Case Study: Habitat Restoration at the Historic Ravine Cemetery

Case Study: Habitat Restoration at the Historic Ravine Cemetery

Article contributed by Candy Sarikonda, Wild Ones Member and Monarch Watch Conservation Specialist.

The one-year anniversary of my father’s passing was fast-approaching.  My thoughts frequently turned to memories of him, and ways that I could preserve those memories.

I serve as co-Chair of the City of Sylvania Ohio’s Tree Commission. The city forestry officer approached our commission with an idea. The city owns the historic Ravine Cemetery, with stunning landscape vistas, gorgeous native trees and a beautiful ravine running through the center of the cemetery. The forestry officer had stopped mowing along the ravine several years ago, allowing the native seedbank to grow. Once again native plants were beginning to flourish. He proposed that our commission take on the task of further restoring the ravine by adding more native plants to the site.

Admittedly, I am a bit uncomfortable in a cemetery.  I grew up thinking cemeteries were the stuff of zombie movies. But a fellow Tree Commissioner said, “You know, we used to have picnics in the cemetery. That once was the place where everybody went to enjoy being outside and being together.”

Indeed, in the early 1800s, cities in America were in need of burial grounds.  Church grounds had run out of space, and city land was expensive. Horticulturalists in Cambridge, MA came up with the idea to create a rural cemetery, and in 1831 they designed the first modern cemetery. These early garden cemeteries were our nation’s first parks. Often, they were created with beautiful Victorian layouts, and were the only green space near town. As towns spread out, these cemeteries slowly became part of the city-center again. Eventually, city parks began to replace cemeteries as public gathering spaces.  Now that concept is once again changing.

Ravine Cemetery was established in 1883. The state of Ohio’s oldest living sassafras tree (300 years!) now resides there, spared from logging likely because of its location next to the ravine. The cemetery, and others like it, have some of the best and oldest specimens of various tree species throughout the city, rivalling those found on local nature preserves and parks. 

By further restoring the ravine and surrounding urban forest, the city would reap many benefits. The native plants would filter runoff entering the ravine’s stream; the city would save on mowing costs on the steep slope; the ravine site would serve as habitat for wildlife; and the restored grounds would provide a peaceful and inviting atmosphere for visitors.

Our Tree Commission team is made up of several members from Wild Ones, and we quickly developed a plan for restoring the ravine with Ohio genotype native plants. Tree Commissioners collected native seed, grew plugs, and divided existing plants on our private properties in preparation for a large planting event in the ravine. We then set a date, invited additional Wild Ones volunteers to help, and spent an autumn morning installing several hundred native wildflowers throughout the ravine.  Species included common milkweed, swamp milkweed, dense blazing star, great blue lobelia, woodland sunflower, Ohio spiderwort, spotted Joe Pye weed, cut-leaf coneflower, blue vervain, tall ironweed, nodding wild onion and more. We also removed Canada thistle and other invasive plants.  

We carried out plans for education and outreach, installing signage and inviting the local newspaper to cover our planting event. We certified the cemetery as a Monarch Waystation, demonstrating our city’s commitment to monarchs and honoring our city’s pledge to create habitat through the Mayor’s Monarch Pledge.

As we planted, visitors came by, walking their dogs and sharing very positive feedback. They expressed excitement over creating butterfly and bird habitat. One visitor asked if we would assist him in creating habitat on his own land, and shared suggestions for other city properties where additional restorations could take place.  It was clear this restoration would have benefits far beyond the ravine.

As we finished planting and gathered our equipment, I turned back to admire our work.  The ravine was lit up in the sunny reds, yellows and oranges of fall.  The warmth of the sun shone on my face. 

I closed my eyes, and immediately felt at peace.

 

 

Resources:

Arlington National Cemetery asclepias plantings http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Memorial-Arboretum-and-Horticulture/Sustainable-Practices/Native-Plants

https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/

http://www.americanforests.org/magazine/article/in-the-garden-cemetery-the-revival-of-americas-first-urban-parks/