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Historic Plants for Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century American Cemeteries

While considerable efforts within recent years have been devoted to cultural, religious, and physical aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth century American cemeteries, little attention has been devoted to the identification and documentation of historic plants in American cemeteries during the same time period. The intent of the proposed presentation is to present an overview of research conducted regarding plants (both native and imported species) traditionally used in American cemeteries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Research reveals that the number of ornamental plants employed in eighteenth century American cemeteries pales in comparison to the tremendous diversity of trees, shrubs, vines, ground covers and flowers planted in American cemeteries of the nineteenth century. The increased diversity of plants associated with nineteenth century American cemeteries include the influence of the rural cemetery movement and the development of garden cemeteries; the Victorian practice and emphasis of employing plants and flowers as symbolic expressions of personal sentiments and emotions and the expanding number of new and exotic plants arriving in the U S from China and Japan throughout the nineteenth century. Each of these factors are briefly described in The Rural Cemetery Movement. As a result of overcrowding of burials in church yards and urban burial grounds, concern arose in regards to public health and sanitation. In response garden like’ cemeteries were developed in outlying areas of cities and towns on large tracts of land in what generally is referred to as the ‘rural cemetery movement’. The earliest garden cemetery in America was Mount Auburn, developed in 1831 outside of Boston Massachusetts. Coinciding with the need for new burial grounds was the growing interest in horticulture, and the influence of the English informal landscape style. Notable examples of garden cemeteries that soon followed the model established by Mount Auburn were: Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York; Laurel Grove in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Hollywood in Richmond, Virginia, Magnolia in Charleston, South Carolina; and Spring Grove in Cincinnati, Ohio. Prior to the development of American parks, garden cemeteries provided solace for bereaved, and personal contact with nature by the general public.

Victorian Plant and Floral Symbols – While symbols have been a significant part of cultures around the world since the earliest of times, the practice reached its highest level of refinement during the Victorian era (1837 – 1901). Floral symbols were particularly popular during this period and were frequently used to represent emotions and sentimental feelings. With the increased use of floral symbols, books such as the “Language of Flowers” were published to convey specific emotions tied to a particular plant or flower. Based on the pervasive use of plant / floral symbolism in Victorian society icons of plants and flowers were frequently incorporated into funerary art and gravestones in garden cemeteries. Commonly used symbols included the rose, violet, lily, lotus, ivy, poppy, and ferns. The use of plant / floral icons in garden cemeteries of the nineteenth century spurred the increased use of plants in the landscaping of burial plots and plantings within public areas of garden cemeteries.

New Plant Introductions

In the 1830’s and 40’s many new and exotic plants arrived in America from China and Japan. These new introductions were in great demand to embellish American gardens and grounds. Not only were they prized for their aesthetic value but they also served as status symbols because of their rarity and exotic character. While gardeners were greatly enamored with these newly introduced Asian plants, cemeteries were also anxious to add these unusual and exotic species to cemeteries to enhance their beauty and create park-like settings. American nurseries were eager to offer these imported selections to their nursery catalogues. Several plants included among these new found treasures included the empress tree, camellia, azalea, tree of heaven, and the ginkgo.

Proposed Presentation

Research by the proposer has included including identification and documentation of historic plants in eighteenth and nineteenth century American cemeteries that has extended over ten years. In addition efforts have included examination of historic books / publications and nursery catalogues; review of diaries, journals and travel accounts, and visits to over twenty-five notable garden cemeteries throughout the country. The presentation a currently proposed, will include an overview of the findings in a visually narrated presentation, along with a handout of important research sources and a list of historic plants for eighteenth and nineteenth century American cemeteries to assist attendees in furthering their understanding and use of appropriate plants in the restoration of historic cemeteries.

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National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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