where they manage a hive on the roof that may be producing 40-60 lbs of honey annually by next year.

At the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, we appreciate the importance of the ecological health of our parks, a system in which honeybees play a vital role. To do your part, the ARS advises not to use pesticides indiscriminately and to avoid applying such chemicals at mid-day when the bees are out in the greatest numbers whenever possible. They also suggest planting native plants that are good sources of nectar and pollen such as red clover, foxglove, echinacea and joe-pye weed.

 Kathleen Gaines is a Development Associate at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. To learn more about the bees at The Porch, check out the upcoming issue of our newsletter.  

PNC Children’s Plaza Dedication – Schenley Plaza

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on August 28 to dedicate the PNC Children’s Plaza in Schenley Plaza, installed in appreciation of PNC’s continued support.  In celebration, the Parks Conservancy provided free rides on the PNC Carousel all day.

Sally McCrady, Deputy Executive Director of PNC Grow Up Great

Overhead View of the PNC Children’s Plaza and Carousel

PNC is dedicated to preparing children for the future through Grow Up Great, its $350 million, multi-year initiative that began in 2004 to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life. The Children’s Plaza is intended to complement PNC’s program, which has served more than 1.5 million children to date.

Parks Conservancy Senior Vice President Richard Reed with children from the community.

A group of local children attended the event to help us dedicate the garden and amphitheater.

Mark Broadhurst, Director of Concept Development for Eat ‘N Park Hospitality Group, which underwrote the cost of the PNC Children’s Plaza

PNC Children’s Plaza Dedication

Parks Conservancy Senior Vice President Richard Reed, PNC General Counsel and Parks Conservancy Board Member Bob Hoyt, Sally McCrady, Deputy Executive Director of PNC Grow Up Great and Mark Broadhurst, Director of Concept Development for Eat ‘N Park Hospitality Group cut the PNC Children’s Plaza ribbon.

PNC Children’s Plaza

The PNC Children’s Plaza was designed by landscape architecture firm La Quatra Bonci Associates, the Pittsburgh-based firm that designed Schenley Plaza. The cost was underwritten by Eat ‘N Park Hospitality Group, which built and operates The Porch at Schenley and will maintain the gardens in the Children’s Plaza.

PNC Children’s Plaza with The Porch at Schenley and Cathedral of Learning. Beautiful day for a dedication.

Come check out the PNC Children’s Plaza as well as the other great activities available. Ride the carousel, sip on some bubble tea from Asia Tea House, lollygag on the lawn and then top it off with Dinner at The Porch at Schenley. There’s always something to do at Schenley Plaza!

Pittsburgh’s Central Fire – Finding Common Ground through the World’s Green Spaces

As crowds of people slowly began filing into the Lighthouse at Chelsea Pier in New York City for the kick-off of the Greater & Greener International Urban Parks Conference, Peter J. Madonia of the Rockefeller Foundation remarked, “It’s like Woodstock for parkies.” A rumble of laughter filled the room and the largest urban parks conference in history was underway. Looking around the crowd, it was obvious this was more than just a few environmentally and community-minded folks getting together to gab about green spaces. The City Parks Alliance brought together over 850 people from 210 cities and 20 countries to participate in more than 100 workshops focusing on topics including environmental advocacy, development, and management. Experts in their fields from major organizations, foundations and government intermingled with people and small organizations committed to promoting the influence parks have on our communities.

Staff from the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, City of Pittsburgh, Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, Riverlife and many other organizations attended the conference. Determined to not only gain new ideas, but to share success stories and strategies of how our urban parks have contributed to Pittsburgh being consistently named “most livable city” year after year. Keynote speaker, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, got the first full day of workshops started by discussing how parks have become a “powerful catalyst for community development.” This became one of the three overlying themes of the conference: community development, public health and future technological advancements. The conference slowly unveiled a more enlightened and deeper value for urban green spaces other than their beauty.

Public Art at The High Line

Community Development

The Parks Conservancy supports and promotes the environmental benefits of parks, but also focuses on the tremendous community and economic development that comes from urban green spaces. When an urban park is designed or restored, it creates a chain reaction in community development and overall quality of life. It creates jobs both in the implementation and maintenance process. Home values around the park increase while access to trails and open spaces for recreational activities enhance public health. All of these factors combine to increase economic growth for the community. It can be difficult to show citizens not living directly within city limits the advantages to urban development when they can feel so far removed from it. Mick Cornett, Mayor of Oklahoma City, is responsible for leading his city towards an undeniable rebirth and discussed the need to put money and effort into the city infrastructure to benefit the entire metro area. He stated, “ The quality of life in urban areas is directly connected to the quality of life in the suburbs. You can’t be a suburb of nothing.”

The High Line Zoo

A visit to The High Line in New York City revealed another unexpected perk to urban parks and community development.  Strolling down the restored elevated freight line that has been repurposed into a modern public green space on Manhattan’s West Side, you’ll be greeted by a gorilla, an amorous sailor and a portrait of a young Native American child to name a few. A menagerie of public art has popped-up along the buildings and open spaces lining The High Line, intertwining the worlds of nature and art into one harmonious story of city culture.

Digging in the dirt at the Frick Environmental Center

Public Health

Park and nature prescriptions were buzzwords used throughout the conference. Daphne Miller, M.D. discussed the “disease of the indoors” and the Health Care Provider Initiative being implemented through the National Environmental Education Foundation (NEEF). The initiative educates health care providers on the importance of outdoor activity in the prevention of childhood obesity and diabetes, encouraging them to provide nature prescriptions in addition to traditional healthcare. “I think of parks as part of our healthcare system”, Dr. Miller said. United States Secretary of State Ken Salazar, who closed the conference, informed us that children only spend an average of four minutes outside a day. Access to parks and green space is an issue for children in some communities. Many have to walk through dangerous areas or cross highways to get to a park.  Dr. Miller discussed the idea of creating green corridors to connect parks throughout the community and provide “veins of access to green space” for children and others to safely enjoy the parks. The healthier we make our parks, the healthier the people of our community will become.

Playing tag in Highland Park

Technological Advancements

With the role parks play in the health of a society and way to get people outdoors, the topic of technology and the future of parks can often be a tricky subject to tackle. There’s no doubt that we are currently in the era of technology; however, there is still resistance to how technology can contribute to the park system and whether it belongs there at all. Many view the demons of video games, television, Internet, social media and smartphones as the antithesis to the mission of parks and the exact cause of what is keeping people holed up indoors. Garry Golden, Futurist and Founder of Forward Elements, Inc. spoke about the purpose of technology in the future of environmental infrastructure. “Technology doesn’t have to be at odds with simple design”, he explains. Workshop presenter Erin Barnes and her organization, ioby (In Our Back Yard), is a perfect example of how to incorporate technology with environmental advocacy. Ioby is an organization committed to bringing green initiatives to the local level by connecting people to fundraising resources via their website. It’s great to hear about organizations raising millions of dollars to fund environmental causes in the community, but this can at times seem inaccessible for smaller causes.  Ioby uses “crowd-resourcing” and “DIY activism” to empower the community to form their own small fundraising projects through their website.  On the ioby website you can search for projects using filters to discover the needs of a group and how you can get involved. Currently, there is an open project listed on the ioby website in the Pittsburgh community called the Homewood Agricultural Project. They are looking for both donations and volunteers for the project and it’s a great way to help out concerned citizens trying to better our community. Technology isn’t going anywhere, so many of us are embracing it to inform the public about parks and get people active.  The Parks Conservancy has welcomed technological advancements. We are currently developing a mobile app funded through a grant from UPMC Health Plan and the “Parks Are Free” campaign promoting use of the parks and public health within our own community.

Pittsburgh’s Schenley Plaza

Pittsburgh was well represented at the conference as presenters shared expertise in the field and highlighted successful restorations of our beautiful parks to their intended splendor. The Parks Conservancy Founder and CEO, Meg Cheever, served as a moderator for a workshop discussing the importance of public-private partnerships when developing and maintaining urban parks. Parks Curator, Susan Rademacher, sat on a workshop panel called, “People Over Cars” to discuss the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy campaign to restore a parking lot to its original purpose in the development of Schenley Plaza. Ilyssa Manspeizer, Ph.D., Director, Park Development & Conservation for the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation filled the crowd in on the “scrappy do-it-yourself ethos” that has helped transform a steep hillside in Mount Washington to the beautiful 280 acre Emerald View Park overlooking the Pittsburgh skyline.

Picnic in Schenley Park

Central Fire

As speaker after speaker discussed the role parks play in the development of a community, it was National Park Service Deputy Director of Communication and Community Assistance, Mickey Fearn that hit closest to home. He spoke of the “central fire where people used to come together to get warm, share stories and inspire and further community.” This immediately evoked images of our own Pittsburgh parks. Swirls of children sprinting to the playground on Schenley Overlook while families reunite at picnic tables. International students fresh off the plane meeting each other for the first time at the University of Pittsburgh international welcome picnic in Schenley Park. Neighbors who have never met swapping stories while their pooches splash mud at the off-leash dog area deep within Frick Park. High schoolers blushing as their parents embarrassingly take pictures of them at the Highland Park Entry Garden before they head-off to their Senior Prom. Our community coming together in our parks to share life and love, this is the central fire that has been burning in Pittsburgh for the past decade.

Holly Stayton is the eCommerce Development Officer for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Learn more about how you can get involved with Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy on our website. Also, keep up-to-date on how the Pittsburgh Greenspace Alliance has joined together to promote and improve Pittsburgh’s green spaces.

What’s in Bloom – May 2012

If you walk into any park in Pittsburgh this week, you’ll find gardens full of blooms. Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy gardener, Angela Masters says that she’s starting to see a lot of the perennials blossoming. She took to the parks with her camera on May 7th to show us what’s in bloom.

Walled Garden at Mellon Park

Rhododendron catawbiense “Album”

Cranesbill, Geranium “Brookside”

Highland Park Entry Garden

Baptisia australis

Bearded iris, Iris germanica “Cranberry Crush”


Catmint, Napeta x Faassenii “Six Hills Giant”


Dutch iris, Iris x Hollandica


Globeflower, Trollius x Cultorum “Lemon Queen”


Purple Allium, Allium aflatunese

 Schenley Plaza

Clematis, Clematis x Jackmani

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium “Paprika”

Flowering Sage, Salvia nemorosa “May Night”

  Help us keep the gardens of Pittsburgh’s public parks beautiful! We have gardening volunteer days begining in May. First volunteer day in the Walled Garden in Mellon Park is Tuesday, May 15th 5-7 pm, Highland Park Entry Garden volunteer days start Wednesday, May 16th 5-7 pm. To learn more about our horticultural volunteer days visit the volunteer page on our website or e-mail us at volunteer@pittsburghparks.org.