Oct. 16 Oak Ridge Cemetery tour features historic and rare trees

click to enlarge Guy Sternberg next to an old Eastern cottonwood, which is believed to be the largest tree of any kind in the entire city of Springfield. It was the first tree selected for the inaugural tree tour in 2014 and has the inventory code 0-0001. It is believed to have been along a creekbank before the creek through Oak Ridge Cemetery was routed underground in a huge tile. For scale, Sternberg is two meters (six feet six inches) tall.
Guy Sternberg next to an old Eastern cottonwood, which is believed to be the largest tree of any kind in the entire city of Springfield. It was the first tree selected for the inaugural tree tour in 2014 and has the inventory code 0-0001. It is believed to have been along a creekbank before the creek through Oak Ridge Cemetery was routed underground in a huge tile. For scale, Sternberg is two meters (six feet six inches) tall.

Witness the beauty of Oak Ridge Cemetery at the eighth annual tree tour on Saturday, Oct. 16, and discover how trees help make it such a special place. The cemetery is a picturesque final resting place for more than 75,000 people, many who contributed prominently to Springfield's rich history. Established in 1865, Oak Ridge is Illinois' largest municipal cemetery. It is appropriately named because the oaks and other tree species are integral to the cemetery's beauty and significance.

Oak Ridge Cemetery is a recognized National Living Memorial Site, a designation created in the aftermath of 9/11 by the U.S. Forest Service to "invoke the resonating power of trees to bring people together and create lasting, living memorials to the victims of terrorism, their families, communities and the nation." Oak Ridge, the site of the Lincoln Tomb and thousands of conifers and hardwoods throughout the 365-acre area, deserves this designation. It is the only site in Illinois included in the National Living Memorials Project.

Each annual tree tour focuses on a different area of the cemetery and features beautiful, historic and rare trees. This year's tour on Oct. 16 from 1-4 p.m. is in the Wishing Well section. Visitors will see and learn about several rare oak hybrids, some of the oldest conifers in the city, and oaks and hickories dating to before the Civil War. Some of the trees at Oak Ridge Cemetery are nearly two centuries old. Many others have been systematically planted over the last several decades, thanks to the dedicated work of passionate and knowledgeable volunteers.

One of the trees on the tour is an oak hybrid, Quercus xbimundorum, propagated from trees native to different continents. It has no common name and is unknown in nature. It serves as the logo tree for the International Oak Society. Another tree on the tour is a giant white oak, Quercus alba (Illinois' state tree), which shades the grave of labor pioneer John L. Lewis (1880 – 1969). It is thought to be one of the original saplings present when Oak Ridge Cemetery was founded, and is estimated to date back to 1844.

Guy Sternberg is an internationally renowned oak expert, co-owner of Starhill Forest Arboretum in Petersburg with his wife, Edie, founding president of the International Oak Society and a driving force behind the tree tour and protecting and expanding trees at the cemetery. Since 1992, Starhill Forest has planted more than 700 trees at Oak Ridge Cemetery from sources around the world.

More than 30 trained volunteer tree guides will assist visitors during the upcoming tour. Volunteers will explain the biology and history of the trees and some of the nearby graves and guide visitors in collecting some seeds to take home to plant. This is a family-friendly and free event. The popular kids' table will be located in the center of the cemetery next to the start table, where visitors will receive programs and get their questions answered. Signs will be prominently posted pointing to the area of the tour. Parking will be available by the GAR Mound. The tour will be held rain or shine.

The Oak Ridge Cemetery Foundation's tree committee sponsors the tour. Information about current and past tree tours is on the website https://oakridgecemeterytrees.com/, along with other information. Links to previous tours identify the trees that were highlighted, which can be used to take your own self-guided tour. There is also a comprehensive database of the cemetery's historic trees, complete with GPS locations. For a $75 donation, you can adopt a tree and help protect the oldest, rarest spontaneous or planted trees and trees started from seeds from special international trees. Nearly 100 trees are available for adoption.

The tree project committee of the Oak Ridge Cemetery Foundation is a remarkable group of volunteers dedicated to ensuring that trees are as much a part of Oak Ridge Cemetery as are graves. They are also dedicated to sharing their knowledge and love of trees with the public. This year the group received a $500 grant from the Sangamon County Historical Society which is being used to further identify trees. Small plaques at the base of the trees identify the species and other information. Considerable planning goes into developing these tours; planning is already underway for the 2022 tree tour.

Guy Sternberg's life with trees

Guy Sternberg has been working to protect, expand and diversify the trees at Oak Ridge Cemetery for more than half a century. He first began exploring the cemetery in 1970 as the newly hired landscape architect for the state's historic sites, including the Lincoln Tomb. He combed the archival records, learning more about the cemetery's history. He recalls the serenity of winter hikes in deep snow when no one else was present.

In the early 1990s, 20 years after his first introduction to the trees at Oak Ridge Cemetery, Sternberg signed a pro bono contract with the city of Springfield. He agreed to donate special trees and help establish the cemetery's tree nursery in exchange for the sole right to propagate any interesting tree he might find on the grounds. In the ensuing years, more than 700 trees were processed through that nursery and planted on the grounds. Most are duplicates from his own oak collection at Starhill Forest, which is now the largest collection of oaks in North America.

Oak Ridge Cemetery is a recognized "quercetum" – a collection of living oaks. And, it goes well beyond that with its diversity of tree species. "Oak Ridge became 'my' second arboretum and one of the finest tree collections in the Midwest," said Sternberg. "I don't regret a minute of the lifetime I have devoted to it." –Karen Witter

Karen Ackerman Witter started freelance writing after retiring from a 35-year career in Illinois state government. She has long admired Guy Sternberg, who was a landscape architect with the state of Illinois for 32 years. She started her career in state government at the Department of Conservation which is where she first met Sternberg.

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