I slow to a stroll along the two-lane road, which passes under a railroad trestle bridge then takes a gentle angle upward. Gazing at the tops of trees took precedent after all; I am impressed by the towering specimens’ ability to block out the blue sky. Despite the fresh scent on this spring day, the eerie stillness seems an appropriate introduction to entering this solemn location.
The Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum in Cincinnati, Ohio opened in 1845, and today has 733 acres of garden. Cemeteries built around the nineteenth century are some of the best places to see up close massive examples of what landscape designers call the “bones,” trees and shrubs that grow woody branches which mark the framework of a garden. I mean, think of the history a tree estimated to be more than 375 years old has survived?
In Your Bucket Because . . .
- Spring Grove is the second largest cemetery in the United States.
- It is home to some of the largest examples of trees in the United States (not to mention Ohio).
- It is on the United States National Register of Historic Places.
- Plant and history enthusiasts of any age will find examples to surprise themselves.
There was a substantial amount of horticulture experience among the founding members of Spring Grove, who had a serious influence on the idea to create an arboretum within a cemetery. But none more so than Adolph Strauch who was the landscape designer/gardener. I knew it would be worth going along with a group of garden writers who planned the visit.
Horticultural Impact in the Cemetery Garden
The Norman Chapel Gate House, made of limestone built in the style of Gothic architecture, welcomes visitors at the main entrance. It is the front sections of Spring Grove that offers visitors the oldest history, whether it is plants or memorials you seek. More intimate rose and conifer gardens are in a westerly direction from this point.
In spring, the dark tunnel running under the 1880 bridge is lit up below on each side of the main road by the white flowers of a Japanese snowball viburnum (Viburnum plicatum). Individual trees of the champion collection dot the entire arboretum; two considered the largest of their species in the United States and 20 the largest example of their kind in Ohio.
One of the champions, a cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani), greeted us where the roadway splits into three directions. I stood still and bent my neck backwards looking straight up to the top of the tree, taking in a truly majestic site. Due west, new annual flowers grow each summer in the shadow of another champion, a cone-bearing deciduous dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).
Civil War and Veterans Remembered
There are approximately 1,000 Civil War soldiers buried at Spring Grove. A bit north from the point the road diverges we find a monument called The Sentinel. It is part of the Civil War Section kept company by one of the two national champion trees, a yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), and an Ohio champion yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava). We saw the result of Strauch’s design influence as small individual grave markers encircle an obelisk monument dedicated to soldiers of the Civil War era.
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) make their home at two man-made lakes, of the 15 in the park, around the Civil War memorials. Cedar Lake is literally surrounded by the deciduous trees showing its’ “knees.” The root-like characteristic the wetlands species more commonly develops in swampy environments. Across the way, Geyser Lake grows a singular bald cypress, one more state champion tree, and is graced by a fountain and stone bridge.
The Spring Grove™ dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Grovflor’) lives farther up the road. We quickly spot the dogwood by the white cloud of flowers it shows off with dependable regularity in spring. The seedling planted so many years ago has grown to an immense girth.
Cornus florida ‘Grovflor’ and the western arborvitae Spring Grove™ (Thuja plicata ‘Grovpli’) are only a couple results of the horticulture work that goes on at Spring Grove. Later in the growing season each summer, trialing plants at the All-America Rose Selections and the All-America Selections gardens on the cemetery grounds inspire ideas for visitors from the area.
Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum dedicates three more sections to veterans around the Woodland Preserve. We traced monuments farther up the interior of the grounds where the white oak (Quercus alba), the oldest tree on the grounds, is estimated at more than 375 years old and the second national champion tree, a snowdrop (Halesia diptera), are found. The stone headstones, mausoleums and obelisks mark graves as the trees mark time, of those who came before, and give us a trace of this region’s history.
- Spring arrives in April in the southwestern corner of Ohio; the best time to see notable flowering trees and shrubs.
- Wear shoes with traction, dew makes the grassy landscape slippery.
- Hard-surfaced walk paths are limited to the roadways.
- The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is worth the 10-minute drive to get there.