Last August a mighty 220-year-old oak tree located near the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy in Arlington National Cemetery was uprooted by Hurricane Irene. On April 27, Arbor Day, a sapling oak was planted to replace it. It wasn’t just any oak. It was a genetic offspring taken from acorns collected by the organization American Forests at the request of Stephen Van Hoven, ANC horticulturalist and urban forester, several years before the storm. In fact, American Forest donated five trees derived from the Arlington Oak. Three of the five were planted at the Kennedy gravesite.
American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting and expanding U.S. forests, originally approached ANC staff about collecting seed pods from various trees in the cemetery in 2007. Although collecting acorns from the Arlington Oak wasn’t part of the original plan, when the organization asked Van Hoven if there were any other specimens he thought they should gather, he cited the Arlington Oak.
The acorns were collected as part of an American Forests tree program that grew the offspring of historic trees in a nursery for later redistribution. In this way, ANC acquired within its gates the descendent of a sycamore tree that stood during the battle of Antietam. Other organizations, like the nonprofit Potomac Conservancy, which seeks to restore natural places in Northern Virginia, have also worked with cemetery.
“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership,” said Van Hoven.
The horticulturalist said collecting acorns in 2007 was fortuitous because the acorns still on the Arlington Oak in late summer of 2011 in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene weren’t viable at that point.
The April 27 ceremony brought together Tom Sherlock, ANC historian; Katherine Hammack, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment; and Scott Steen, chief executive officer of American Forests.
“The parent tree stood for more than 200 years on this spot,” noted Sherlock, providing historical perspective to the occasion. “It witnessed the construction of the beautiful home above us, Arlington House. It would see the [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee estate grow and ultimately see the ravages of the Civil War as the land surrounding would become a cemetery.”
He then related how the area became Kennedy’s gravesite, describing how the president admired the grand view, which included the oak, when he made a visit to Arlington House in the spring of 1963. When the time came to choose a final resting place for the assassinated president, his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, chose ANC so that it would be accessible to the American people.
“President Kennedy had foresight when he observed 50 years ago that our natural conservation effort must include the complete spectrum of resources – air, water, land, fuels, energy and minerals,” Hammack said. “This resonates today. The Army recognizes the interconnection of natural resource and energy conservation by its focus on sustainability.
“Arlington Cemetery has embraced sustainability through planting of native species and the use of electric vehicles… The ANC landscaping plan is also using water-efficient landscaping in addition to [planting] natural species and perennial plants. This is truly an example to the nation.”
“American Forests planted more than 4 million trees last year but none of them quite like these,” said Steen, gesturing to the saplings at the gravesite. “We’re honored to partner with Arlington National Cemetery to provide these special trees for this hallowed place.
“Oak trees have historically been symbols of strength and wisdom, and like these qualities, they take time to grow and mature,” he continued. “During the next five decades or so, these trees we plant may grow to 80 feet tall or more and more than two feet wide. If we’re lucky, in a quarter of a century they’ll start to bear their own acorns. Trees take time. And because of that we plant not only for ourselves today, we plant for generations to come.
Steen then quoted British soldier and statesman Lord Orrery: “Trees are the best monuments a man can erect to his own memory. They speak his praises without flattery and they are a blessing to children yet unborn”.
“And so without delay, let’s plant,” he said.
Van Hoven then joined Hammack and Steen at the planting site and the three posed for photographs with ceremonial shovels as curious tourists gathered to watch.