Natural Capital – trees of Washington, D.C

Natural Capital – trees of Washington, D.C

Janine Guglielmino

In a city devoted to monuments and museums, you might overlook the true symbols of its history.

To most people, the nation’s capital is a monument to monuments that salute our country’s past and celebrate its legacy. But if you look a bit further back, you will find that Washington’s most “monumental” legacy, if you will, is its trees.

That’s no coincidence: Trees were an important part of George Washington’s original vision for the capital city carved along the Maryland-Virginia border. The city’s design by French engineer Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant called for grand, broad avenues emanating from the U.S. Capitol building, as well as abundant tree groves, parks, and open spaces.

In the late 19th century Washington came to be known as the “City of Trees,” and that nickname still holds true. From the large, mature trees of Connecticut and Massachusetts avenues to the historic, stately specimens of Capitol Hill–and trees of virtually every size, shape, color, and origin in neighborhoods in between– Washington represents, in its trees, the promise and potential of our nation’s urban forests.

Trees give our nation’s capital stability it might not otherwise experience. After all, administrations come and go, but the city’s trees remain one of its most defining characteristics. (You might even say that trees are among the few nonpartisan city residents.) When beavers noshed on Washington’s worldfamous Tidal Basin cherries last spring, the story made headlines around the world. And Anthony Williams made tree planting and maintenance part of his winning platform for DC mayor in 1998.

Whether you’re coming to Washington for the annual Cherry Blossom Festival, a spring or summer tourist visit, or to attend the 2001 National Urban Forest Conference, September 5-8, remember that this is a city founded more on green than gray. Grab your tree ID book and this “natural roadmap,” and check out these arboreal monuments.


The District, as locals call it, has a long history of tree planting and maintenance. That’s because the city’s founders understood both the symbolic and ecological value of trees, according to City of Trees, the authoritative history and field guide to Washington’s trees by Melanie Choukas-Bradley and Polly Alexander (Johns Hopkins University Press).

But the vision did not always match reality. During Thomas Jefferson’s administration in the early 1800s. Washingtonians routinely cleared native trees to sell or to use as firewood. Jefferson was so distraught by the destruction that he launched a tree-planting campaign. He personally designed and supervised the planting of Lombardy poplars along Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House, in what Choukas-Bradley called “the first Washington street treeplanting on record.”

It was the first of many such plantings. In the 1850s the federal government hired landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing to design and plant the city’s park system, resulting in intimate little parks with clusters of trees, including some on the White House grounds, Lafayette Park, and the Ellipse.

Perhaps the most famous tree plantings took place during the 1870s administration of Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, the District’s second and last governor. His efforts to improve Washingtonians’ quality of life by planting 60,000 trees gave the city its famous moniker, “City of Trees.” He also appointed a three-person “parking commission,” which supervised plantings of maple, poplar, linden, sycamore, elm, ash, and other species over the next decade.

Efforts during the 20th century include the planting of American elms from the Capitol to the Washington Monument by the McMillan Commission, headed by Michigan Senator James McMillan, chair of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, In 1912 Japan gave the United States its now-famous Japanese flowering cherries, which were planted along the Tidal Basin (see

In Profile, page 44). And in the 1960s Lady Bird Johnson headed the Committee for a More Beautiful Capital, which planted thousands of trees in the District with an eye toward encouraging tree planting nationwide.

Today the National Park Service oversees hundreds of thousands of trees on federally owned land in DC, and the city maintains 113,000 street trees, says Bill Beck, a supervisory horticulturist in the District’s tree and landscape division.

But trees in the District, like their urban counterparts elsewhere, face their share of challenges. A 1998 AMERICAN FORESTS Regional Ecosystem Analysis showed the city’s average tree cover declined from 37 percent to 21 percent between 1973 and 1997. Between 1995 and 1998 Washington lost about 4,000 trees annually but replaced only about 500 each year, says a 1998 report from local group The Committee of 100 on the Federal City. By December 2000 Mayor Anthony Williams had planted 4,200 of the 6,000 new trees he had made a campaign pledge to plant.

Tree planting is the city’s future but it also provides much to explore from Washington’s past.


Begin your tour at the U.S. Capitol Grounds, on Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The U.S. Capitol building (Metro: Capitol South on blue and orange lines; Union Station, red line), where Congress meets, acts as a literal and spiritual ground zero for Washingtonians. The District is divided into quadrants, and addresses here are based on their relationship to the Capitol. (For example, the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW, is northwest of the Capitol.)

The Capitol Grounds, designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted in the late 1800s, contain more than 100 types of trees and bushes, each with a bit of history. Ask for the walking tour, which identifies more than 100 trees. One of the oldest, the “Cameron Elm” near the House of Represenatives wing, was named for Pennsylvania Senator Simon Cameron, who made an impassioned speech to colleagues in 1875 to save the tree from removal. AMERICAN FORESTS planted a willow oak near Pennsylvania Avenue and First Street NW last fall in commemoration of its 125th anniversary and to kick off its Wildfire ReLeaf campaign.

In front of the Capitol on the other side of the Reflecting Pool, are three huge trees: a gingko, Caucasian elm (Zelkova carpinifolia), and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa). A Zelkova (Zelkova serrata) on the opposite corner, facing the Capitol on the northeast side of the pool, shows “how big a mature Zelkova can get,” according to Robert DeFeo, chief horticulturist for the National Park Service, National Capital Area.

The two-mile National Mall houses the world-renowned Smithsonian museums, but it’s also home to many large or notable trees. American elms are among the most popular, including the “Jefferson elm” in front of the Freer Gallery of Art (Jefferson Drive at 12th Street SW; Metro: Smithsonian on blue and orange lines; Mall exit).

The Jefferson elm is thought to have a mixed lineage, given that it comes into leaf sooner in spring and holds its leaves longer in autumn than other American elms. Also, it has managed to withstand the deadly Dutch elm disease that killed its neighbors, also planted in the 1930s, says James L. Sherald, chief of natural resources and science at the National Park Service Center for Urban Ecology.

Another notable elm resides at the corner of Constitution Avenue and 10th Street NW, on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History (Metro: Smithsonian on blue and orange lines, Mall exit).

“There’s nothing anywhere near it in size and age,” says Nancy Bechtol, director of horticulture for the Smithsonian Institution. “It stands out because it’s so big and beautiful.”

Another notable tree at the Natural History museum: a baldcypress on the Mall side in the gravel walkway. Last year about 32 million visitors walked past this resilient tree that dates to before the 1930s elm plantings.

In the spring, don’t miss the famous Japanese flowering cherries in East and West Potomac Parks and at the Tidal Basin (Metro: Smithsonian on the blue and orange lines). Although many of the original 3,000 trees, a gift from the Mayor of Tokyo, have died, about 50 remain, mostly along Independence Avenue and the Tidal Basin. The National Park Service no longer marks the trees, but you can still find at least two originals between 15th and 17th streets on Independence Avenue SW, near the ceremonial stone lantern.

Look for some unusual specimens while you’re visiting the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, at Independence Avenue and Ohio Drive SW in West Potomac Park. There’s a blue ash (Fraxinus quadrangulata), fairly rare in the District, near the exit; a huge Japanese raisin-tree (Hovenia dulcis), which produces edible fruit that tastes like raisins, between Rooms three and four, and, nearby, an Amur cork-tree (Phellodendron amurense) with thick bark and a big trunk. The Memorial’s designers admired these three trees so much they moved a walkway to save them, DeFeo says.

The Lincoln Memorial, at the far west end of the Mall, has many beautiful trees, including some 200-year-old boxwoods (Buxus sempervirens) that were transplanted from the South. According to legend, one southern donor withdrew her trees when she heard they would honor Lincoln. Also, look for two American elms at the head of International Avenue, where AMERICAN FORESTS planted two “Armistice elms” to honor the agreement that ended World War I. The Park Service, however, cannot confirm whether those trees are the originals.

Your trip will likely include a visit to see 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, home of the city’s most famous resident (Metro: Metro Center on the blue, orange, and red lines or Federal Triangle on blue and orange lines), with its Rose Garden and dozens of trees planted by presidents. The White House grounds are closed to the public, but visitors can see many interesting trees through the gates.

Walk to the milestone at the south end and look back at the White House for a scene from the old $20 bill: the Jackson Magnolias, to the left, were planted in the 1830s. The White House installed a telescopic pipe 11 feet underground and 25 feet above to anchor the magnolia closest to where helicopters land to protect it from wind, says Irvin Williams, superintendent of the White House garden and grounds.

Look to the right to see a small American elm planted by First Lady Barbara Bush in December 1991. That tree is descended from and replaced the John Quincy Adams [American] Elm, which was planted during the administration of the sixth president but succumbed to Dutch elm disease. Regardless of season, visitors can see the living National Christmas Tree, a Colorado blue spruce (Picea pungens) on the Ellipse behind the White House (see “The Gift that changed Christmas Winter 2000. for more on how AMERICAN FORESTS sparked the idea of a living Christmas tree for Washington).

Visit the former home and estate of another prominent Washingtonian, the 19th century African-American activist Frederick Douglass (1411 W Street SE; Metro: Anacostia on green line to B2 Metro bus) to see several notable trees. Douglass purchased Cedar Hill in 1877, breaking a whites-only neighborhood covenant; in his diary he wrote about the massive white oak in his front yard.

A sure bet for tree lovers is the U.S. National Arboretum, in northeast Washington (3501 New York Avenue NE; Metro: Stadium Armory on the blue and orange lines; transfer to Metrobus B2). Miles of walking trails and roads on the Arboretum’s 446 acres feature native eastern deciduous trees and exceptional collections of bonsai, boxwood, and other plants and herbs. Drive through the National Grove of State Trees and don’t miss the Gotelli Collection of Dwarf and Slow-Growing Conifers or the Watnong Collection of Dwarf Pines, arguably one of the best collections in the world.

Across town, visit Dumbarton Oaks (1703 32nd Street NW; Metro: Dupont Circle on the red line to D2 Metro bus or McPherson Square on blue line to G2 Metro bus) in the historic Georgetown neighborhood. A Harvard University-affiliated research library and collection, Dumbarton Oaks has several outstanding trees on its grounds.

East of the garden entrance, keep an eye out for a Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japnocium) planted in the late 1800s, one of Dumbarton Oaks’ “oldest and most dignified trees,” says Gail Griffin, superintendent of garden and grounds. Also look for noteworthy Japanese maple, English beech, white oak, and American beech, all set among beautiful and historic iron- and stonework.

No trip to Washington would be complete without a stop at Arlington National Cemetery (Metro: Arlington Cemetery on blue line) to visit President John F. Kennedy’s gravesite and the post oak (Quercus stellata), dubbed the Arlington Oak.

During construction of the site, architects took special precautions to save and maintain the more than 200-year-old tree. When the president visited Arlington Cemetery after daughter Caroline raved about her visit there, JFK told his brother Bobby it was so peaceful at this site, he could spend “forever” there. That comment influenced the selection of his burial place before the year was over.

Also look for a huge Deodar cedar (Cedrus deodara) near Arlington House (the Custis-Lee mansion), which overlooks the cemetery.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Virginia, estate (Metro: Huntington on yellow line to Fairfax Connector bus) contains trees planted by the first president, including two tulip poplar, two white ash, seven American holly, a Canadian hemlock, and a white mulberry.

Also look for two unusually large pecans, to the south of the mansion on the river side, that may be as much as 200 years old. One tree is 145 feet tall. “People who grow pecans say, ‘What’s that tree?'” says Dean Norton, horticulturist for the grounds and estate.

Another eye-popping speciman is the locally famous Northampton oak, a white oak (Quercus alba) that’s more than 350 years old standing at 2829 Northampton Street NW (Metro: Fort Totten to E2 bus). This tree, in the front yard of a private residence, is 107 feet tall with a 217-inch circumference and 213-foot crown spread.

“When it suddenly comes into view, at the highest point of the street just west of Rock Creek Park, the sight is stunning,” wrote Washington Post reporter Martin Well. Remember, though, that this one is privately owned. Please admire it from a distance.

The United States Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home at 3700 North Capitol Street NW (Metro: Rhode Island Avenue or Brookland/Catholic University of America (CUA) on the red line to the H8 bus) is one of the country’s oldest veterans retirement homes; Anderson Cottage, on the grounds there, served as President Abraham Lincoln’s residence for nearly a quarter of his presidency.

The U.S. Soldier’s and Airmen’s Home also contains several notable trees, including the weeping beech, a copper beech hybrid with a dozen leaning branches that spawned their own tree grove.

An ailing osage-orange (Maclura pomifera), propped with a medal girder, could be a “couple hundred years old,” says Andy Dietz, chief of roads and grounds. The home is a secured area, so if you would like to visit, call ahead to make an appointment (202/730-3111).

So many trees, so little time. Visitors could spend hours in such tree-filled places as Rock Creek Park, a truly urban national park in Northwest Washington; in Civil War-era forts such as Fort Dupont, east of the Anacostia River; and at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, which features unusual trees among its water lilies and aquatic plants.

When you visit Washington, by all means see the historic monuments. But save time to explore what makes our nation’s capital a true example of a City of Trees.

Janine Guglielmino is associate editor of American Forests. Editor Michelle Robbins and Global ReLeaf Fellow Ann Wood-Arendt also contributed information to this story.


With so many beautiful trees and natural areas in the District, how can you choose which to visit? We asked same prominent local “tree people” for their favorites.

Perhaps the most diplomatic answer comes from DC Mayor Anthony Williams, who says with so many beautiful trees, he found it impossible to choose.

“From the cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin to the magnificent white oak that Frederick Douglass admired tram his home at Cedar till in Southeast, the trees in the city are an integral port of our landscape, our history, and oar identity as the City of Trees,” Williams says.

Sandra Hill, chief of the trees and landscape division for the DC Department of Public Works, comes in a close second for diplomacy. “We hove trees throughout the District that are beautiful,” Hill says. “We truly hove on urban forest. The Hillcrest area in Ward 7 and along the Anacostia River. Bloomingdale. Georgetown. Our main corridors-Connecticut Avenue, Massachusetts Avenue.”

No such diplomacy from State Forester Jim Mallow, of the Maryland Forest Service Department of Natural Resources.

“It would he inappropriate for me to say anything other than the Wye Oak–the state, national, and world champion white oak-not only because it’s been around since before Maryland was a state, but certainly because it represents the resilience and sustainability of forests in one tree,” Mallow says.

Mallow’s favorite natural spot is Culvert Cliffs State Park, in Maryland’s Culvert County between Prince Frederick and Solomon’s Island. He also enjoys the Smithsonian properly near Edgewater, in Anne Arundel County, where the federal government conducts research on the effects of acid rain on the tree canopy.

James W. Garner state forester tar the Virginia Department of Forestry, says visitors should stop at one of the Virginia’s small state forests at the intersection of Rt. 29 and Rt. 66, adjacent to Manassos National Battlefield Park. There you can find old and planted trees, a Civil Warera railroad, and trails. The state pious to turn the acreage into a stewardship education forest to teach children about working forests.

“It’s really nothing but a block of woods, but Vs pretty and unique- close to DC, a working forest, and with walking trails.”

Thomas S. Elias, director of the U.S. National Arboretum, says he finds it difficult to choose a favorite, but one tree at the Arboretum stands out.

“It is difficult to point too single tree us my favorite; however, the one I keep going back to see on a regular basis is the 380-year-old white pine housed in the Notional Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum,” Elias says. “I can’t help but marvel when I think how the tree has been maintained in a series of pots for nearly 400 years and carefully nurtured and trained by one generation of bonsai masters after another. It is likely that 14 or 15 different bonsai specialists had cared for this tree by the time it was presented to the people of the United States by the government of Japan to celebrate the bicentennial at our country.”

The Capitol’s landscape architect, Matthew Evans, admires many trees on the Capitol grounds, including “many trees I adore because of the meaning attached … they’re one of the ways I’ve come to develop losting friendships” with members of Congress, their families and staffers, and others, he says.

His favorite, though, is a willow oak at the Grotto, in the northwest quadrant of Olmstead Square surrounding the building. “My talking tree,” Evans coils it. “It’s n tree I know can keep secrets.’ The willow oak has beautifully developed branching, Evens says, and he leeks forward to its changes through the season-from willow green in spring to a “breathtakingly beautiful silhouette” in winter. The stately tree matches the dignity of the Capitol buildings, Evans says.

Among the favorites of Robert DeFen, chief horticulturist fur the National Park Service National Capital Area, ore the U.S. Capitol’s her oaks because of their “sheer size.” for visitors willing to drive, DeFoe recommends n sycamore at Antietam. National Battlefield in Shorpsburg, Maryland (about 68 miles from downtown Washington). On September 17, 1862, that tree witnessed the deaths of more than 23,000 soldiers in the single bloodiest day of the Civil War.

Irvin Williams, superintendent of the White House Garden and Grounds, likes another “witness tree,” the Jackson Magnolias, originally from the Hermitage, the Nashville, Tennessee, home of seventh president Andrew Jackson.

Nancy Bechtol, director of horticulture, Smithsonian Institution, says her favorites include an American elm in the courtyard of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and one on the grounds of the National Museum of Natural History.

Choosing a favorite tree is tough when you’re surrounded by so many beautiful specimens, says Gail Griffin, superintendent of gardens and grounds for Dumbarton Oaks. Bot she especially admires the Dumbarton Oaks’ copper beech, “because of the bark, which is almost n pewter color.” Griffin also singles out the Katsura for special notice. “In the fall, when you rake ap its leaves, they smell like molasses.”

Dean Norton, horticulturist fur Mount Vernon, loves an old tulip poplar outside the kitchen garden gate. Dubbed the Independence Tree in 1976, its seeds were sent to interested citizens across the country as port of the nation’s bicentennial celebration.

James L Sherold, chief of natural resources and science, Nat anal Pork Service Center for Urban Ecology, picks the Jefferson elm p front of the freer Gallery of Art.

As a preeminent local tree person, Sarah Boasberg, chairman of the tree subcommittee of the local Committee of 100 en the Federal City, finds it difficult to choose a favorite tree. She names: the “fabulous beech trees” at Dombarton Oaks, as well as the striking Katsura on the south lawn, “for its size and its shape”; “the evergreen trees that have grown up along the Lincoln Memorial. The bellies and magnolias have grown to a sufficient size and volume to balance the size of the monument”; and “the English oaks up and down 16th Street,” one of Washington’s grand historic avenues.

But Boasberg advises that “not all really special trees ore huge trees. Look at the dwarf cenifers in the Gotelli Collection at the National Arboretum. It’s one of the best collections in the world.” And finally, our own Deborah Gangloff panders her favorite trees–naturally, she chooses from among tire many planted here by AMERICAN FORESTS.

“While there are many aid, famous, and historic trees in Washington, the ones that mean the most to me are the ones planted by AMERICAN FORESTS,” Gangloff said. “These trees are a living testament to AMERICAN FORESTS’ 125 years of conservation leadership. The planting of AMERICAN FOREST’ ‘hometown trees’ are also the embodiment of Rene Dubois’ advice: think globally, act locally.”

Janine Guglielmino


AMERICAN FORESTS has made nor headquarters in Washington since we were founded in 1875. Since our earliest days, we’ve put a high priority on tree planting in our hometown. Here’s a sampling:

1917 Red oak sapling planted near George Washington’s Mount Vernon tomb.

1921 Memorial tree planting compaign launched; two American elms planted at the head of International Avenue loading to the Lincoln Memorial to honor signing of the Armistice during WWI; Trees planted along 16th Street NW to memorialize DC’s men and women who died in WWI; elm planted in shadow of the grove of the Unknown Soldier.

1924 White birch planted on the south lawn of the White House to honor presidential mothers past and present (other “Mothers Trees” planted in

1925 an the Capitol grounds to honor mothers of the nation, and in 1932 at Arlington Cemetery to honor the mother of the unknown soldier); first living Christmas Tree donated to White House.

1930s Block walnuts from George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate planted at West Capitol and Washington Monument; maple planted at 18th Street and New York Avenue NW in memory of Girl Scoots founder Juliette Gordon Low; American elms planted along Bladensburg Road.

1975 Red oak planted at Farragut Square to commemorate AMERICAN FOREST’S 100th anniversary.

1988 Trees planted along Pennsylvania Avenue NW to launch Global ReLeaf program; staff plants first of numerous trees along P Street NW and in Dupont Circle neighborhoods, with plantings continuing until organization’s headquarters moves in 1997 from P Street back to Farragut Square area.

1989 Maple planted on grounds of the Smithsonian Institutions with Sen John Glenn (D-OH) and The Davey Tree Expert Company.

1990 White House planting with George H.W. Bush.

1993 Planting of Global ReLeaf Forest tree number 1,000,001 in Fairfax, Virginia.

1994 Oak planted at Irish Embassy in honor of former Speaker of the House lip O’Neill; National Lining Classroom of 53 trees (signifying the 50 states, DC, U.S. Territories, and an international tree) planted at Arlington Cemetery.

1997 Weeping cherry planted at site of what was then the future Bosnica-Herizegovnia Embassy to memorialize Sarajevo’s fallen children and commemorate launch of Global ReLeaf Sarajevo.

1998 600 trees planted in Kenilwarth Pork to establish riparian buffer along Anacostia River; American elm planted in Farragut Square across from former and current headquarters sites.

1999 Ceremonial planting of Johnny Appleseed Rambo apple tree at U.S. Botanic Gardens.

2000 Dwight D. Eisenhower green ash planted at French Embassy to honor WWII vets from the Normandy Invasion; willow oak planted at U.S. Capitol far AMERICAN FORESTS’ 125th anniversary; six Eisenhower green ash planted at Arlington Cemetery to honor WWII dead from six branches of the military.

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