Last weekend, on a blustry overcast Saturday, we decided to do some hiking while the trees in Massachusetts still had some color. It seems like over the past week or so, even with the mild weather, we’ve gone from peak color to near-complete leaf fall. However, my perception might be skewed by the hours I spend each day cleaning up all manner of spent plant matter.
Located near Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, the Mt. Auburn Cemetery was a notable diversion from traditional church graveyards that had dominated the landscape in Colonial New England. Dedicated in 1831, Mt. Auburn became America’s inaugural rural cemetery, and was instrumental in spurring the parks and gardens movement. Today, it serves as a notable arboretum, bird sanctuary, and public space, drawing in thousands of visitors to see 700 species of trees and many rare birds in mid-migration. It is also the resting place of many important figures including Winslow Homer, Ezra Pound, and Boston’s own Isabella Stewart Gardener.
Near the entrance gate on Mt. Auburn St. is a large, beautiful European beech (Fagus sylvatica) that was planted early in the cemetery’s history.
As I mentioned above, the cemetery is home to over 5,500 trees of 700 different species–which is really impressive given its proximity to the city. Mt. Auburn is a nice foil to the Arnold Arboretum for those who prefer to wander north of the Charles.
I’m not much of a birder, but during our walk we managed to spot at least six different colorful species. The abundance of wildlife at Mt. Auburn is astounding. A pair of resident red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamcensis) can be seen wheeling above the trees. During our last visit, one landed mid-flight about twenty feet in front of us in very dramatic fashion.
I’ve heard that seasoned birders flock to Mt. Auburn year-round to see rare bird species making their ways north or south. We were lucky to see a number of woodpeckers, and it seems that one had had its way with the red oak (Quercus rubrum) above.
Members of the Rhodedendron genus have formed their buds, which will winter over with their hardy scales and put forth their colorful blooms in spring. It is a large genus of over 1000 species, native to Asia and parts of Appalachia, and naturalized throughout many parts of the world. The waxy cuticle of the broad foliage helps the plant survive winter conditions.
Oddly enough, we found a number of Rhododendron species beginning a late season bloom at the cemetery. I have also noticed a number of spring-flowering species blooming on properties around Boston. I’m guessing it’s the result of the mild weather we’ve been having the last few weeks. I’m certainly not complaining.
In addition to the Rhododendrons, we found a number of other species still in flower, including this gorgeous spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana). Interesting fact about Tradescantia: when the stamen cells of some species of this genus are exposed to certain types of radiation, they will mutate from their normal blue color to a bright pink. Thus, some spiderworts can be used in experiments to measure radiation exposure.
The fall color of the Bloodgood maple (Acer palmatum), is perhaps the most striking that I’ve seen. The deep reds and crimsons of its lacy foliage make it a highly prized ornamental tree.
We came across a number of ginkgo trees (Ginko biloba) in full fall color. Ginkgos are fascinating trees, and are the only remaining species of their taxonomic division–Ginkgophyta. Modern ginkgos, with their unique fan-shaped foliage, closely resemble 260 million year old fossil relatives. The species is native to China, but has been naturalized throughout the work, and multiple cultivars are planted ornamentally.
Ginkgo are dioecious trees, meaning that each tree is either male or female and thus cannot self-pollinate. Only male trees produce pollen, and only females will bear fruit. Ginkgo fruit (pictured above) can be used as a food source and has an important place in traditional medicine, but is mostly know for being outrageously malodorous once it is crushed. This is caused by the presence of butyric acid, a compound found in many foods that smells similar to vomit at high enough concentrations. Because of the extreme unpleasantness of fallen ginkgo fruits, it is uncommon to find female trees planted ornamentally. We were only able to find one female ginkgo at Mt. Auburn, among many male trees.
Many other plants are fruiting as well, including this brightly colored linden viburnum (Viburnum dilitatum).
One of my favorite trees, the Kouza dogwood (Cornus kouza), has a distinctive cherry-sized fruit with a single stone in the middle. Apparently this so-called Cornelian cherry is edible, and many people enjoy it as a tart fruit to be eaten raw or used in recipes.
The fruit of wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), has a yellowish sheath and a bright red berry, similar to oriental bittersweet, a rampant invasive vine.
Our favorite find of the day was this well-preserved seed pod of the sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana). The seeds themselves are a favorite of birds, and there were none remaining. We had to take this amazing looking pod back for the collection!
The fully formed bud of the magnolia is also impressively furry and quite large. In the spring, it will open to reveal a large and delicate bloom–white, vanilla-scented, with a satin-like sheen. A truly amazing and ancient flower.
This is peak cone season for some species as well. Here’s the sappy cone of a regional favorite–the white pine (Pinus strobus).
And here we have the more slender, compact cones of the Norway spruce (Picea abies).
Finally, the festive and frankly, quite adorable minuscule cones of the plume Sawara falsecypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera).
The Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora) is a common bonsai species that is imported by the thousands teacher year. I love finding them in a landscape, where they exhibit grace and power in maturity. The profile of this tree demonstrates the striking natural proportions from which the bonsai aesthetic is derived.
The mild weather has encouraged the appearance of the fruiting bodies of many species of fungus, including these colonies of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus), commonly found growing on sugar maples.
In addition to its amazing collection of flora and wild fauna, Mt. Auburn is home to three notable buildings, including a large lookout tower with an amazing view of the surrounding area and Boston proper. The Bigelow Chapel, seen above, is a gorgeous gothic building constructed in 1840 from granite mined locally in Quincy, MA.
Mt. Auburn is filled with a variety of burial structures, ranging from humble headstones, to full family mausoleums, to some quite strange and futuristic looking sculptures. Below is a collection of images of some of the many floral motifs found throughout the cemetery.
Mt. Auburn cemetery is a wonderful place for locals and travelers alike, any time of year. Hopefully we can make it back during the winter to see what it looks like covered in snow!
Thanks for reading,
Below are some other images from the day: