Tour of the Rose Kennedy Greenway

The elevated Central Artery running through downtown Boston was dismantled starting in 2004 as part of the Big Dig. The automobile traffic that would have taken the highway now moves below ground. In its place, Boston got the Greenway. On Thursday, I took a tour of the Greenway parks.

The tour was led by Darrah Cole and Anthony Ruggiero, horticulturists working for the Greenway Conservancy, the non-profit group that manages the parks.

Our group started at the Chinatown gate. The park there has reduced green space because the community asked for a plaza where they could hold events. One end of the plaza is lined with Dutch elm-resistant ‘Frontier’ elms. These elms are a hybrid of the European field elm (Ulmus minor) and the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia).

Frontier elms on Chinatown plaza
Frontier elms on Chinatown plaza

Young ginkgo trees have also been planted in the plaza. Appropriate since the last surviving wild ginkgos can be found in China.

A young ginkgo tree with a Hubway bike station on the left and Chinatown gate on the right
Young ginkgo trees on Chinatown plaza

In Dewey Square, we admired the mural painted by Brazilian twin street artists Os Gemeos and referred to as “The Giant of Boston” or “The Greenway Monster.” The colorful piece, painted on one of the Big Dig ventilation buildings, dramatically contrasts with the surrounding office buildings. This wall will be home to revolving murals; the Greenway Monster will be taken down in October. For shame.

The Greenway Monster mural
The Greenway Monster
Detail of The Greenway Monster: jacket sleeve and button
Detail of The Greenway Monster
Detail of The Greenway Monster: yellow hands and feet
Detail of The Greenway Monster

Dewey Square Park, home to the Occupy Boston encampment at one time, is once again lush and green. The lawn was damaged by the occupation but, contrary to rumor, the occupation did not damage any of the other plantings. Some of the trees that had been placed in the park, such as the dawn redwoods, were moved because they were not doing well in that location.

The trifecta of urban birds — rock pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows — forage in the grass.

Birds in Dewey Square park
Rock pigeons, a starling (top left), and house sparrows (right)

Some of the Freeman ‘Armstrong’ maples lining the park lean toward the mural. The surrounding buildings create a wind tunnel that pushes the trees northeast.

Leaning Freeman maples with Federal Reserve building behind them
Leaning Freeman maples

To one side of Dewey Square Park, demonstration gardens showcase pollinator favorites and edibles. A rain garden ponds during heavy rains. According to a plaque, the plants growing here “like ‘wet feet’ and act as sieves, or filters, to drink up the extra water from a low point in the landscape.”

Dewey Square rain garden plants
Dewey Square rain garden

A Tanyosho pine (Pinus densiflora ‘Umbraculifera’) sits in a corner of the New American Garden, the next section of the Greenway. This pine isn’t doing very well and so has a green bag at its base with extra plant food, as part of a “tree ICU” program. If the plant continues to suffer, samples will be sent to a UMass lab to check for disease.

Tanyosho pine with office tower in background
Struggling Tanyosho pine

We passed a few lilac bushes (Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’) in flower. In addition to the numerous annuals, shrubs, and trees, the Conservancy planted 23,000 bulbs last year, 8,000 of which were daffodils in the North End.

Miss Kim lilac shrubs in bloom
Miss Kim lilac shrubs

We moved on to the Urban Arboretum, a diverse collection of 20-30 species of young trees. A grove of bald cypresses (Taxodium distichum) lines one of the sidewalks.

Grove of bald cypress trees
Grove of bald cypress trees

One of the more common visitor complaints is that the parks lack shade. Walking through on a hot and sunny day, the lack of shade was very noticeable. The trees are young, however, and need time to mature. A grove of Morton elms on the north end of the Urban Arboretum has already reached a shade-casting size.

Shady grove of Morton elms
Shady grove of Morton elms

An American elm in the Wharf District park had a number of holes in the bark, which Anthony explained as sapsucker damage.

American elm with sapsucker holes
American elm with sapsucker holes

This section of the Greenway houses only native plants, except for a few London plane trees along the road. An American tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) stands near some mist machines, with the Custom House clocktower in the background.

Young tulip tree with Custom House clocktower in background
Young tulip tree

Did you know that there is a cactus native to Massachusetts? A species of prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) grows on the sand dunes of Cape Cod. It has been classified as endangered in the state.

Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus

The Conservancy is proud of maintaining the park system 100% organically. One trick used is to mow grass at three inches, making it more difficult for weeds to compete. Eric di Tommaso, another Greenway horticulturist, explained to us how the plants are fed.

Anthony Ruggiero (speaking) and Eric di Tommaso, Greenway horticulturists
Anthony Ruggiero and Eric di Tommaso (left to right), Greenway horticulturists

Eric passed around a cup of liquid called compost tea, which is sprayed on all the soil in the Greenway. The Conservancy obtains compost from the Arnold Arboretum and enriches it by adding oats and worm castings. The mixture is then brewed with substances that encourage fungal growth. Samples are checked in an on-site lab.

Cup of compost tea
Cup of compost tea

Eric explained that many so-called organic products on the market are snake oil, having examined them under a microscope himself. The compost tea with its living material allows for a richer and healthier soil without the quick-release inorganic fertilizers that pollute our waters.

Red wiggler worms in a trunk full of shredded newspaper
Red wiggler worms in a trunk full of shredded newspaper, egg shells, cardboard, and fruit

The Greenway is young. Thus far, the horticulturists have done an impressive job planting and maintaining the landscape. While the parks near the North End were bustling with activity, those closer to the Fort Point Channel could use a few attractions.

Thanks to the Greenway Conservancy for the tour.

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