The American Elm, or Ulmus americana

“Trees are the best monuments that a man can erect to his own memory. They speak his praises without flattery, and they are blessings to children yet unborn.” That’s what John Boyle, Fifth Earl of Cork and Orrery, said of trees in 1749.

American Elm along Valley Avenue at Riverview Cemetery

Whenever I have the occasion to walk the grounds of historic cemeteries, the mature trees dotting their landscapes bespeak the work of the nation’s earliest horticulturists. The idea of a “rural” cemetery for Trenton was conceived by Jacob M. Taylor in 1857. He introduced his plan to a group of the city’s leading citizens—William M. Force, John K. Smith, Isaac Stephens, David Witherup and William S. Yard—who together founded Riverview Cemetery on January 16, 1858. It was incorporated by an act of the state legislature of New Jersey on February 28, 1858.

The grounds of the then two-and-one-half-acre Cemetery were laid out according to a plan drawn by Smith, but the planting of the trees was tasked to Stephens. Indeed, the Sunday-Times Advertiser of December 12, 1915, described his residence, then owned by Charles S. Van Syckel, and its many specimen trees, noting: “Due to his extensive knowledge in the care of trees, Stephens was given entire charge of the planting of all the trees in Riverview Cemetery, of which he was one of the founders.”

Ulmus americana, a colored
plate drawn by Pancrace Bessa
and engraved by Gabriel
in North American Sylva,
published in 1819
Wikimedia Commons
One of those trees, a stately American Elm, is found along Valley Avenue just south of the Receiving Vault. With a circumference of more than ten feet, the tree is estimated to be some 160 years old, and a mere sapling when it was planted around 1860.

The American Elm, whose botanical name is Ulmus americana, is also known by its common name, White Elm, and, less commonly, Water Elm. The tree is native to the eastern and central United States, and southern Canada. Its leaves are three to five inches long and one to three inches wide with coarse, double serrated margins; its flowers are small, appearing in drooping clusters, and its seed pods are light green and flat. The tree can grow to a height of 100 feet with a spread of 70 feet.

A colored plate of the American Elm’s leaf, flower, and seeds, drawn by Pancrace Bessa and engraved by Gabriel, appeared in the English edition of North American Sylva, or A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada and Nova Scotia, published in 1819.

They were the most popular landscape tree in the eastern United States in the mid-19th century, lining the streets of the nation’s burgeoning cities, but millions of trees have been lost to Dutch Elm Disease over the past eighty years, so Riverview Cemetery is fortunate to have such an excellent specimen of American Elm on its grounds.

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