Trees of Knowledge

Trees of Knowledge

The graves of loved ones and luminaries are enough to attract visitors to the Grove Street Cemetery. But this 18-acre oasis in the middle of the city has long held another appeal: its trees. The cemetery now carries the official designation of a Level I Accredited Arboretum, and a self-guided tour brochure will help you find 40 species of trees, both familiar and foreign, that shade the cemetery’s wide paths and hidden nooks.

Spring is an especially beautiful time to visit, while many of the arboretum’s plants are flaunting their blossoms. Others are just beginning to leaf out. On a stroll with filmmaker Karyl Evans—who created the tour with fellow New Haven Garden Club member Marilyn Elsworth as part of the UConn Extension Master Gardener Certification Program—and landscape architect Channing Harris, I find the colors of the season at every turn. A saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana) is decked in pink and white, leaving its cupped petals on the walkway like a trailing veil. A flowering dogwood (Cornus florida / Benthamidia florida) blooms pink on some branches, green-white on others. Even those not on the official tour lend color and fragrance to the walk: A weeping cherry tree sprays its pale pink blossoms like water from a fountain, and the heady scent of purple lilacs wafts across our path.

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These showy specimens may be the first to catch your eye, but if you grab a brochure from the office, called the Chapel, just inside the entrance (open Mon-Fri, 8am-2pm) or print one at home and follow the suggested route, you’ll make many more subtle discoveries along the way. Horticultural descriptions in the brochure, along with sketches of leaf shapes, will help you identify each tree or shrub, while signs on the specimens themselves tell cultural tales. For example, the sign on an English hawthorn (Crataegus laevigata) on Hawthorn Avenue notes that the tree’s thorns help protect it from grazing cattle, and hawthorns were often planted in the British Isles as de facto fencing. “You can imagine if you’re trying to do a hedgerow and you plant them close together, their prickly branches intertwine and keep the cows in the pasture, or the sheep,” Harris says. He adds that hawthorns were frequently planted in British churchyards. As a board member of the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery for over a decade, Harris also happens to know this particular hawthorn was planted by former longtime cemetery superintendents Bill and Joan Cameron.

The arboretum tour brochure denotes some old favorites including a sugar maple (Acer saccharum), now dangling its tiny, bell-shaped blooms beside baby leaves, and a white oak (Quercus alba), famous in these parts as the species of the legendary Charter Oak. But more unusual specimens are also on view. A distinctive Blue Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica ‘Glauca’) with small clusters of silver-blue needles extends its branches as if to embrace the “Cedar Ave” sign marking one of the cemetery’s many botanically named walkways. Farther down that route, a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) reaches one assertive root toward the path. It’s not very tall yet, but Harris says it may grow to 100 feet. The juxtaposition of ordinary and uncommon on the tour is intentional, Evans says. She wants visitors to be able to compare the trees we see all around us—to “go back and forth and really see what the differences ” between, for example, a red oak and a black oak—while at the same time discovering something new.

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We pause at the west end of Hawthorn Avenue to look up into a tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), one of the cemetery’s tallest and likely oldest specimens. “The blooms tend to be higher,” Evans says, “so a lot of times you’ll walk right by it, and you’ll see the blooms on the ground… you don’t see them on the lower part of the tree, so you don’t realize it’s a tuliptree.” The giveaway is the distinctive, four-lobed shape of the leaves, which also resembles a tulip.

Many of these botanical forms are carved on the gravestones around us: ivy, lilies, weeping willow, palm leaves, oak leaves with acorns. Dogwoods are popular for supposedly being the wood from which Christ’s cross was hewn, Harris says. “The legend is, ever since, the flower has four petals , it has red in the center representing the blood of Christ, and the tree itself would never grow straight again after the crucifixion.” Yews are popular graveyard trees as well. They have associations with longevity as far back as Roman times, Harris says. One huge Grove Street specimen, perhaps 40 feet tall, is likely another of the cemetery’s oldest. It’s thriving, Harris says, with the help of the brownstone walls, which keep out the occasional stray deer that would love to snack on it.

Grove Street’s collection evolved partly by intention and partly by accident. Families have often selected plants for their plots, but Harris speculates most of the trees were planted by staff. Periodic replantings have been funded by gifts and by the Friends of the Grove Street Cemetery. Harris points to a ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) on the tour that was part of a plan drawn up by the well-known landscape architect Diana Balmori. Currently, an effort is underway to replace the cemetery’s large ash trees, all of which have been felled by the emerald ash borer. And Harris himself is responsible for an ongoing project that replaced a 700-foot-long privet hedge in the front border along the iron fence with new plantings. That area, he says, has been reserved for plantings, not burials, since the cemetery’s opening in 1798.

“When you get in here, you just have no idea how much is in here,” Evans says. She had an idea herself because in 2007, she spent a year working on a film about the cemetery and its history. In fact, Grove Street’s collection is the most complete arboretum open to the public in Greater New Haven, Harris says. It’s also what he calls an “ecological reservoir” for birds, butterflies, bees and “many niches of wildlife.”

While the next few weeks are a great time to visit, so is autumn, when leaves take over as the colorful showpieces. In fact, almost any day is a good day to visit because as the seasons change, so do the plants. “We could come back tomorrow,” Harris says, “and see 10 things we had not seen today.”

Grove Street Cemetery
227 Grove St, New Haven (map)
Daily 9am-4pm (last entry 3:30pm)
(203) 787-1443 |

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features a saucer magnolia in the distance. Image 2 features Channing Harris (standing) and Karyl Evans (seated). Images 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 feature saucer magnolia blooms, a tuliptree, a weeping willow engraving, a sugar maple and a weeping cherry tree, respectively.

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