Silent Sentinels of Storied Landscapes
July 24, 2012
Witness trees stand as silent sentinels of storied landscapes and help connect people, history, and places. They experience important events in American history and remain part of our nation's cultural legacy.
In the late 19th century, Washington became known as the "City of Trees," and that nickname endures. From the majestic elms along the National Mall and the stately oaks of Capitol Hill to the historic magnolias of the White House, and the graceful blossoms of the cherry trees, these trees not only witness history, but also serve as representatives of our nation's urban forests.
Trees were an important part of George Washington's vision for the capital city. The city design by Pierre L'Enfant called for grand avenues emanating from the U.S. Capitol and the President's House, with abundant tree groves, parks, and open space. The main avenue, similar to the Champs-Élysées in Paris,connectedthe Capitol with the President's House: Pennsylvania Avenue.
In 2000, the National Park Service created the Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS) to document an aspect of human intervention on nature: historic landscapes from gardens to battlefields. In the summer of 2006, HALS initiated the Witness Tree Protection Program to identify and document historically and biologically significant trees in the greater Washington, D.C. area. Each of these trees has special characteristics that make it nationally significant.
Several Nationally significant trees researched by the Witness Tree Protection Program in the National Mall and surrounding area include:
Jackson Magnolias at the White House
The Jefferson Elm's leaves remain green through late October, while most of the neighboring elms begin losing leaves by early October. The extended period of foliation might indicate vigorous and genetically unique specimens. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, experiments done on trees grown from cuttings of the Jefferson Elm provided results that the tree was resistant to Dutch elm disease. It is believed that a unique genetic arrangement has led to the Jefferson Elm's resistance to Dutch elm disease and its inability to effectively reproduce via seeds. Another unique characteristic is its U-shaped branch junction, which provides a stronger means of support. Therefore, while the Jefferson Elm's primary biological significance is its resistance to Dutch elm disease, it also benefits from a superior branching structure.
Several other notable trees of interest on the National Mall and surrounding area include:
Catalpa trees, Survey Lodge Ranger Station:
White Mulberry tree, Washington Monument Grounds:
It is likely that the tree was not on the grounds before 1887-88, when the final grading occurred around the base of the Washington Monument, creating the knoll. Ornamentals like the cherry trees were planted on the grounds as early as 1886 and during the1890s deciduous trees were planted throughout the monument grounds. In 1890-91, the curvilinear road that connected 16th Street to the monument plaza was constructed. Since the tree follows the curve of the road, now a path, itcould have been planted after the road was added or grew there voluntarily. Mulberry trees, however, were not commonly used as street trees, so some speculate that the tree may be the only naturally occurring vegetation on the site. It was not until the 20th century, however, that there was visual evidence of the mulberry tree on the grounds. An aerial photograph from 1919 shows similar vegetation near the current location of the tree. Photographs from 1923 and 1930 clearly show a grouping of trees that may have included the mulberry tree. The first definitive evidence of the present day mulberry tree on the Washington Monument grounds dates from November 16, 1969, when a photograph was taken of amarch against the Vietnam War on the monument grounds. Therefore,this treealso may have witnessed a number of historic events, such as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963, when Dr. King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the Lincoln Memorial steps.
Circle of Willow Oak trees, south of the Vietnam Women's Memorial:
Cork trees, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial:
Variety of trees around the District of Columbia War Memorial:
Like monuments and memorials that are placed on a particular landscape, trees convey a deep relationship with the events and history that surround them. Their place in that history depends on the humans that shape them, and ultimately what park visitors take with them on their journey.
You can help protect our natural landscape heritage at National Mall and Memorial Parks by educating others to refrain from climbing the trees andstanding at the base of trees which compacts the soil and damages their roots.
Editors: Michael T. Kelly and Nathan King