Everyone knows Arlington National Cemetery as hallowed ground where fallen servicemembers are laid to rest. But it is also a verdant habitat for flora and fauna, including 8,500 trees spread over its 640 acres.
Helping to manage this green space is Stephen Van Hoven, ANC’s horticulture division chief and urban forester. He is one of 80 people who help maintain the cemetery grounds, keeping grass lush and well-manicured, trees healthy and trimmed, so Arlington will remain a beautiful final resting place for those who perished in service to our country.
The size of work crews, which are contracted out, vary depending on the time of year, with most grooming activity coming in the spring and fall.
“Our primary mission is to inter our veterans and give them an honorable funeral service,” said Van Hoven. “Additionally, we maintain and beautify the grounds.”
ANC has over 300 varieties of trees. These trees include species that are native to the region, as well as non-native varieties and ornamentals.
Trees donated to ANC to enhance a burial site are subject to a review process, because sometime an offering isn’t compatible with the chosen location or placement would interfere with additional interments or grounds maintenance.
There are three Virginia-sanctioned “champion trees” in ANC. According to the Arlington County Department of Parks and Recreation, a champion tree is designated by the state to be the largest specimen of that particular species. Individual champions vary by size, age and growth habitat. They are rated by considering three values: circumference or girth, the height in feet, and 25 percent of the tree’s average crown spread (in feet).
The three champion trees in Arlington are a pin oak, an empress tree and a yellowwood; The latter two trees are in close proximity to each other near the Spanish-American War Memorial in Section 23 of the cemetery. One of them is even pictured in the photography book “Remarkable Trees of Virginia.”
Van Hoven estimated the empress and yellowwood to be over 100 years old, based on photos from the time of the memorial’s construction that show no trees in the immediate vicinity.
Although the empress tree is knotted and gnarled with holes in its trunk where fungus has partially eaten the tree from inside out, Van Hoven examined the dangling panicles on a recent visit and predicted a fulsome profusion of white flowers, probably more than has been seen in recent years.
The oldest trees in the cemetery are mighty oaks, which are estimated to be 240 to 250 years old, although the horticulturalist said it’s difficult to determine age precisely, because the only way to know for sure is to cut them down or core them, which, needless to say, isn’t particularly healthy for the trees.
Van Hoven said he makes the estimate based on similar trees that have come down and been examined.
“Bigger usually means older,” he said, but you can’t always tell. Pointing out a modest-sized eastern red cedar from the cab of a cemetery pick-up truck, he said he saw one of similar dimensions at Monticello that is said to have been around when Thomas Jefferson was alive.
Van Hoven said the cemetery loses a couple hundred trees a year, with maybe 25 of those being older, historic trees. The cemetery has a tree replacement program that sometimes matches the fallen tree or finds a complementary species to put in its place.
There are sugar maple trees planted evenly along the length of Eisenhower Drive in the cemetery and willow oaks adorn Bradley Drive. This is an example of monoculture, Van Hoven said.
“We try to diversify but still maintain a historic look,” he explained. The problem with having only one kind of tree in an area is that they are all potentially susceptible to the same disease or infestation, he said. When you look at photos of the cemetery from the 1960s, there used to be a lot of American elms, he explained, which succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease. “We used to spray for gypsy moths, but now that’s under control,” he added, explaining how there are always new challenges.
“The landscape presents all sort of challenges for interment crews,” Van Hoven said. “There are undulating hills and underground streams…” He said the cemetery tries to incorporate green concepts into its grounds maintenance as much as possible, but that there’s a trade-off to keeping the cemetery in tip-top shape.
“We have limited irrigation. Most watering is done by hand,” he continued. Because of the topography, “It’s a challenge to maintain the green turf. But we have high standards. There are expectations [in terms of landscaping] that people have when they come to visit a loved one, and we’re here to meet those expectations.”
“A nice thing about our job is that we have contact with Families after interment,” Van Hoven said, relating how one woman who lost her husband periodically stops by to tell staff how the tree she donated is doing well or that it needs additional water. “We are fortunate to have that interaction,” he said.