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Great Trees of Mount Auburn

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

There are, of course, the trees to consider. Mount Auburn Cemetery has the grandest, most diverse, sometimes most bizarre trees...trees as varied as its monuments.

It was on my October walk with Kris that I first realized that weeping beeches must be grafted. A plant with the "weeping" mutation grows downward, or prostrate. How does a tree that grows downward instead of up ever attain any height? Wouldn't it just crawl along the ground? Well, apparently it would, unless the weeping branch is grafted, oh so very long ago, to an upright or standard trunk. Imagine being a normal beech sapling, minding your own bidness, growing straight up, then suddenly chopped off and topped with dreadlocks.

And here is the scar to show where it was grafted. Amazing. Mount Auburn is a place of reflection, wonder, and discovery for me. In looking at this scar, I suddenly made the connection with those rather ridiculous looking little weeping cherry trees everyone plants in front of their new condos--you know...the yardstick with the big foof of weeping pink-flowering branches atop it. They look like frothy pink umbrellas. Weeping beech: same deal. But much more impressive, especially given a couple hundred years. I enjoy discovering the hand of man where I'd never thought to look for it.

Each of these weeping beeches is like a citadel of privacy, especially in growing season when their leaves form a curtain all around. You push aside the long trailing fronds and enter a greengold world. I can only imagine what has gone on under these trees all these years. Lots of carving, apparently...and who knows what else. 

Speaking of trees, we found a swarm of feral honeybees in a big hollow oak. Nice to see, rather rare.  You can just pick out their golden dots in the round cavity. What a magnificent tree this was, and full of bees, too.

 Oh the trees, the beautiful trees. Things weren't really turning color just yet in the warm and protected city environs. It's so easy to forget the headstones and just appreciate the forest here. That's what the birds do. They drop into Mount Auburn like tired pebbles on their long spring and fall migratory flights, and they find what they need in her thickets and shrubbery, in the sunlit canopy of her massive trees.

I come here to appreciate truly mature trees. We plant them in our yards when they're barely bigger than we are, and we so easily underestimate the real estate they'll carve out when they're full grown. We may never see them full-grown, in fact. That's for our children's children.

 And just like in a forest, the trees are always replicating themselves. I don't know if the cemetery management wants another huge oak here, but these acorns aren't daunted. They're going to give it a go.

It is the contrast of burgeoning life with memento mori all around that brings me back to Mount Auburn Cemetery again and again. I could live here, mining her secrets and wonders, for years and never uncover them all.


I took a Deciduous Trees class and a Conifer Class at Longwood Gardens. The instructors gave us maps to the grounds to find the trees we were studying, but they also recommended local old cemeteries of Philadelphia to find the oldest and best trees. That was my first visit to cemeteries that wasn't part of a family service, and I've never looked at them the same. Peaceful, beautiful, full of legacy.

Wayne, PA

Posted by Anonymous January 11, 2011 at 5:14 PM

Ooh, will you show me your favorites when I come to Longwood in February? I love a good tree. And let us not forget Orchidmania.

It's disconcerting to look at those trees, the weeping beeches in particular, this time of year--while they delight me as leafy umbrellas for three other seasons, the sight of them naked, their wintertime spines and bones all spindly and exposed, is sad. That one that you can walk into, and be in a hobbit-y delicious green tent, all dark except the little nickels and dimes of sunlight that trickles in--now, no sense of enclosure. I like then better when they get to look like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up.

Imagine the dell filling up with snow...that's what's going on today...


Posted by Anonymous January 12, 2011 at 8:58 AM

Wow Julie,
This is like Willy Wonka's tour of the factory! You are full of wonder, despite your expertise. These examples have made me curious about the trees at work -- just outside my window and about the dignified ones around the State Capitol near my apartment. Thanks for this wonderful post.

Posted by Anonymous January 12, 2011 at 9:09 AM

In the Dell with you, Hodge!

Oh, CrayonsEncore, I am so delighted to re-add you to the blogroll. Thank you for making more of your most wonderful product for the planet.

Do the roots on some of those big trees crowd the neighbors I wonder???

Posted by Anonymous January 12, 2011 at 1:52 PM

Oh, they'd have to. Most of these people were planted when the trees were much smaller, I'd wager. Very few new interments going on there, though there are some in the "new" part of the cemetery. They have amazing maps of the populace--where to dig and where not to.

What about Camperdown Elms? Are they grafted, or do they just aspire away as youngsters and then suddenly chicken out and head back to the ground?

"feral honeybees" ... I know that's accurate, I just have never heard it put that way before.


Julie - about 30 years ago I lived in a big old Victorian house outside Philadelphia - we had a weeping beech, and underneath (inside that lovely shade glade) was a stone bench, where I used to hole up with a book on hot summer afternoons. We had a party once where we tied back the branches to make an entrance, and served mint juleps from a table under there. It was a perfect hideaway.

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