Feral landscaping

If you step into a cultivated landscape, like a cemetery for instance, and take a look around and see some trees, a general assumption, or a common one at least, is that those trees are there intentionally, that is, that it was decided by someone, or someones, to place them where they are.  For a tree to last from year to year it takes some amount of care, or at the very least it takes not cutting it down or pulling it up – and so if a tree is growing in a place that is landscaped, and the effort is being put into maintaining it, or at least it isn’t being removed, it would seem likely that it would have been placed there with some kind of thought – after all, who would take care of a tree if it hadn’t been meant to be there?  If they hadn’t meant for it to be there, wouldn’t they have gotten rid of it?  It just seems like common sense to assume that, in a cultivated landscape, if a tree is there, that it was put there by a person, that it was placed there by someone, that it was planted with intention.

This assumption, however, is wrong.  Last year, in July, I was out at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, in southwest Philadelphia.  Mt. Moriah was established in the 1850s and was designed as a “rural cemetery”, with an ornate entrance and winding roads going through it, like Laurel Hill in North Philadelphia, or Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  However, distinct from those rural cemeteries, Mt. Moriah was (and is) populated primarily with the middle class and the working class – in contrast to the more wealthy citizens of those other cities of the dead.

Mt. Moriah was originally entirely in Philadelphia, but it later expanded out of the city, reaching across Cobbs Creek and over into the Borough of Yeadon.  Now, it’s a few hundred acres of rolling hills, and gravestones, and monuments, with trees here and there dotting the landscape.  And in some places those dots come very close together.  This cemetery, for a number of reasons, has become somewhat overgrown, and in many places the plants have taken over and risen up and over the gravestones, crowding in on them, and filling over the space with green.

On the Philadelphia side however, when I was there last year, the grass had been mown, tangles had been taken out, and it was pretty well open, cut and cared for.  And so as we arrived, walking along Springfield Ave, I saw grass, and open space, and also trees here and there among the headstones.  I was interested to see what those trees were, that were planted there – since this cemetery has a different demographic than that of Laurel Hill or Mt. Auburn, I wondered what trees they would have used – would they have been similar, or perhaps even the same, kinds as those in the cemeteries with wealthier interments?  By seeing what persists in the environment, we can see what was done in the past, and so I was interested to see what the landscaping habits of the middle class had been, at Mt. Moriah.  What trees were there, what trees had been there?

As I got closer, I saw that those trees were mulberries, and black cherries, and they were, estimating by their size, probably about ten or twenty years old, or less.  And I realized that, because people hadn’t been planting mulberries or black cherries at those times when these trees began their lives, and because these are trees that seed in on their own quite readily, for these reasons I realized that these trees that were set among the landscape had most likely been set there without our help, without having been planted by the hand of man and woman.  They were little bits of feral landscape – though the land had been tamed and cultivated around them, cut back and trimmed, managed with thought, the tiny parcels on which those trees sat had been taken over by these plants whose seeds had just come in on their own, with help maybe of the wind, or of animals other than humans, but quite certainly without us.  They had arrived, and they had stayed, without regards to human needs or wants.

And so, I began to wonder – how long has this kind of feral landscaping been going on?   How long has it been a habit for landscapers to just kind of let a tree grow, to not cut it down, to allow it to live until it became a part, indistinguishable unless you look closely, from the sculpted environment around it?  And where else had this kind of element been a part of the landscape “design”?  At a more cultivated cemetery, where most of the plants had been planted, would we also find feral plots?

At the Woodlands Cemetery, there’s a mulberry that can answer these questions, at least a little bit.  The Woodlands, formerly the estate of William Hamilton, a wealthy Philadelphia gentleman and ardent plant collector of the late 18th and early 19th century, became a cemetery in 1840 – and it remains a cemetery to this day.  Rich with beautiful trees – red cedars, American hollies, and so much more, including the rarely seen Caucasian zelkova, the Woodlands provides a lasting record of how a cemetery was landscaped, at least for the tree part, over the last two centuries.

And there is a mulberry tree there – back behind the house, towards the river, you can go there and see it towering up over the path towards the back fence there.  It’s a very large tree, and from a cursory look it would appear to be part of the landscape just like the other trees there, just like the dogwoods and the pines and the English elms nearby.  But, because it is a mulberry, it most likely was not planted there by a person, and it represents a feral part of the landscape, a tiny plot of land that went from tamed to untamed and now sits among blades of grass that are regularly cut, and among trees that arrived there via nurseries and seedhouse – among plants that are cultivated sits a wild tree.

And so by looking at this mulberry, we can see that even the Woodlands, where most of the trees are planted, had some feral landscaping.  But when did this happen?  When did this mulberry start its life?  And more broadly, more generally, how long have wild trees been allowed to participate in cultivated landscapes without being uprooted or cut down?  And more specifically, how long has this wild tree, this mulberry, been occupying this feral patch of graveyard?

We can answer that question by coring the tree – that is, by extracting a thin length of wood from it, going perpendicular to the tree’s growth rings, and then sanding that thin length of wood down and counting the lines, lines that were part of that trees growth rings as it expanded outward as it has grown.  (we can also partially answer a part of those questions by looking for old photographs, such as this one, that shows that the area alongside the railroad tracks was unmown in 1955)

By doing that, we find that the mulberry is well over 80 years old.  We were able to count that many rings, and so get a good lower bound on the trees age.  However, that’s just the rings we could count (some of them were indistinct), and since we only got 14 7/8″ through (i.e., not all the way), it’s most likely quite a bit older – the entire tree is about 53.2″ dbh (diameter at breast height), and so we can roughly approximate it to be over a hundred years old.  This work, by the way, was done in collaboration with and due to the hardworking efforts of Ned Barnard, and Steve Minicola, and Joe Shapiro, and Jessica Baumert, and others who joined us on this day.

I’d like to get another core out of there before saying for sure how old this mulberry is (and just to get  a more precise date on it), but from this tree we can see that “feral landscaping” (that is, where plants that seeded in on their own, as I’m quite sure this mulberry did, are kept as part of a cultivated landscape) has been going on for at least a hundred years, at the Woodlands.  Even in a cemetery, life persists.

In human dominated landscapes, buildings are built and plants are planted, and so it’s easy to think that if a plant is in a park or a cemetery, or anywhere with wide open lawns and open spaces that are cut and cared for, and if that plant were to have grown to the size of a tree, well then it must have been planted there,  While plants quite literally take on a life of their own, and there may be weeds among the cracks and in the lawns, it just seems like common sense to assume that, in a cultivated landscape, if a plant is there and it is not removed for such a long time that it grows to become a tree, then it must have been put there by a person, placed there by someone.

However, as we look more closely and more broadly, we see that this is not always the case, that there are plants that have just kind of come in to these environments, and have been incorporated into cultivated landscapes and become pretty well indistinguishable from the trees that were planted there, and that it can be difficult to tell them apart unless you look closely, and that the wild, the cultivated, and the feral are not so different from one another.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:



One thought on “Feral landscaping

  1. The landscapes of cemeteries have evolved, sometimes radically, in the years since Mount Auburn opened in 1831. Changing tastes, changing economic fortunes of the cemetery as an institution (usually not for the better,) and changes in maintenance practices have all shaped what we see today.

    Letting a volunteer sprout until it becomes a full-sized tree would almost never have been a conscious horticultural choice in a designed landscape, not even in the nineteenth century. Extensive volunteer trees on a site are a sign of past or current poor maintenance or neglect. Labor costs have been one of the downfalls of the elaborate landscapes of the nineteenth-century rural cemetery; many historic cemeteries have been through periods of poor or no maintenance, which may have helped volunteers establish themselves to the point that even if maintenance improves later, the tree is big enough that maintenance workers don’t dare remove it.

    A landscape architect or historian can often tell with one look whether a tree is there on purpose or not, but the ‘rural’ form of landscape design made things a little less clear-cut. Modern cemeteries are rigidly planned to make use of every possible revenue-producing area for plots: tree placement is doled out very carefully and often minimally. But rural cemeteries were very inefficient in their use of space, with oddly placed lots at odd angles along winding carriageways, so there would have been a lot more nooks and crannies where volunteers could potentially establish themselves. However, a good superintendent would still have a handle on where there were supposed to be trees and where there weren’t, and would probably only rarely let a volunteer grow up to full size. The volunteer at Woodlands that’s described in this post seems to be along a roadway, not in a highly designed area around graves.

    I’ve often wondered what happened to the tree canopy in the area of Laurel Hill that’s nearest the gatehouse; it seems unlikely that area would have been left so lacking in shade in the original landscape design, since tree canopy cover was always an important part of a rural cemetery design. The simplest explanation is that as trees planted in earlier years died off, they were not replaced, while enough resources were devoted to maintenance that volunteers did not arise everywhere as they did (with hugely destructive results) at Mount Moriah.

    (I”m not so sure that Mount Moriah was radically different from Laurel Hill in the socioeconomic classes that it served. Laurel Hill clearly got more of the famous names, but there are plenty of elaborate monuments at Mount Moriah, and plenty of ordinary middle-class markers at Laurel Hill. Practices in rural cemetery construction certainly had changed from the 1830s to the 1850s, but that’s not because fewer wealthy people were being buried: it’s because the rural cemetery as a landscape form had turned out to be disastrously expensive to maintain and operate, and new cemeteries were becoming more simplified.)

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