Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cemetery Trees

No one would argue that the gnarly old cemetery tree adds a creepy ambiance to any graveyard photograph. I’ve used this to great effect myself, but never actually paid much attention to the tree, other than as a compositional element. I'd simply been using the tree for my own purposes! What I don’t know about plants and trees could fill volumes. Having lived all my life in the Northeast part of the U.S., I can tell the difference between pine trees and roses, but that’s about it.

Due to my photographic cemetery excursions, however, I've  learned a bit more about trees and plants. I believe it all began when I came home from a cemetery after tramping through a patch of fallen ginkgo berries (which are actually seeds, and look like large grapes, right). Ginkgo biloba (its scientific species) extract is reputedly a memory-enhancer. I can vouch for this--my family vividly remembers the day I came home with the berries on my shoes -- they smell like dog doo. 

What actually prompted me to write this blog was seeing the current crop of dropped fruit from an osage orange tree in St. Peter’s Church Cemetery in Philadelphia. The monstrous citrus-y fruits litter the cemetery in the Fall, like so many chestnuts! Inedible to humans, these “hedge apples” as they’re sometimes called, inspire a manic nut orgy among the local squirrels. The two-pound (!) fruits drop and smash on the tombstones and litter the cemetery during the months of October and November. This type tree is not native to Pennsylvania, but Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. 

Nineteenth century landscapers and architects who designed America’s rural “garden” cemeteries wanted them to be fabulous arboretums as well as sculpture gardens (these cemeteries are no longer rural, as their cities have grown around them). The first two in the U.S., Mount Auburn in Cambridge Massachusetts and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, have more than their fair share of exotic plants and trees.

When I say exotic, I don’t mean the cultivated marijuana crop I stumbled upon in an abandoned cemetery, but rather LEGAL botanical curiosities that are not native to the geographic region in which the cemetery resides. The cemetery designers wanted these new memorial parks to be pleasant and interesting places that would help dispel the gloom of death. Exit the skull and crossbones, enter the pretty angel statues. Ornamental plants and trees that could be expected to thrive in the cemetery were imported from distant lands—geographic regions of the world with similar climate.

Places of splendid horticulture and statuary were wildly popular with the Victorian public, so much so that cemeteries like Laurel Hill in Philadelphia had to issue admission tickets and install a turnstile for horse-drawn carriages to regulate the amount of traffic through the cemetery! Laurel Hill has its share of unusual (to this area) plants, e.g. wild yuccas (at left), gigantic holly trees with bright red berries, and the most enormous ginkgo tree I’ve ever seen (below right). Native to China, ginkgos were brought to Europe in 1690. You would think this hearty tree would grow just about anywhere, as ginkgos were about the only living thing to survive the 1945 atom bomb explosion in Hiroshima, Japan. However, people might be selective about where they plant them because of their odiferous fruits.

The American garden cemeteries were of course copied from the original designs by the English and French, who created Kensal Green, Highgate, and Pere Lachaise in Victorian Times. This was the era, in fact, when “botanical science” was quite popular and fashionable--a pastime in which male cemetery planners saw fit to partake. Prior to that, botany was viewed as mainly a female activity (as it didn't involve such manly endeavors as killing animals or people). To this end, early landscapers of garden cemeteries were apt to intend a cemetery’s botanical garden to be as much an educational attraction as a picturesque design element. Labeling plants and trees with their common and scientific names, for instance, was common in such early garden cemeteries as Mt. Auburn. 

The Victorian cemetery was the precursor to the public park as well as the art museum, as such things did not exist at the time. The intent was a getaway from the noisy city, where people could stroll, picnic, and enjoy the fresh air in an idyllic sculpture garden. I was reminded of this yesterday while I was photographing the colorful Fall foliage at The Woodlands Cemetery in West Philadelphia. A couple and their little girl were frolicking on the grounds playing hide-and-seek among the monuments! 

"For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen; Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green." -- G. K. Chesterton, 1914