Oak Hill Cemetery is area’s first arboretum: “There are some giants in that cemetery.”

The ArbNet Arboretum Accreditation Program and Morton Arboretum have designated Grand Rapids’ Oak Hill Cemetery as West Michigan’s first accredited arboretum. Located west of Eastern Avenue SE, between Adams and Alexander Streets (bisected by Hall Street), the 162-year-old cemetery is home to more than 54 tree species.

“We have a unique and diverse canopy at Oak Hill Cemetery. It’s great to be able to recognize that space,'' says Joe Sulak, superintendent of the City of Grand Rapids Department of Parks and Recreation. “Oak Hill Cemetery has some of the oldest trees in the city and the biggest trees in the city. Arboretum accreditation allows us to work on recognizing the tree species that are there and the canopy that exists there in another way. These trees are jewels in the city.”

Sulak notes that more than half the trees in Oak Hill Cemetery are white oaks (Quercus alba), which are rarities in the urban environment, especially within a larger city.

“Having that designation and recognizing that there are so many white oaks creates real opportunities to propagate and keep that lineage going,” he says. “To have that arboretum designation gives us an opportunity to take a look at the space differently.”

Classified as a Level 1 Arboretum, Oak Hill Cemetery had to have at least 25 unique tree species. In addition, the city’s Urban Forestry Committee had to present an arboretum maintenance plan and will be required to host at least one public education event at the cemetery each year. One goal of the designation is for arboretums to establish an educational space promoting tree diversity, conservation, research and history. As a first step, signage will identify 32 tree species in the cemetery by their common and scientific names.

“The arboretum accreditation is a complement to the cemetery itself,” Sulak says. “For an area that is designated to honor the dead, it is teeming with life. We’re just trying to maintain that as best we can and recognize the trees in Oak Hill Cemetery as the asset that they are.”

As a healthy portion of the city’s 34% tree canopy, Oak Hills Cemetery's trees sequester carbon, remove pollutants from the air, buffer noise, manage stormwater and create a space where City residents can take a quiet walk to stretch their legs, calm their minds, and soothe their emotions — trees have been a proven adjunct to mental health. The presence of street trees has been proven to reduce road rage and crime.

“It behooves the city to maintain those trees and maintain that canopy within the cemetery. By having those trees, and trees that are older in good condition, you maximize the benefits that the canopy provides,” Sulak says. “And you have the overall aesthetic benefit to the city, especially this time of year. It’s a great time to walk through and see the leaves, the changes, the colors — how beautiful the cemetery can be in the fall.”

Globally, more than 400 spaces have received the ArbNet/Morton designation. Sulak would like to see Oak Hill Cemetery achieve higher levels of accreditation in the future, with Level 4 being the highest, and other Grand Rapids cemeteries follow suit, for example Greenwood Cemetery on the Northwest side.

“We want to get the word out as to this asset that exists within the city so that we can all take advantage of and enjoy these trees in their mature state,” Sulak concludes. “There are some giants in that cemetery. Humans and trees.”

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