Memorial Day is dedicated to fallen soldiers but inevitably, thoughts turn to any and all loved ones no longer with us.
Sometimes we’d like to make a heartfelt gesture. Every year, thousands of commemorative trees are purchased and planted across the country, many by the bereaved. There’s a certain solace in knowing this selfless act will yield enduring benefits — for the environment, for wildlife, for city neighborhoods and as a possible hedge against global warming.
The days when families lived on homesteads that remained theirs for generations are mostly a thing of the past. Americans are mobile, moving frequently. Many live in apartments, condos or townhouses where they have no personal access to land. Even suburban homeowners with modest yards often don’t have room to spare for a tree that could ultimately soar to 50 feet or more.
That's a key reason why foundations, campuses and private companies have stepped into the breach to sponsor tree-planting programs that green public lands and restore areas ravaged by forest fire or storms. While putting in a tree yourself remains an option, arranging a commemorative planting can be as easy as clicking a computer mouse or mailing a check.
"A gift of trees is a gift that keeps on giving," says Deborah Gangloff, former executive director of American Forests, a Washington,D.C.-based organization that offers a memorial tree program among its donation options.
The phenomenon of memorial tree planting has picked up steam in the years since the terrorist attacks in September, 2001. The memorial at Ground Zero features a stand of trees, swamp white oaks to be exact, surrounding the reflecting pools on its public plaza.
A Grove of Remembrance including 691 trees — one for every New Jersey victim of the attack — was planted in 2003 at Liberty State Park adjacent to Jersey City. The project was spearheaded by the New Jersey Tree Foundation, which focuses on tree planting in urban areas, and funded by the USDA Forest Service.
It's easy to feel in the presence of something sacred when you stand amid stately trees. As someone once said, groves of trees were God's first temples. To understand your choices for commemorative trees, you have to understand the logistics of tree planting.
Seedling trees of 18 inches or less are easily set in with a shovel; they often are planted in large numbers by volunteers, including children. Larger, more mature trees come with rootballs that weigh hundreds of pounds and moving them around often requires heavy equipment. This isn't viable for plantings in roadless public forests especially since reforestation frequently takes place on slopes, near watercourses and on land already compromised by flood or fire.
If you opt for a bulk planting on public lands, you won't be getting individually marked trees that you can one day locate and identify.
In reforestation programs run by such organizations as the Arbor Day Foundation, Tree People and others, the satisfaction comes from contributing to a larger cause. Groups that plant memorial trees en masse usually focus on specified areas such as fire-ravaged areas, national forests or state parks.
If you are after a larger tree with a commemorative marker whose planting site is pinpointed, generally the options narrow and the price increases.
New Jersey used to have a Memorial Tree Program available through funeral homes in partnership with the New Jersey Tree Foundation and the state Division of Forestry, but it has been discontinued. Officials said it was too difficult to administer statewide when responsibility for planting and tree-care was divided among a myriad of organizations.
One place to try for dedication of mature tree is your local shade tree commission. Pennington Borough, for instance, accepts donations for trees planted as memorials or to mark special occasions. The cost includes an identifying marker.
Another site to consider is your alma mater. Many campuses across the country have established tree dedication programs. Smith College in Massachusetts accepts tree dedication donations for its botanic garden in a two-tiered program: Adopt an existing mature tree or pay for a newly planted one.
If you have a suitable site, you can of course do it yourself. Good sized saplings are available at local nurseries for about $35 and up. Such organizations as the Arbor Day Foundation offer 10 free tree seedlings with membership.
However you do it, planting a memorial tree is a gesture of sympathy with an enduring afterlife. Long after the funeral flowers have wilted, your gift — and the thought behind it — lives on.
FOR MEMORIAL TREES, TRY THESE
American Forests, americanforests.org
Arbor Day Foundation, arborday.org
Tree Givers, treegivers.com
Tree People, treepeople.org