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Fall(ing) into an Odd Brooklyn Autumn

By Nalleli Guillen

Posted on September 23, 2020

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The "Camperdown elm," circa 1950; Brooklyn photograph and illustration collection (V1974.5.3405), Brooklyn Historical Society

With temperatures falling, the beloved (or controversial) smell of pumpkin spice in the air, and the autumnal equinox passed on Tuesday, fall has officially arrived!

While the “vehicular-ly” blessed may head upstate or into New England for their annual “leaf peeping” pilgrimages, Brooklynites looking for a taste of fall foliage need only head to Prospect Park. Home to tens of thousands of trees, the one that, perhaps, best embodies our mood in 2020 heading into fall must be the famous Camperdown elm. Drooping, confused, and literally unable to tell up from down, this old elm is still standing, and so are we.

This peculiar tree is located on the east side of the park, just across from the Flatbush Avenue entrance to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, tucked behind the Beaux Arts style boathouse built in 1905. Encircled today by a metal fence, the Camperdown elm is actually older than the boathouse. In 1872, East New York botanical enthusiast Adolphus G. Burgess (1822-1883) sent the Brooklyn Parks Commission a cutting from a creeping elm originally from Camperdown House in Scotland, which flourished after being grafted onto an existing Scotch elm.

"American Scenery," circa 1869; V1973.5.3434, Brooklyn Historical Society This photo from 1869 predates both the Prospect Park boathouse and the Camderdown tree. The tree was planted three years later near the lower quadrant of the photo, where the gardener's racks are braced.

Now that its fall, the Camperdown elm will soon shed its leaves and reveal its full witchy weirdness. Because of a mutation in the Scottish tree it originated from, the Camperdown elm literally doesn’t know which way is up. As a result, its gnarled, twisted branches grow outwards spastically, almost parallel to the ground. Requiring extra care and support because of this oddity, the tree fell into disrepair and was nearly cut down in the 1960s, saved by the preservation efforts and publicity spearheaded by Brooklyn’s great poet, Marianne Moore. Its leaves may not blossom into beautiful colors, but this unique Brooklyn landmark is worth a fall visit.

The Camperdown Elm on August 21, 2020. Photo by the author.

The Camperdown Elm on August 21, 2020. Photo by the author.

So, the next time you’re on a socially distanced excursion in Prospect Park, check in on the Camperdown elm and take comfort in its solid, (if droopy and spastic), presence.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. We look forward inviting you back to BHS is the future to research in our entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections. In the meantime, please visit our digital collections, available here. Our reference staff are still available to help with your research! You can reach us at [email protected]

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