By MARSHA MERCER
When President John F. Kennedy visited Arlington House, the plantation home of Robert E. Lee surrounded by Arlington National Cemetery, in March 1963, he was so taken by the splendid views of Washington from the sloping hillside, a giant post oak in the foreground, that he mused he could stay there forever.
A few months later, JFK was laid to rest in the beautiful place. Landscape architect John Warnecke incorporated the Arlington Oak in his design for the gravesite, and special care was taken to protect the tree during construction.
Hurricane Irene in 2011 demolished the 220-year-old oak. The loss was devastating to tree and history lovers alike, but it wasn’t the end of the story.
Today, three post oaks grow in lush Kentucky bluegrass near the Kennedy gravesite.
But they’re not just any trees, Stephen Van Hoven, chief of the horticulture division of the cemetery, said last week during a walking tour of trees.
They were propagated with acorns from the original Arlington Oak, a gift of American Forests, a conservation group.
While some areas, like the Kennedy gravesite, are formal in design and others more natural, the cemetery has visual and emotional impact by intention.
“Nothing could be more impressive than rank after rank of white stones, inconspicuous in themselves, covering gentle, wooded slopes and producing the desired effect of a vast army in its last resting place,” said the 1901-1902 McMillan plan for the capital city. The nation’s first attempt at city planning, the plan was named for Sen. James McMillan of Michigan.
Almost nothing is left to chance. The cemetery’s contract for weekly grass cutting specifies that the grass may be no higher than 3 1/2 inches to 5 inches, Van Hoven said.
The cemetery has long invited visitors to imagine the stories the 400,000 people buried in the nation’s most hallowed ground could tell. Only recently, though, has it also encouraged visitors to look at the trees.
Last year, the Arlington National Cemetery, with more than 8,600 trees on 624 acres, became an accredited arboretum.
“The Arboretum serves as a living memorial to those who have served our nation and connects visitors to the rich tapestry of the cemetery’s living history and natural beauty,” the cemetery says.
Horticultural walking tours help educate visitors, as do about 300 aluminum labels installed on notable trees. Special screws were used to discourage theft.
One of the first stops on our tour was a Shumard oak and plaque to the 199th Light Infantry Brigade, “In honor of the Redcatchers for their service and selfless dedication to duty in the Republic of Vietnam 1966-1970.” It’s one of 142 Memorial Trees in the cemetery, commemorating various groups.
The cemetery also has 36 trees honoring Medal of Honor recipients and three Virginia state champions and one co-champion trees. Champions are the largest of their species in the state.
Only three Memorial Trees have been added in the last 10 years, though, because planting a Memorial Tree now literally requires an act of Congress. The concern was that there would be too many. The cemetery also stopped accepting private donations of trees last year, Van Hoven said.
You can read more about the arboretum and see an inventory of trees in the Explore section of the cemetery’s website.
With Memorial Day behind us, Veterans Day may be the next time many Americans think of the cemetery, where national observances of the two holidays take place in the Memorial Amphitheater.
Another popular destination is Arlington House, the Custis-Lee Mansion that was the family home of Lee’s wife, Mary Custis Lee. The Union confiscated the property after Lee became the Confederate Army’s commanding general, and began burying war dead in the yard in 1864. It is a National Park Service site.
Behind the mansion is a stunning deodar cedar, planted in 1874 by David Henry Rhodes, landscape gardener of the cemetery for more than 50 years, Van Hoven said. Rhodes wrote about the cedar’s top being blown off in a hurricane in 1896, but the tree survives.
At Arlington National Cemetery, trees are a living tribute to veterans and all who are buried there.
©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.