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Cool Facts About Nature in Van Cortlandt Park


Here at VCPA, we think that nature is cool.  We might be a little biased but we think nature in Van Cortlandt Park (VCP) is super cool.  In honor of the 50th Earth Day, we want to compile a list of 50 Cool Facts About Nature in VCP.  We don’t want to just share our cool facts, we want to learn some from you. We got started with 25 Cool Facts but need you to help us finish up the list.  Send us an email at vcpalliance@gmail.com or comment on a Social Media Post about this blog and we’ll add them to the list.  It would be awesome if we could finish this by Earth Day on Wednesday April 22nd.

VCPA Staff Facts  

  1. Over half of the 1,146 acres of VCP are a Forever Wild Preserve, a program established by the NYC Parks to protect New York City’s most ecologically valuable lands. Three major habitats in the park—forests, wetlands, and meadows—are protected as Forever Wild. 
  2. There are 97.8 acres of state protected wetlands in the Bronx.  VCP contains 86.2 of these protected acres and 66.3 of these acres are along Tibbetts Brook in VCP.
  3. Tibbetts Brook and Van Cortlandt Lake are home to a number of different aquatic invertebrate species, including freshwater mussels and clams, multiple species of dragonflies and damselflies, two species of crayfish and diving beetles. 
  4. Freshwater springs and seeps within the forests of VCP are important habitats for a number of rare urban taxa such as stoneflies, casemaking caddisflies and a species of amphipod that has lost its eyes over evolutionary time. 
  5. The largest reptile in VCP, the common snapping turtle uses Van Cortlandt lake for foraging, mating and hibernation. Females can be seen leaving ponds to lay eggs in shallow depressions they dig out and males are most readily observed in the shallow northern section of the lake. 
  6. In our garden, bees fall asleep inside of flowers at night and in the morning all the squash flowers have little bee butts sticking out of them. 
  7. Skunk cabbage is one of our favorite signs of spring.  The flowers are amazing and alien looking and it has an odd chemistry that creates its own heat, often melting the snow around itself as it first sprouts in the spring. And its pollinators are flies!
  8. Another sign of spring, the call of the Spring Peeper.  These small frogs only grow to a little over an inch in size but make quite a sound for such a small creature and can be found in the wetlands of VCP.
  9. The Iroquois considered White Pine the “Tree of Peace”.  The needles of the white pine come in bundles of five, symbolizing the five nations.  
  10. Tulip trees tend to grow tall and straight which made them the perfect tree for Native American to carve entire canoes from their trunks.
  11. The sweetgum gets its name from the light brown sap it produces. Native Americans chewed the hardened clumps of the sap as an early form of chewing gum.
  12. Sassafras was also important to Native Americans. They used sassafras oil to kill parasitic worms, treat syphilis, colds and measles, reduce fever, control diarrhea and relieve constipation. They also made tea from the bark and roots and used the dried leaves as a spice to flavor foods.
  13. Sassafras gave us root beer.  Although the exact recipe remains a closely guarded secret, you can bet sassafras bark was a key ingredient when Roy Allen mixed the first-ever batch of A&W Root Beer in 1919.
  14. One more thing about Sassafras- cause it’s one cool tree.  Sassafras is one of two species of trees in VCP that has three different leaf shapes that grow on each tree.  We describe the leaves shapes as: The Ghost, The Mitten and The Plain Leaf.
  15. The other tree that has three leaf shapes, which are similar in shape, is the Mulberry.  The difference is Sassafras leaves have a smooth edge and Mulberry have serrated edges.
  16. Ants are cool too! By living communally in colonies that can number in the thousands of individuals in some species, it is thought that ants turnover more soil than earthworms, provide habitat for a number of organisms, cycle the majority of the forest floor organic material and are typically the first animals to arrive to newly arisen resources on the forest floor (Holldobler & Wilson 1999).
  17. Have you ever seen a large hole at the base of a tree in Van Cortlandt Park? That hole at the bottom of the tree with saw dust seemingly piled up right up front is a product of the activity of carpenter ants.
  18. Carpenter ants are also long-distance foragers with a varied diet that contribute to a large waste removal service within our park. It is not so far fetched to think that without carpenter ants we would be knee high in fly and moth exoskeletons walking down the John Muir trail (Ellison et al 2012).
  19. The Common Eastern Garter snake is the most abundant species of snake within Van Cortlandt Park. During April, these reptiles emerge from communal hibernacula and can be seen basking in sunlight spots along the forest floor and rocky outcrops.
  20. Historically, VCP was likely home to numerous species of salamander including the Northern Dusky salamander and the Northern two-lined salamander, however only the Eastern red-backed salamander can be readily observed to date. They do not require an aquatic life stage, which means it can reproduce despite pollution to our park’s smaller freshwater ecosystems such as the smaller streams, springs, seeps and vernal pools.
  21. Did you know VCP is home to two plant nurseries? Both Arthur Ross and CityWide Plant Nurseries, located in the Northeastern part of VCP, provide beautiful native flowers and shrubs to all of our Bronx Parks, including Green Streets medians. 
  22. Did you know the only surviving tree from the 9/11 attack was a Callery Pear which was nursed back to health in VCP’s City Wide Nursery. The callery pear, especially the Bradford cultivar, is commonly planted as street trees for it white flowers. 
  23. Nature’s secret properties! Willows are not only beautiful but their bark contains salicin, a compound similar to aspirin.  In the late 1800s, chemists discovered a way to make a synthetic version of salicylic acid, called acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin. Indeginous people would also chew on the bark for its healing properties. 
  24. Yikes! Did you brush up against Poison Ivy? Although poison ivy is native to our region it can become invasive when not properly controlled. If you think you came in contact with it, just take a look around for jewelweed. It’s that tall growing herbaceous, oval leaves with showy orange flowers and seed sacks.  Native Americans used its sap to treat various skin rashes. If you crush the hollow stem and rub the sticky, clear sap on your skin, it quickly takes away the itch from poison ivy blisters or the burning sensation caused by stinging nettles.
  25. Over 280 species of birds have been recorded as being seen in VCP. Not all of these species spend a significant amount of time here though, as many may just be passing through during migration and see the large green space as a nice resting point.

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