Dendrophilia, Superheroes, and Being a Good Neighbor

Personally, I began my super steward journey a little over a year ago, when I was asked if I was one?

I have volunteered for multiple organizations in the past including Brooklyn Bridge Park, New York Cares, and many others and I’ve achieved status and titles such as “Team Leader” and “Coordinator”, but nothing like the title of “Super Steward”. I’ve never considered myself to be a tree hugger and to be honest, a big part of the reason I wanted to be a Super Steward was because I liked the name, but I had no idea what the title meant. It reminded me of a superhero. I had visions in my head of getting dressed up in a sweet costume and hitting the streets; fighting off villains and rescuing plants. Turns out, I wasn’t far off.

I did some research of how I could become this elusive tree superhero. It’s pretty simple.

First I spent a couple of hours at the Armory in Central Park and met one of the most knowledgeable dendrophiles in New York City, by the name of Jason Stein, who is the Advanced Volunteer Coordinator, NYC Parks Super Stewards. I learned about what I had to do to achieve the title, why volunteers matter, the jurisdictions of the NYC parks department, and the different types of Super Stewards there were.

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In case you’re curious, there are three:

Care Captains, who take care of street trees (That’s me!!!)

NAVigators, who take care of forests and meadows.

Shorekeepers, who take care of wetlands.

After deciding to be a Care Captain, I went and spent an afternoon of Complete Advanced Training in the Field. I learned more about the dos and don’t of tree care. The benefits of healthy trees, how to spot invasive species, dead trees and what to do about them, rain gardens, how to properly remove weeds, politics surrounding trees, etc. By the end of the day, I was well on my way. Not only did I learn a ton, but I also got the beginnings of my super hero uniform, a set of gardening tools and a really sweet green hat marking my role…



Main Duties and Responsibilities of Tree Stewards:

Trash Clean Up: Picking up the litter

Water: New York City street trees live in permanent drought conditions. All trees, especially newly planted trees, need thorough and deep watering during the spring and summer.

Weeding: pulling out weeds along with other invasive species (including roses, wooded plants, and ivies), they pull the nutrients from the soil, that the tree requires to live and can suffocate the tree.

Loosening top soil: Compacted soil and litter block the movement of oxygen, water and nutrients to tree roots.

Composting: Helps to add more nutrients back to the soil, along with helping to balance the pH of the soil.

Mulching: Mulch conserves water, moderates soil temperatures, improves soil structure and mitigates damage from dogs, people, de-icing salts and cleaning agents.

Planting: Flowers beautify the streetscape, add enriching organic matter to the soil and help deter people from walking on tree beds.

Next up was hitting the actual streets in my neighborhood. I began to plan an event where we would care for the trees on my block and invited Jason Stein for some insights. He came and we walked New York Ave between St John’s and Sterling.

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On the corner, Jason even found an invasive species of ivy called Kudzu, also known as “the vine that ate the south” which he had never seen in New York peering out from the fence on the perimeter of the Hebron Seventh-Day Aventist Bilingual School. (Look this stuff up, it’s crazy. Who knew plants could cause such destruction? Not me.) After documenting & messaging colleagues his excitement, we quickly went across the street to look at some trees that had signs of damage from the Asian Long-horned beetle. These things are so bad, the FDA was at the site a week before.

After Jason came for the tour, I set out to plan my event, but first it got me thinking. I was inspired by the knowledge and passion from Jason, and I wanted to be this kind of super steward/ care captain/ dendrophile.

It doesn’t take a lot to be a super steward once you’re in, but I wanted to lean more on the super hero side. The trees were my neighbors and I had to protect them against tree nemeses, like dog pee, invasive plants and weird bugs, and litter.

I also became curious about the history of the street trees in general. I didn’t know that these trees relied on volunteers to care and manage, did anyone else? When I asked in an email about the history and use of volunteers, this is the response I got,

“..in 1902 state law in New York put control of planting trees in streets in the hands of the Parks Department, but provided no real instruction and no additional funding. Therefore, in the early 1910’s the Tree Planting Association of New York City and various neighborhood groups pushed and donated money to get trees planted, and went as far as commissioning studies on the care and planting of street trees. These groups also often arranged for care of the trees after they were planted. Therefore I would argue that since at least the early 1910’s volunteers have been critical in the street tree process, and I would argue that the concept of stewardship is tied into the concept of street trees in NYC since the beginning.”

Walking down a block where the trees are cared for, and one where they aren’t is a big difference. You can feel the air quality and in the shade on sunny days. Aside from the walks down the streets, I also hit the books and began looking at statistics and charts of neighborhood effects both on the economy and the well being of the people in them. Aside from the obvious signs walking down a healthy tree lined street, there are plenty of other benefits of trees and street trees, specifically.



Benefits of healthy trees / why care in the first place:

● Reduce energy demands by moderating temperature and lessening energy demands costs- Warmer in winter/ cooler in the summer shade

● Reduce erosion and flooding

● Stormwater runoff

● Water treatment costs

● Remove Air Pollutants, while increasing oxygen

● Soften harsh buildings

● Seasonal fragrance

● Release stress

● Lower crime

● Bring down health risks

● Buffer noise & glare

● Carbon Dioxide Storage

Find out more benefits here.



Benefits of healthy trees / What they do (by the numbers):

Stormwater intercepted each year: 1,086,358,940 gallons

Value: $10,754,948.08

Energy conserved each year: 668,195,906 kWh

Value: $84,356,314.02

Air pollutants removed each year 636 tons

Value: $6,645,832.10

Carbon dioxide reduced each year 612,809 tons

Value: $4,093,535.38

Total Value of Annual Benefits: $109,944,191.92



Additionally, trees can save homeowners $250 in energy costs per year.

Business experience is 20% better on streets with trees, shoppers spend more (12%)*

Statistics from Mid-Atlantic Center for Urban & Community Forestry.



In Review

Every time I go out to care for the trees, whether alone or with a group, I put on my super hero uniform (hat, gardening belt, something green, and of course tights.) step out to the streets and work my best to protect my environment from the villains that linger.

I held an event a couple of months ago and since have met some unbelievable and caring individuals, that understand the benefits of prioritizing tree care, on and off the streets. I have made my own small but valiant efforts to care and protect local trees. Picking up trash here and there, calling for dead trees to be removed, mulching, planting, etc. but for every tree cared for, there’s another that needs some Tree LC. Perhaps, this is the real kryptonite for Super Stewards.

In closing I will pose a question that I’ve given a lot of thought to: We’ve all heard the stories about trees growing in Brooklyn, and their resilience. Is that why so many of them seem to be neglected? We just assume they’ll be okay. I would argue that resiliency doesn’t necessarily mean something doesn’t need love & care.

Hopefully, my experience and this article will encourage more stewardship in our neighborhood.

See you out there!

Neighborhood resources & other cool stuff:

Become a Super Steward!

Tree Alphabet

New York City Street Tree Map

Tree Emergencies



- Carla McAlary

UpdatesJonathan Judge