Capitol Hill’s Witnesses to History

Trees line the way to Capitol Hill
Trees line the way to Capitol Hill.

In non-Covid times, I lead several Capitol tree tours a year for the U.S. Botanic Garden under the auspices of the Architect of the Capitol. My heart is breaking for what my arboreal friends of more than 40 years have witnessed this week. In a normal week, they receive appreciative gazes and a few friendly pats from admirers who freely stroll the grounds. This week they experienced loud aggression and now they are cut off from most human contact.

My friends Sandy and Jon Willen walked to the grounds the morning after Wednesday’s insurrection, as they have done many mornings since the pandemic began, and Sandy texted me: “Our dear precious Capitol Grounds trees stand tall today. I feel these trees are all Witness Trees.” Sandy added: “Understandably we could not walk on the Capitol Grounds today but I hope that will only be temporary.”

When I first came to Washington with my husband in the late 1970s, one of my botany teachers at the National Arboretum told our natural history field studies class: “The U.S. Capitol grounds comprise one of the finest arboretums in the world.” In 2017 the Morton Arboretum made it official when they declared the grounds a Level II Arboretum, qualifying with at least 100 woody plant species, paid staff, a public education program, and a documented collections policy. The grounds are now officially known as the Capitol Grounds and Arboretum.

The 58-acre grounds that hosted rioters last Wednesday were designed and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s and ’80s to serve as a graceful frame for the Capitol as well as a people’s park. Olmsted had traveled in Europe and in the pre-bellum South as a reporter for a precursor of the New York Times and, in designing both the Capitol grounds and Central Park, it was of central importance to him that all citizens feel welcome in their public spaces.

Dozens of trees planted around the Capitol still remain from Olmsted’s time. Collectively the trees on the grounds form natural-looking groves, with plenty of space for gatherings large — such as our upcoming inauguration — and small, which was just as Olmsted intended. Many of them commemorate members of Congress and historic events, including some events that are ignominious.

If we were touring the grounds together today, these are some of the trees I would like you to meet in the wake of Wednesday’s insurrection, contemplating what they have to tell us:

  • Two giant sequoias (one of two official California state trees): One near the House wing of the Capitol became a centenarian in 2020, and one on the Senate side was planted by the Cherokee Nation in the 1960s to honor the bicentennial of the birth of Sequoyah, renowned leader and scholar. Sequoyah transformed his language from the spoken word to the written word. Read More
  • Two tall pecan trees on the west side of the Capitol, each more than a century old, produce abundant nut crops each year, to the delight of visiting Texans (the pecan is their official state tree) and furry-tailed Hill residents. Read More
  • A white oak on the east side of the Capitol, planted by Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn in 1949. The speaker or an associate visited the tree frequently to proudly measure its growth.
  • The Sullivan Brothers Crabapple Trees: Five flowering crabapples on the Capitol grounds near the Supreme Court are planted in memory of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, who tragically died together when their ship sank in the Pacific during World War II. Read More
  • The Emmett Till Memorial Tree: An American sycamore near the Senate wing of the Capitol honors the 14-year old African-American boy who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River. His death galvanized the emerging Civil Rights Movement. Read More
  • The Anne Frank Memorial Tree: A horse-chestnut on the west side of the Capitol was propagated from a tree outside the annex in Amsterdam where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis during World War II. Anne wrote about the tree in her diary. Anne died in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at age 15. The tree that gave her hope lived into the 21st century. A plaque placed next to its progeny at the Capitol paraphrases a quote from the young author: “No one need wait; start right now to improve the world.” Read More
Yellow roses hung on fence surrounding Capitol building in Washington, DC
Yellow roses placed on the newly installed fence around the Capitol grounds

I would also suggest that you remember a tree that succumbed to Dutch elm disease in 1978. It was known as the Humility Elm. On June 27th of that year, Senator Edward Kennedy paid tribute to the tree on the Senate floor: “Few if any trees anywhere were better known or more loved by members of the Senate. As we walked to the Capitol from the Russell Building, we passed under its giant limb, a cantilevered miracle of nature that stretched out across the sidewalk and over the roadway. Often we would reach up to touch the limb, or give it a warm slap of recognition and appreciation for its enduring vigil. President Kennedy, when he was a Senator, liked to call it the Humility Tree, because Senators instinctively ducked or bowed their heads as they approached the limb and passed beneath it. Its loss is a real one, deeply felt.”

Melanie Choukas-Bradley is a naturalist, forest bathing guide, and author of several nature books, most recently Resilience—Connecting with Nature in a Time of Crisis and Finding Solace at Theodore Roosevelt Island.

Naturalist Melanie Choukas-Bradley at home in the forestEnjoy the natural world with one of Melanie’s nature walks, kayak trips, or virtual presentations. View All Events
Melanie Choukas-Bradley, author and forest-bathing guideLearn about the author, naturalist and forest bathing guide. Read More