Read about Rochester’s most beloved trees and share your own story
This story was produced as part of a larger project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2021 Data Fellowship.
Other stories by Justin Murphy include:
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
When people talk about their favorite trees, they're usually talking about rootedness.
That is, belonging somewhere. Being home in the place where you and your people feel at best. Having a way marker or a commemoration.
For one woman, those cherished roots belong to a fir tree on Mount Vernon Street, on the northern boundary of Highland Park. Her three boys knew it as "the climbing tree" when they were young, then as a popular stop on family Christmas-time scavenger hunts when they got a little older.
"When my mother died, friends gathered a donation for Highland Conservatory to dedicate (it in) her name," the woman wrote to me. "The plaque has long since disappeared but the tree remains."
More than 100 people responded to my call a few months ago for their favorite tree in Rochester, a project I'm calling Tree Stories. Those responses are presented below, organized by city quadrant with Highland Park in its own category.
It's not too late to add your favorite tree, by the way. Fill out the form here.
Described below are trees to climb on, to eat from and to cry under. Many of the trees exist only as memories, including one a man named Oliver Wendell Holmes ("Yeah, for real") described that used to stand off Joseph Avenue.
Many of the entries sounded to me like poems. Holmes' was one of them.
There’s one, but it’s not there anymore.
It fell during an ice storm.
The whole house shook; we thought it was an earthquake.
Everyone used to go in the backyard and
sit up underneath it.
When it was hot out, it was that nice cool shade.
That’s back when my mother was alive.
There's also one tree listed that doesn't exist yet. It will be planted one day outside Candice Cabral's house in the JOSANA neighborhood, and it will be in memory of her children's uncle, Walter Ross, who was shot and killed in 2016.
"He was so good to our community and to my kids," she said. "He gave Easter baskets to everyone in the community; he was a mentor to my kids and to other kids. ... I just want something to point to and remember him."
Almost every anecdote involved the sense of touch: oozing sap, rough bark, the cool of the shade. An exception is the tree described by Robert Cashimere, who fishes nearly every weekend in the Genesee River.
He kept getting his lures snagged at a certain place in the river, a problem that became both time-consuming and expensive. Then he noticed a distinctive tree with one dead limb looming over the water at that very spot.
"I’d always know to lift my rod high above my head when I got to that branch," he said. "Year after year I’d keep fishing the river and stay away from that snag thanks to that one limb marking the hazard."
Several trees earned multiple mentions, including the "Tree of Life" spanning the bicycle path at Genesee Valley Park just south of Elmwood Avenue and the magnolia trees on Oxford Street.
The most named tree is the massive and unusual katsura tree in Highland Park near Highland Avenue and Goodman Street.
When Elizabeth Dugdale and her sister found themselves thrust into the role of stay-at-home parents to their young children during the pandemic, Highland Park became a regular field trip, with the katsura tree the most common classroom.
"I told the boys: 'A million fairies live here. There’s no doubt all these other spirits are here – how could they not be?' And they just loved it," she said. "It’s a very legitimate silver lining (to COVID) – that time was awful, but I’m so happy that experience opened up that opportunity to really got to know the environment and geography in a much more personal way."
Perhaps my favorite entry came from a man named Michael who grew up with 14 siblings on Troup Street. His father planted a tree in the front yard to play around.
Then urban renewal came. The house came down, but the tree was spared. Now it stands in Troup Street Park.
"Once in awhile I pass that area and see the tree," Michael wrote. "It does bring back many memories."
I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did.
Explore the trees
The northeast quadrant is the least tree-covered section of Rochester, but that didn't stop people from naming many specific favorites.
I collected many of these stories at a table inside the Ryan and Lincoln branch libraries, on Webster and Joseph avenues, respectively.
TOP: Browncroft Rose Garden: "I named her Esmerelda, which was the most beautiful and sophisticated name I could think of, and loved spending time just sitting underneath her," Maggie Levine said. BOTTOM LEFT: Ryan branch library: "It’s perfectly proportioned – like when a kid draws a tree, and the proportions, that’s what it looks like," Rocky said. MIDDLE: Lincoln Branch Library: "I’m used to seeing it – it’s a special thing when you see something consistently so you can get attached to it," Cormel said. RIGHT: Covenant United Methodist Church: "It is HUGE! It would take 4 or 5 people linking hands to wrap around it," Shane Wiegand said.JUSTIN MURPHY
Christyn Sanagursky: “There was a huge chestnut tree in front of my grandparents house on Durnan Street. Every fall when it dropped chestnuts grandma sent me outside to pick them up in a basket. Great way to keep a little kid busy!” View on map
Cormel: “Right outside the Lincoln library. I’m used to seeing it – it’s a special thing when you see something consistently so you can get attached to it.” View on map
Dan Connolly: “157 Westchester Ave. There are these two huge pine trees that stand beautifully in the front yard of my neighbor's lawn that I love to watch sway when it's stormy in the summer and collect snow in the winter. They are so tall that I like to hypothetically ask guests when we sit on the porch that, if one of them fell, do they think it would reach our house? Always leads to interesting conversation. I'm also a fairly new Rochester transplant. There are so many beautiful trees here, but the sheer amount of pine trees in this area is pretty amazing to me, and I'm only from New Jersey! To have two giant, full ones right here on my city street is so neat to me.” View on map
Fubu: “I asked the city to plant a tree in the front of my house on Ave. D. The tree has since been taken down however I remember something chasing a cat and it ran up the tree and jumped onto my roof by my window. I watched the cat swallow a mouse in his mouth whole, wait for the predator to go away, and go about his business.” View on map
Gregg Starks: “67 Minnesota Street. Because after losing a beautiful Maple to sidewalk contractors damaging the roots, it took me 7 years to convince the city to allow an Amur Maackia tree to be planted as a replacement. I wanted a Magnolia like what I grew up with in the Dorchester Rd area, but, they don't allow them anymore due to liability issues. This was the only tree I could find that flowers in the SUMMER producing grape like clusters of wonderful smelling flowers. It's unlike most trees that flower in Spring or Fall.” View on map
Howard D: “On Watkin Terrace in front of my Grandmother's century-old two-family home off Hudson Ave. As children my Dad, Aunt and two Uncles gazed at this tree from their front porch. My grandmother is long gone as are they, but the house and tree are still there, Some other families have lived there for many years .Yet looking at it still brings back fond memories of my childhood and sleepovers at Grandma's. From generation to generation we are the memory keepers now.” View on map
Jacob Hall: “The lady in white tree located inside Durand Eastman Park. I took a podcasting history course at the University of Rochester where my two friends and I produced an episode of Hear UR on the infamous lady in white tale. This tree is a reminder of the joyous time I had investigating the local the ghost story.” View on map
Jazmine: “It’s the one in front of my grandma’s house. I can climb all the way to the tippy top. I climbed that tree for years.” View on map
Julia: “We’ve got this giant maple tree in our backyard that I love. It’s huge and it shades half our yard. It’s kind of hollow on the inside with the leaves on the outside so you can almost hide in the canopy. We’ve got swings hanging from it, a ladder.” View on map
Leilah: “It's a big willow tree in my backyard and the kids love to go under it and play and hang out, play games. It’s like their little secret area.” View on map
Maggie Levine: “As you face the park from Merchant Road, the third tree from the right was my special tree, back in the late 90s. I named her Esmerelda, which was the most beautiful and sophisticated name I could think of, and loved spending time just sitting underneath her.” View on map
Mark Parrotte: “The linden trees on Mildorf Street between Merchants and Farmington. Not only are they majestic, they exert a sweet fragrant which permeates the neighborhood in the hot summer months. a comforting sense. i grew up in that neighborhood and i still drive through it in summer just to sniff the nostalgia.” View on map
Mary Feasel: “The maple trees on winstead Rd were so beautiful when I was growing up. You could stand in the street and look in either direction and the trees met in a perfect canopy. The tree in front of our house, half way down the street was the most perfectly formed of them all. I used to draw it from the front step, just because it was so symmetrical. They are all gone now. The city cut them down for one reason or another, and replaced them with other trees that they just planted anywhere near the street. The old ones were all perfectly centered.” View on map
n/a: “By Portland and Norton. I think it’s a pine tree. I lived there forever and it used to be in front of my house. It was super huge. Biggest tree on the block. It was cool.” View on map
n/a: “At my house on Denver Street. We actually planted it when we first moved there in 1980. It started from a little baby and now it’s grown to something serious.” View on map
N/A: “The North Winton Village sign at Atlantic and Culver needed some kind of design on the front. The homeowners assosiations wife begged to put a tree on the front. Across the street is a big tree that is mirrored onto this sign now. Everytime i drive by i think "Hey i know that tree"” View on map
Oliver Wendell Holmes: “There’s one on Hudson Avenue, but it’s not there anymore. It fell during an ice storm. The whole house shook; we thought it was an earthquake. Everyone used to go in the backyard and sit up underneath it. When it was hot out, it was that nice cool shade. That’s back when my mother was alive. Kids used to come around, play games, play cards, do Easter egg hunts.” View on map
PL: “It's over on Dale Street off Joseph. It’s actually two of them, and if you look up at the top part they go together and it looks kind of like a heart shape” View on map
Reenah Golden: “It's across from School 8 on St Paul Street. I was a teaching artist, and when I had a break I'd go sit outside with my water and just sit and watch that tree. It's humongous and just so beautiful.” View on map
Rocky: “Outside the Ryan branch library at School 33. It’s perfectly proportioned – like when a kid draws a tree, and the proportions, that’s what it looks like. I love the red leaves on it come the fall. When it’s full-blown, it’s gorgeous.” View on map
Rozilia: “There’s a tree on Hudson right in front of the fire department – it’s got this milky sap that you can eat. It’s a really nice tree. I actually eat that tree.” View on map
Shane Wiegand: “In front of Covenant United Methodist Church. It is HUGE! It would take 4 or 5 people linking hands to wrap around it. I drive by it almost every day and my eye is always drawn to it.The roots burst out of the ground and invite you to sit on them. I enjoy having our Beechwood Neighborhood Picnic underneath the trees shade every summer.” View on map
The northwest quadrant provides a wonderful cross-section of the city as a whole: magnificent parks and parkways, including Maplewood Park, alongside industrial, lightly planted areas.
Many of the neighborhoods in the northwest have undergone major demographic changes over the last 75 years. Here as elsewhere, trees sometimes can serve as a historical clue to where the city has invested, or not, over the years.
LEFT: Seneca Parkway: "The oak trees in this Olmsted designed park are 150-200 years old. Gorgeous, historic, majestic, giants," Sara Scott said. MIDDLE: Church of the Ascension: "It's big, and it's old. It's a beautiful tree that is always featured prominently whenever someone draws or paints a picture of the Church of the Ascension. It's part of the building to me," Ryan said. RIGHT: Purple beech, 331 Glenwood Ave.: "We used to have picnics under the tree. My sisters and brother would climb it ... but I was afraid," Angela Scott said.JUSTIN MURPHY
Angela Brown: “It was outside where my mother lives, but they chopped it down. We all used to hang out and have family gatherings and cookouts. … When they chopped it down it messed everything up. They said they cut it down because of all the squirrels. I said, how dumb do you think we are? Now we have to rent tents and everything, but it’s not the same. It was a really nice tree – it wasn’t the point branches were falling or anything. I just don’t understand why they chopped it down. It was nice and cool and shady – it was like being at a park without having to go to the park. Now she’s thinking about moving just because the tree’s gone. She said that was one of the main reasons I moved over there was because of that tree. … Every summer she looks out and she wants to go out but she doesn’t want to be hot. And she sees this big empty space now, and she gets depressed.” View on map
Angela Scott: “My favorite tree is the Purple Beech at the corner of 331 Glenwood Ave and Dewey Ave. As a child I remember trying to get my arms around the tree and couldn't quite make it. The tree is much bigger and it's branches reach out to Dewey Ave ... probably is hit regularly by the RTS. We used to have picnics under the tree. My sisters and brother would climb it ... but I was afraid.” View on map
Candace Cabral: “Philosopher family will be great to have a family tree for my kids and myself” View on map
EM: “I grew up in Rochester on Knickerbocker Ave (near Ridgeway and Dewey). Between the sidewalk and the curb, there was a tree with very long branches and large leaves. On rainy days, when the rain stopped, by brothers and sisters and I would run outside to this tree. We would jump up and pull back the longest branch we could reach and then quickly let it go. The result, a drenching "rain" that would soak anyone under the chosen branch!! It was a lot of fun and I like to think I was the best "rain maker" but perhaps I had a knack for selecting a long, leaf laden branch and drenching the loudest people?!?” View on map
Jack ODonnell: “88 Dohrcrest Dr. It's kind of cool having a redwood tree ( metasequoia ) which was thought to be extinct until a small stand of them were discovered in Hubei province China around 1947. Not particularly pretty, but unusual and the only deciduous redwood. It has fine feathery leaves of a pretty light green. There are three of four in the Monroe county arboretum at Durand Eastman Park. They generally grow to about 175' tall at maturity - not as tall as the California redwoods, but still taller than any other trees in upstate N.Y. Mine is not there yet.” View on map
John Oster: “The tree is a very large willow located between the Coast Guard station and the pier on the east side of the mouth of the Genesee River. I grew up in Charlotte and on the water, have been looking at that tree my whole life. It has always been there, like the Coast Guard, reassuring boaters, fishermen, residents, and visitors alike. It is quite memorable, although now past its prime and ready for a successor.” View on map
Marisol Ramos-Lopez: “Western Boulevard Parkway. My tree of peace and strength is over 100 years old and has a formation near the base that resembles a face. When I look at it, I see my great-grandmother, who lived to be 99, and feel her spirit. In moments of anxiety and turmoil, I sit in my rocking chair and am comforted by the strength and stealth of this tree. It is a focus point for my meditation and brings me great calm.” View on map
n/a: “On Bryan Street near School 7. It was one of those big pine trees at the house where I grew up. They took it down a long time ago. But it reminded me of the Christmas tree at Times Square . Whoever planted it, it was a long time ago. … Do you believe in hugging trees? I’m going to start doing that. It’s good for, you know, your heart, they say. A lot of these people need to start hugging trees if you ask me.” View on map
Robert Cashimere: “I fish The Genesee River quite often and at one location across from Seth Green Island I kept getting my lures snagged and lost i began to realize that this was getting expensive and I needed a solution. I spotted a lovely tree overhanging the water that had a bare limb pointing out the taker of lures. I still use this landmark to save lures, money and fishing trips. Thanks to you old river tree.” View on map
Ryan: “It's big, and it's old. It's a beautiful tree that is always featured prominently whenever someone draws or paints a picture of the Church of the Ascension. It's part of the building to me. Very peaceful on a nice summer day.” View on map
Sara Scott -Director of Recreation & Parks Stewardship: “Seneca Park. The oak trees along in this Olmsted designed park are 150-200 years old. Gorgeous, historic, majestic, giants.” View on map
Between the 19th Ward and Genesee Valley Park, southwest Rochester has some of the most impressive tree cover in the city.
At the same time, it is the smallest quadrant by area, meaning its overall tally of trees is lower.
LEFT: Children's School of Rochester: "During times when I wanted to get out of the house and go somewhere to think, I would go to this large tree and sit underneath it. ... I am reminded of this regularly from the logo on my Kindle of a boy sitting under a tree and reading," Arnold Goldberg said. RIGHT: Rodenbeck Place: "I had always seen old photos of the many streets in Rochester lined with elm trees, but had never been able to understand the awe-inspiring beauty of a sylvan cathedral like that on Rodenbeck Place," Chris Brandt said.JUSTIN MURPHY
The southeast quadrant has gotten disproportionate attention over the city's history when it comes to trees. East Avenue, Mount Hope Cemetery and the Highland Park and Park Avenue neighborhoods are all must-see attractions on a Rochester tree tour.
LEFT: Copper beech at Mount Hope Cemetery: "We were looking at the gravestones and admiring the scenery, when we looked up and saw such glowing beauty, at a height we could not see the top of," Jan and Mike Towsley wrote. MIDDLE: Weeping beech at Mount Hope Cemetery: "You don't see a lot of them around. It's just a magnificent tree in my mind; it's one that, whenever I'm in Mount Hope, I at least take a drive by to see," Brian Liberti said. RIGHT: 1600 East Ave.: "I used to live in this building and the enormous tree out front was just outside our window. In the early morning it would become laden with what seemed like hundreds of squawking crows that were roosting in the city," Jen Lunsford said.JUSTIN MURPHY
There were about as many Tree Stories entries for Highland Park as there were for the rest of the city put together, a testament to the enduring appeal of the historic park's design by Frederick Law Olmsted. Among its features is an officially designated arboretum.
LEFT: Katsura tree in Highland Park. MIDDLE: The park's flowering magnolia and cherry trees on April 30, 2022. RIGHT: An older tree frames the skating pond in Highland Park Feb. 15, 2022.DEBI BOWER; TINA MACINTYRE-YEE AND SHAWN DOWD/DEMOCRAT AND CHRONICLE
Contact staff writer Justin Murphy at email@example.com.
[This story was originally published by Democrat & Chronicle.]