skip to Main Content

Our new Welcome Center is open | Learn more and visit

From Oaks to Elms: Lakewood’s Trees and the Garden Cemetery

One of the most beautiful collections of trees in Minneapolis can be found at Lakewood Cemetery.

Lakewood’s first trees were a stand of naturally occurring mature oaks in the northwest quadrant of the cemetery. These stately trees (no longer standing) were well suited to the “garden” or “rural” cemetery, a new kind of resting place making its way from Europe to the eastern cities of America in the late 1800s. These new burial grounds were alternatives to the crowded graveyards at the center of cities. They were the first public parks in America, and they were — and still are — places of remembrance.

One of Lakewood’s majestic oak trees. (Photo credit: Tom Henry)

It’s not surprising that the first Lakewood trustees seized on the “garden” or “rural” cemetery concept. Among that group were florists, botanists, and advocates for parks and green spaces. They were instrumental in shaping the natural landscape of Lakewood, as was A. B. Barton, the cemetery’s first superintendent.

Early Rural Cemeteries

Opened in 1804 on the outskirts of Paris, the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery was an early model, with its many trees and winding paths. The garden cemetery plan took root in America in 1831 with Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass., outside Boston. Fourteen years later, Spring Grove Cemetery, outside Cincinnati, was created. It was carefully designed to have open spaces and a variety of trees, shrubs and gardens. In 1871, when Lakewood was founded, Spring Grove became its model and in 1872 the founders began developing the botanical landscape that exists today.

Front gates at Spring Grove Cemetery, established in 1845 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a model for the design of Lakewood. Source: Spring Grove Cemetery

A Laboratory for Horticulture

Lakewood’s trees, shrubs and gardens in those early years were a living laboratory of botany and horticulture. At the time, little was known about the survival of non-native trees in the Minnesota climate. Experimentation was necessary and the Lakewood trustees committed themselves to the task by securing plants from all over the country. Local nursery managers came to the cemetery to learn about their adaptability. Some of those species survived, others did not, and Lakewood’s experience added to the knowledge of forestry in the center of the young state.

Over time, as parcels of neighboring land were acquired, the original stand of oaks was supplemented with American elms. Elms can grow to 100 feet tall with sturdy trunks supporting umbrella-like canopies, ideal for park-like settings. Maple and ash trees were added as well, giving the landscape variety through all four seasons.

A maple tree at Lakewood, starting to turn in late September. (Photo credit: Tom Henry)

Nature Has Its Way

However, nature has a way of altering even the most carefully planned landscape. In the early 1950s, an eight-inch rainstorm with high winds flooded the cemetery and uprooted many trees. A tornado in 1979 damaged or destroyed 450 of Lakewood’s trees; two years later a second tornado destroyed another 250. Some were split or broken, and many were ripped out of the ground, tearing up underground sprinkling systems and tipping or damaging monuments. Removing downed trees and stumps and repairing the damage wasn’t easy. The city granted Lakewood a burning permit after the 1970 tornado; fires burned night and day for three months. To restore the land, the cemetery had to plant hundreds of new trees.

As if intense rainstorms and high winds were not enough, diseases then struck some of Lakewood’s most majestic trees. A fungus causing Dutch elm disease swept through Lakewood in the late 1970s and claimed 700 elms. Those elms were largely replaced by a variety of green seedless ash trees. But recently, the cemetery’s ash trees have been hit by the emerald ash borer, an invasive forest insect from Asia responsible for the deaths of millions of trees in the U. S. and Canada. The insects’ larvae infest and kill weak and healthy ash trees alike, and all species of ash native to North America, including Lakewood’s 700 ash trees, most of which were removed from Lakewood between 2018 and 2021, due to a mandate by the Minneapolis Park Board.

To ensure that Lakewood’s landscape not be a monoculture, recent introductions include a variety of linden, locust, hackberry and maple trees, and a disease-resistant variety of elms. This diversity creates a mix of colors and variety of habitat for birds and animals. Today, the cemetery is a haven for fox, rabbits, owls, pheasants, songbirds, and falcons. Season by season, Lakewood provides a stage where the balance of nature is played, oblivious to the fast-paced bustle of the city outside.

Deer resting in a quiet, shaded spot at Lakewood. (Photo credit: Tom Henry)

A Memorial Tree

In 1878, Joseph Francis of New York buried his wife Ellen in the hillside overlooking the lake. It was a spot she had chosen on a vacation to Minnesota, declaring that she had never seen so beautiful a spot and wished it to be her final resting place. When the cemetery was laid out in 1871, Francis immediately purchased the lot on the northwest corner where she had stood—Lot 1, Section 1. (Read more about Joseph and Ellen’s love story.) At one time the grave was shaded by a weeping willow that grew from a slip Francis brought from Napoleon’s tomb at St. Helena in 1877.

Occasionally a lot owner will ask to plant a tree on a particular grave site. It is not feasible to plant directly on a grave, but Lakewood does accept donation of a tree to plant nearby if possible. Some donated trees may be planted just outside the cemetery proper, on land Lakewood owns.

Caring for Trees

Consistent care of the 2,500+ trees at Lakewood enhances the garden landscape. Grounds workers maintain a five-year pruning cycle: the cemetery is divided into five zones and each year all the trees in one zone are pruned to maintain their shape and the height of lower branches.

Perhaps the most spectacular display of tree color at Lakewood is the two stands of Autumn Blaze Red Maples that line the reflecting pool in the mausoleum garden area in the fall. These trees were chosen because they are hardy and fast growing.

Autumn Blaze Red Maples near the Lakewood Garden Mausoleum, completed in 2012. (Photo credit: Tom Henry)

Learn more about Lakewood

Watch Lakewood Greenhouses, Then and Now (video)

Blog: Lakewood’s Greenhouses — A Long and Verdant History

Tour the Lakewood Chapel (video)

Art & Symbolism at Lakewood

See upcoming events and tours at Lakewood

Sign Up for the Lakewood Newsletter

To stay in the loop and be the first to know about upcoming events and celebrations, sign up for our newsletter.

Lakewood Newsletter
Back To Top