Decorative Planting of Trees

Date Published: 
August, 1923
Original Author: 
Joseph S. Illick
Original Publication: 
AACS Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention

At the time I was invited to speak before this gathering I was at somewhat of a loss to see just why one interested in trees and forests should be asked to appear on the program of a meeting of Cemetery Superintendents, but a moments reflection on the three things that stand out most prominently in cemeteries convinced me of the wisdom of the wisdom of the officials of the Program Committee.  As one looks at a cemetery the three things that occupy conspicuous places are the markers, the trees, and the grasses.

Next to the grasses, trees are the commonest form of vegetable growth on the face of the earth. In many localities are so common that we do not give much attention to them.  But what if we had no trees!  I wonder how we would feel if tomorrow morning upon looking out on the streets and the rural landscape we would find that some demon during the night had destroyed all our trees.  Then we would appreciate their value and be willing to list them as our true friends.  Sometimes it is necessary to lose friends in order to appreciate their real value.

No doubt it is because trees are so common that we sometimes forget to think about them and give them a place in our program of work.  They are found everywhere from the shores of the ocean up to the timber line upon the high mountains. They beautify the banks of streams, clothe our steep mountain slopes and make our rural landscape, city streets and parks objects of beauty.  I truly believe that trees were made to bring happiness and comfort to the people. They are the earth’s fairest cloak.  They adorn the earth more fittingly than any other object of nature.  A park without trees is purposeless.  A road without trees is shade-less.  A cemetery without trees is cheerless as a creedless land is hopeless.

Both the living and the dead seem to love to rest beneath the quiet shade of old trees.  In New England I found many cemeteries surrounded by beautiful white pine trees.   There the dead rest serenely with patches of sunlight playing on the white moss-touched tombs and a thin carpet of pine needles makes soft the tread of reverent feet.

Beautiful cemeteries are a credit to the community and unborn faces will bless those who help take care of them.  Neglected cemeteries are an eyesore and bring discredit to those who tolerate them.  They are obvious evidences of disregard and disrespect on the part of the living to those who repose there.  I would rather rest in an abandoned cemetery than a neglected one.  In time nature will make an abandoned cemetery a fitting resting place.  Not so long ago I happened upon a small abandoned cemetery on a hillside overlooking the abandoned town of Greenwood Furnace in central Pennsylvania. It overlooked the site of an old charcoal furnace that at one time supported a prosperous small mountain community. When the forests were all cut off from which the supply of charcoal was derived, the furnace was dismantled, and shortly thereafter the town abandoned. While walking along a forest road on a hillside over looking this town, I noticed an American flag playing gently with the wind amidst a thrifty growth of young forest trees. My curiosity was aroused and I wandered over beside the flag, and found that it marked the burial place of a veteran who once lived in the abandoned town. Standing over the forest cemetery was a beautiful Yellow Poplar about 20 years old, and beside it a princely White Pine. Over the little mound of raised ground was a cover of myrtle and ivy. This was truly a quiet and beautiful resting place. Please permit me to repeat that I would rather have my body repose in an abandoned cemetery where nature will clothe my resting place with forest ornaments that no man-made object can ever equal, than to have it lie in a neglected cemetery filled with weeds and marred with dilapidated markers.

There are about 1,000 different kinds of trees in North America. Some of them are famed for their wood and others for the food they produce. Still others seem to be created to give shade and shelter.  It seems as if the Creator fashioned some in a way that their main function will be to adorn, to make beautiful and to give cheer and comfort. It is this class of trees that is especially adapted for planting in cemeteries. I will not pretend to talk about the arrangement of trees in this cemetery or their grouping, but wish to point out a number of their striking features and peculiarities.

The evergreen trees are well adapted for cemetery planting because of their bright green color throughout the year. There are a number of trees that are widely planted in cemeteries.  One of these is the Norway Spruce. It is not a native of North America but it has been imported from Europe and on account or its attractive form and ease with which it can be grown it has found a wide use in cemetery planting. Another tree that is well adapted to cemetery planting particularly about the border and where height is desirable is the White Pine. It is the greatest of American forest trees, and one of the most fitting for cemetery planting, for it can be successfully transplanted, grows rapidly and has an attractive term, and produces beautiful foliage. The needles upon falling to the ground form a soft carpet that makes soft the tread or reverent feet. Many of the prominent citizens of Colonial days are buried in the shade of White Pine trees.

The European Larch is another tree well adapted for cemetery planting. It belongs to the same tree group with the White Pine and Norway Spruce, but differs from them in that it does not hold its leaves during the winter, but sheds them each fall. In spring when the young leaves of the European Larch come out they are, to my mind, the most beautiful colored leaves of all our trees.

The Arbor Vitae is also worthy of a place in cemeteries. It does not become so large as some other evergreen trees, but it is a tree of rare beauty and its shape can be fashioned to suit almost any artist. It can be cut back heavily to be used for hedge purposes, and will stand trimming so as to conform to any landscape effect that may be desired. It is truly an obedient tree, and will respond to almost any kind of treatment.
I must not forget to mention the Irish Juniper, a tree that is rather common in cemeteries and made beautiful by its foliage and attractive form. It stands so erect and gives a feeling of cheer and happiness. In a class with the Irish Juniper is Kosters’ Blue Spruce. This rare ornamental tree was brought out of the remote mountains of Colorado and developed until now it is one of the most attractive ornamental trees. We should ever be grateful to those who have developed trees of rare ornamental beauty, for they have brought to us much of our happiness and pleasure.

Among the small pygmy trees that deserve a place in cemetery planting is the European Mountain Pine. This tree occurs near the timber line on the snow-capped mountains of Europe, where it remains quite small, having battled for centuries with the sliding snows and mighty winds or the Alps. It rarely grows over five feet in height and with judicious trimming may be fashioned so as no t to exceed two or three feet. This unique tree is particularly well adapted for border planting and in other places where a small round-headed pygmy tree is needed.

The evergreen trees are not the only ones that should be planted in cemeteries, for, among the trees that we commonly call “broad-leaved trees" are many that are worthy to be planted in cemeteries, for it seems to me that one of the principal objects of planting trees in cemeteries is to give cheer and comfort and to offset the sorrow that naturally hangs heavy on those who stand over the burial place of those that are near and dear. Among the broad-leaved trees are a number whose main message seems to be one of cheer and happiness. In early spring, long before the leaves come out on many of our trees the Red Bud bursts forth in a garment of rich red. Its leafless branches are completely covered with clusters of' brilliant red flowers. We cannot help but like them, for they are truly beautiful, and this small tree with a broad round crown is deserving of a place where beauty is an asset.  In a group with Red Bud should be placed the Dogwood.  Its flowers ranging from pure white to pink are equally beautiful and carry a message or cheer.

It is most unfortunate that the flowers of these two trees do not last very long and after they are gone we must look elsewhere for cemetery ornaments. Among the appropriate trees for the cemetery that carry a rich coloration throughout the growing season are the Japanese Maples. For generations the people of the Orient have been developing the Maples. They are among the most gorgeously colored trees in the world. For centuries the Japanese have been giving their Maples training not unlike that which American horsemen and the American rose expert give their subjects. There are now in existence Maples having pedigrees that go back for a full century or more. Some of these pygmy trees are only six inches high, while others may reach a height of several feet, but rarely do any of them become very large. I understand that the members or this Association expect to go to Gettysburg tomorrow. If you do and will visit the National Cemetery, you will see two distinct varieties of Japanese Maple at the height of their seasonal glory.

Among the medium-sized trees that have an attractive form and beautiful foliage is the Pin Oak. The Tulip Tree is also deserving of a prominent place in cemetery planting. It is a tree which seems to have been overlooked. I also feel that the White Ash has an ornamental mission that has not yet been fully developed, and the Sweet Gum of the South, a tree with a beautiful star-shaped leaf turning to a gorgeous red in fall, is well adapted for planting as far north as Massachusetts. The Beech with its attractive attire or summer and beautiful grooming in winter is among the beautiful trees that I have seen in some of the best kept cemeteries of the country.

While a cemetery superintendent should know what to plant, I think it is equally well for them to know what not to plant. One good rule to follow is not to plant rapid-growing trees in cemeteries. There are two good reasons for this. Rapid-growing trees have a tendency to throw out shoots and suckers very freely and they deteriorate very rapidly. As a rule, they are short-lived trees, and before they become old they are rather unattractive. Among the trees that cemetery superintendents should avoid planting are the Horse Chestnut, the Ailanthus, the Catalpa, and the Cottonwoods. These four trees are all rapid growers, but their undesirable habit of shedding something all the time of sending up root suckers, interfering with the growth of other trees, and unattractive form, suggests that they should be kept out or cemeteries.

Stephen Girard, one of the greatest men of the Keystone State, said:  If I knew that I was to die tomorrow I would plant a tree today."  Our great poet Henry VanDyke said: "He that planteth a tree is a servant of God. He provideth a kindness for many generations and faces that he hath not seen shall bless him." To plant trees is unquestionably a good slogan, but I think all of us who plant trees should also assume the responsibility or caring for them. To plant trees and then neglect them is unkind. The mere planting of trees will not insure success, for trees like all other living things need attention and a few or the things which should be done in order to insure the establishment and growth of the trees are the following:

1. Be sure to dig the hole large enough to take the roots without crowding them.
2. Cut off broken and injured roots with a sharp knife, and be sure to make a clean cut.
3. Trim back the tops of the trees so that they will balance the roots.
4. See that the earth is placed firmly around the roots so that the tree will be held in place.

I have every reason to believe that all cemetery superintendents know these simple rules, but it may be well to have repeated them again because they are so very important.

It is significant that this meeting is held in the month of August the hardest month in the year on trees. The two things from which trees suffer heavily during the month of August are lack of water and food.  I am sorry to tell you that my observations have convinced me that trees suffer from hunger and lack of water in cemeteries more than in almost any other place. It is customary to establish a dense sod and to cut the grass regularly and rake up every little particle of vegetable growth. As soon as the leaves begin to fall they are raked up and taken away so as to make the cemetery attractive. Now when we begin to analyze this practice we will find that these operations are removing the food that the trees should have. If we continue to remove this source of tree food it is but natural that we should provide it in some other form, that is, by feeding the trees with commercial fertilizer. In the forest where the trees are well watered and well fed they flourish but in our streets and cemeteries where they are poorly fed and inadequately watered, the best they can do is to eke out an existence. It is imperative that during the month of August trees should be well fed and given plenty of water.

There is another thing that should be watched in August that is the second brood of caterpillars. This brood usually consists of a large number, and will do great damage to the trees by completely defoliating them, at a time when they should be storing up food for winter. It will be quite helpful in the development of attractive and thrifty trees to see to it that this second brood of caterpillars is killed off before they can do much damage.

There is only one other thing that I wish to call to your attention, and that pertains to pruning trees. Not so long ago I overheard a conversation in which one man asked another where he could get someone to prune his trees. He was informed that "Over there on a store box sits a man who has nothing to do. I think you can get him." I am sorry to say, that it is too often true, that the poorest workman, the most shiftless character in a town, the fellow that has nothing to do and does not know how to do anything well, is the fellow who is asked to prune trees. One can readily see why so many trees are poorly pruned and the ill effect of such unsatisfactory work will hand us a penalty upon the trees for the rest of our lives.

In conclusion permit me to say that I feel sure that the tree condition of our cemeteries will be improved if on Thanksgiving Day everyone connected with the development of cemeteries will give thanks for the countless gifts that trees give to us, and on New Year's day resolve that "I will open my eyes to the beauty of trees and my heart to the love of them. I will study their habits and learn to know their many uses. I will ever treasure a fair estimate of their great value and the comfort that they bring to us."

Now, if you will bear with me I will show you a few slides which will picture some added features and also picture some of the features which will be shown to you on your automobile trip tomorrow.

(At this point lantern slide pictures were thrown on the screen and explained by Professor Illick)

From the publication:
AACS - Proceedings of the 37th Annual Convention
Harrisburg, PA
August 20, 21, 22 and 23, 1923