Alexander von Humboldt


Born: September 14, 1769…………248th Birthday Celebration

Died: May 6, 1859

September 14th: Meet at 5pm the Alexander von Humboldt bust at 77th & CPW

Central Park data………………………..for September 14th

Latitude:   40.47 N                               Sunrise: 6:36 am

Longitude: 73.58 W                             Sunset:   7:06 pm

Altitude: 115 feet                                 Temp. range today: 63-76

Soil Composition: acidic       Precip. last 30 days: 4”; last 365: 50″

Rocks & Minerals: Manhattan Schist, glacial boulders, etc.

Ground-level diversity: 400 plants, 400+ fungi, 350 animals

Tree-top diversity: undocumented           Air quality: good

Subterranean diversity: 122,000 bacteria, 43,000 eukaryotes

Central Park Lake biodiversity: many protozoans & “algae”

Predominant pollen: ragweed, grasses and chenopods


The Take-Away: Central Park is not a miscellaneous assortment of plants but rather, seen through Humboldt’s prism, sets of overlapping communities of ecosystems housing organisms found throughout the recognized kingdoms of life. While you won’t find palm trees or alpine plants growing in Central Park, and its biodiversity is nowhere near that of the tropics, there is more to be discovered in this artificial piece of 19th Century landscape design than there is life to study it.

Within feet of Humboldt’s bust there are mosses and ferns, ancient gymnosperms and modern flowering plants, as well as fungi and lichens, and all manner of animal life.

A few examples of Central Park Humboldtian wonders:

1 Over 1500 elms in the park serve as high-rise condominiums for nesting & feeding birds, bees & other insects, squirrels, and some edible mushrooms, differing as you rise to their tops!

2 Oaks are ectomycorrhizal, benefiting from a mutualism with fungi that furnishes them with hard to access nutrients.

3 Ginkgo has cyanobacteria fixing nitrogen on its roots.

4 Trees like willows, but many others, as well, either have or can synthesize salicylic acid, an important anti-inflammatory

drug that plants can use as needed for their vascular system.

5 Some large trees, like beech, can “feed” their nearby “children” through their roots assisted by mycorrhizal fungi.

6 Some weeds like crabgrass are C4 plants, far more efficient at photosynthesis than C3 plants, the vast majority in the park.

7 Plants, without known exception, have fungal endophytes living within their tissues, protecting them against drought, excessive heat, and predators. “Weeds” have more than most.

8 Dandelions flowering in early spring are essential for bees on warm late winter days that are out looking for nourishment.

9 Lichens are nearly ubiquitous on Central Park trees and rocks now because our air quality has improved since the 70’s.

10 The diversity of life in one drop of water in the Central Park Lake is greater than you have time to identify, even in winter!



Humboldt, Alexander von. “Cosmos,” vols. 1 & 2

Humboldt, Alexander von. “Essay on the Geography of Plants”

Humboldt, Alexander von. “Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent”

Humboldt, Alexander von. “Views of Nature”

Walls, Laura Dassow. “The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America”

Wulf, Andrea. “The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World”


Also see – Central Park Ecosystem Worksheet



May 6, 1800: “The morning was fresh and beautiful. For thirty-six days we had been locked up in a narrow canoe which was so unsteady that standing up suddenly from your seat would have capsized it.  We had cruelly suffered from insect bites, but we had survived this unhealthy climate, and had crossed the many waterfalls and dykes that block the rivers and make the journey more dangerous than crossing the seas, without sinking. After all that we had endured, it gives me pleasure to speak of the joy we felt in having reached a tributary of the Amazon, of having passed the isthmus that separates the two great river systems. The uninhabited banks of the Casiquiare, covered in jungle, busied my imagination. In this interior of a new continent you get used to seeing man as not essential to the natural order. The earth is overloaded with vegetation: nothing prevents its development. An immense layer of mould manifests the uninterrupted action of organic forces. Crocodile and boa are the masters of the river, jaguar, peccary, the dante and monkeys cross the jungle without fear or danger, established there in an ancient heritage. This view of a living nature where man is nothing is both odd and sad. Here, in a fertile land, in an eternal greenness, you search in vain for traces of man; you feel you are carried into a different world from the one you were born into.”

From Alexander Von Humboldt’s “Personal Narrative”


“In the interior of a new continent you get used to seeing man as not essential to the natural order…This view of a living nature where man is nothing”….becomes transmuted, as it were, in Darwin’s “The Origin of Species”: “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”


Is one view of life, of a living nature, closer to the truth, whatever that means, than the other? Does it matter? Both Alexander Von Humboldt and Charles Darwin deserve our admiration and attention. Reading them is forever refreshing, renewing our faith in our ability to see beyond appearances, to catch a glimpse, however dimly and intermittently, into the reality of life itself.



What Humboldt might notice here in CENTRAL PARK  on his 248th Birthday:


American Elm (Ulmus americana)….a major Central Park tree

Fungus: Dendrothele alliacea (white patch), a bark saprotroph

Lichen: Candelaria concolor

Lichen: ? Parmelia sulcata ?

Alga: Coccomyxa…..ubiquitous single-celled green alga on bark


Pin Oak (Quercus palustris)…..tied with Am. Elm for 2nd in CP

Fungus: Ganoderma sessile (root parasite / “Reishi”)

Lichen: ? Phaeophysia orbicularis ?


Ground about von Humboldt bust

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)…..good for bees & diversity

C4 grass: Eleusine indica, like crabgrass, nearly indestructible


Central Park Encircling  Stone Wall

Fern: Spleenwort (Asplenium)…..loves stone walls (alkaline)

Moss: maybe Dicranum…contains many protozoans

Lichens: Candalaria concolor, etc.


Pathside “weeds”

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)…..genus worldwide

Ragweed (Ambrosia ) – houses inside its tissues Rhodochytrium, a unicellular, red-colored, green alga!


Central Park Lake plants

Lizard’s-tail (Saururus)…..eastern N.A.

Arrow-arum (Peltandra virginica)…..eastern N.A.

Cattail (Typha latifolia)…..Temperate zones


Central Park Lake: one of many organisms in lake water:

Anabaena…a nitrogen-fixing cyanobacterium, producing neurotoxins, symbiotic with Azolla water fern, a fertilizer!


REFERENCES for Identification of selected organisms

Groves, A. “Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs”

Jahn, et al. “How to Know the Protozoa”

Lincoff, G. “The Audubon Soc. Field Guide to N.A. Mushrooms”

McMullin & Anderson. “Common Lichens of N.E.N.A.”

Peterson, Roger Tory. “A Field Guide to Wildflowers”

Prescott: “How to Know the Fresh-Water Algae”

Shuttleworth & Zim. “Non-flowering Plants”

CENTRALPARK ENTIRE: The Definitive Illustrated Folding Map



A SINGLE AMERICAN ELM / Gary Lincoff / 9-14-17

(The one beside the bust of Alexander von Humboldt)


Name: American Elm (Ulmus americana L.)


The American Elm is one of a half dozen different species of elms in Central Park. There are 1700+ elms in the park, and a total of 25,000 trees altogether.


The American Elm is actually a number of discrete populations in eastern and mid-western North America, extending from southern Canada to northern Florida, west to the Dakotas south to eastern Texas.


Because some populations of American Elm are diploid, some triploid, and some tetraploid, it’s believed these could represent distinct species within the American Elm “complex.” It seems that some of these populations are more resistant to Dutch Elm Disease than others.


Dutch Elm Disease is a fungus vectored by one of 3 Elm Bark Beetles. DED is present in Central Park. Peeling off the bark of a dead American elm reveals the distinctive, spidery, egg gallery pattern of the elm bark beetle. Most other elms are resistant.


Healthy elms are best – but – dead elms are still good elms – for wildlife – for food and shelter!


Elms flower early, often in late winter, well before tree leaves appear, and elm flowers, despite being wind-pollinated, and elm seeds, which fruit before much other food is available, are relished by some insects, birds, and mammals, like squirrels.



This particular American Elm tree at 77th & CPW

is 50+ feet tall with a canopy of over 55 feet across.

This particular American Elm is about 168 years old.

[If it germinated in 1849, it was 8 years old when Central Park was established, and 10 years old when Humboldt died, and 20 years old at the Humboldt Centennial Celebration.]

[Directions: Measure the circumference in inches at 4 ½ feet up from the ground (132”), then divide that number by pi (3.14) and multiply that by this tree’s growth factor (4) = 168 years.]


1 Three MUSHROOMS with American Elm in Central Park

Elm Oyster (Hypsizygus ulmarius)

Dryad’s Saddle (Polyporus squamosus)

Wild Inoki (Flammulina velutipes

2 Dutch Elm Disease fungus (Ophiostoma ulmi)

3 White Patch (Dendrothele alliacea) is a harmless decomposer on dead bark on almost all American elms in the park.

4 A Choice edible mushroom under dead & dying American Elm but NOT seen so far in Central Park:

Morels (Morchella “esculenta” complex)


There are at least 2 LICHENS on this American Elm – Candelaria concolor and Parmelia sulcata. There are about 2 dozen other lichens reported recently in Central Park, and nearly 40 known to occur inside New York City. Besides providing food, cover and nest-building materials for wildlife, lichens are excellent atmospheric pollution monitoring devices.

Lichens are the first step in turning rock into forest.



Eastman, John. “The Book of Forest and Thicket,” pp. 77-81.

Groves, A. “Illustrated Guide to Trees and Shrubs”

Sinclair & Lyon. “Diseases of Trees and Shrubs”

Google: How to Tell the Age of a Tree without cutting it down.




On September 16, 1869 one hundred years after his birth, Alexander von Humboldt’s centennial was celebrated across the world…In New York City the bobbled streets were lined with flags. City Hall was veiled in banners, and entire houses had vanished behind huge posters bearing Humboldt’s face. Even the ships sailing by, out on the Hudson River, were garlanded in colorful bunting. In the morning thousands of people followed ten music bands, marching from the Bowery and along Broadway to Central Park to honor a man ‘whose fame no nation can claim’ as the New York Times’ front page reported. By early afternoon, 25,000 onlookers had assembled in Central Park to listen to the speeches as a large bronze bust of Humboldt was unveiled. In the evening as darkness settled, a torchlight procession of 15,000 people set out along the streets, walking beneath colorful Chinese lanterns.”

“Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. ‘In this great chain of causes and effects,’ Humboldt said, ‘no single fact can be considered in isolation.’ With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.” Andrea Wulf