Historic Elmwood Cemetery designated Detroit's first arboretum

In 1895, Detroit's historic Elmwood Cemetery hired famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of New York's Central Park, to prepare recommendations for improving the cemetery's grounds.  

One of Olmsted's chief suggestions was to remove non-native trees and replace them with stands of native trees that, in their maturity, would provide shade and keep the cemetery looking natural. (He also had some choice words for poor pruning decisions that gave even the cemetery's better trees "a plainly artificial character.") Olmsted went so far as to say that tree maintenance should be one of the most important jobs of the cemetery's superintendent, who should "in every way, be assured of his freedom to use the axe." (Click here to read Olmsted's complete recommendations for Elmwood.)

Today, Elmwood is taking Olmsted's recommendations a step further. In October, Elmwood Cemetery became the first accredited arboretum in the city of Detroit.

There are over 1,400 trees on Elmwood's grounds, representing 91 species, including black locusts, hawthorn, beech, willow, ash, American plum, and domestic pear. As part of the arboretum accreditation process, a tree survey was taken at Elmwood and all of the cemetery's trees were assessed, identified, and tagged. In the spring, the cemetery will add interpretive signs that identify trees by species and common name. (The signs will include scannable QR codes, too.) A tree map will be available to download from Elmwood's website, and the cemetery plans to expand its educational programming by offering free "tree tours" for visitors who are interested in learning more about the arboretum. (Some historical background about Elmwood's permanent residents will be included for good measure.) The first tree tour is scheduled for May 20.

Elmwood's arboretum designation has also created an opportunity for a partnership with the Greening of Detroit, which plans to use Elmwood as a "classroom" for training its volunteers. Greening will also provide new trees for the cemetery, says Joan Capuano, executive director of the Historic Elmwood Cemetery Foundation.

"We lose trees every year because our population is pretty old," Capuano says, citing storm damage, pests, and disease. "Part of our partnership with Greening is that they are going to provide us with a variety of trees over the course of the next 10 years — continuing our reforestation efforts at the pace of about 40 trees per year."  

Before public parks were common urban amenities, rural cemeteries like Elmwood—founded in 1846—gave families a place for respite and leisure in nature, away from the bustle and grime of the big city. Elmwood is thinking about the role it has historically played in the community as it begins to plan for a day when burial plots are full and the cemetery is no longer active as a cemetery. It's hard to say exactly when that will be—funeral trends are shifting, and more people are choosing cremation over in-ground burial. The cemetery's trustees could also make land-use decisions that provide more burial options over time. But it doesn't hurt to start thinking about it sooner rather than later, Capuano says. That's why the cemetery has expanded its community programming, offering free tours and educational materials. Now, the arboretum designation will provide an opportunity for experiencing the cemetery in a new way—for the very long-term.

"Michigan is blessed to have an environment that permits such a great variety of different tree species to thrive," Capuano says. "We will expand our arboretum in both species and number. These trees will be here for generations to come."

For more information about Elmwood Historic Cemetery and Arboretum, visit elmwoodhistoriccemetery.org or call 313-567-3453.

Amy Elliott Bragg is director of content for Model D's parent company, Issue Media Group. She blogs about pre-automotive history in metro Detroit at The Night Train. Follow her on Twitter @thenighttrain.

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Read more articles by Amy Elliott Bragg.

Amy Elliott Bragg is director of content for Model D's parent company, Issue Media Group. She blogs about pre-automotive history in metro Detroit at The Night Train. Follow her on Twitter @thenighttrain.