By Cypress Lawn Arboretum Director Josh Gevertz
Looking up into the canopy above me, on an afternoon stroll across the Arboretum grounds, a sure sign of the turn of spring catches my eye. Behold, such a burst of vibrant green! The radiance of youth glimmers in the sun, emerging from the end of each branch, this tender foliage of the new growing season. As winter has now drawn to a close, the trees know to open, beginning a fresh chapter in their story as the buds of winter transform. As the seasons change, we too must grow anew, strive forth with what we can muster into tomorrow, and — as always — continue to celebrate life!
Cypress Lawn Funeral Home & Memorial Park is best known for just this – celebrating the lives we cherish. This is a place where people are honored and remembered, and the trees of our Arboretum play a part in commemorating those no longer with us. A grove of sacred trees, called Deodar cedars, grow within the Garden of Meditation on our West Campus, living in kinship with a special person resting in their shade. Their branches are laden with the new growth of spring, arching out over the monument of a cherished mother, wife, and musical savant of her time.
The Hungarian-American pianist Sari Biro (1912-1990) rests eternally in this garden, with cedar needles ever falling at her feet. Born in Budapest where she attended the prestigious Franz Liszt Academy, Biro came to America in 1939 to begin a recital career that inspired thousands across the United States, as well as international listeners in South America, Cuba, and across Europe. Biro’s legacy as a concert performer is renowned around the world, and to this day, her music is a resounding tribute of a life devoted to the art of the piano.
Biro’s daughter, Maria, regularly visits her mother, and over the years, has become a watcher of the cedars. She sweeps their fallen foliage away from her mother’s resting place and just recently oversaw the careful pruning of two of these trees, whose lower branches were progressively shaded out and died as the trees matured. The natural processes of growth, decline, and renewal play out across the stage of life — in a way, the silent song of the trees is a fitting accompaniment to the notes of Biro’s piano.
In my role as Arboretum Director, I have recently taken to listening to old recordings of Biro’s music while I care for trees throughout our collection, a worthy inspiration for my work. In doing so, I choose to embrace the heritage that is all around us at Cypress Lawn — a living legacy that spans the years, from the past buried underfoot to the future rising tall above me into the skies.
What Makes the Deodar Cedar Unique?
The Deodar cedar (or Cedrus deodara, in the scientific Latin) is a stalwart survivor of the Cypress Lawn Arboretum — its gnarled and winding limbs ever-climbing for the sky, doggedly perseverant in the unrelenting Colma winds. As each year passes, and a new spring yields a spectacle of change throughout our living collection of trees, I find myself drawn to the new life of this true cedar species in particular.
Its mature needles are a deep evergreen, filling the canopy with thousands upon thousands of delicate little pom-poms of energy. Each needle cluster, arising from a stout woody stem, is a wonder of nature harvesting the light — and life — of the sun’s warmth. This form of foliage is a distinguishing feature of this and the only two other true cedars, the cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) and the Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica). This triad of species, all native to the Middle and Far East — foreign here in the “New World” — are unique amongst the world’s diversity of conifers, their needles an unmistakable treasure to the attentive eye.
But their new needles, the harbingers of the dawning spring, are a magic unto themselves. Breaking through the brown bud scales of winter, each cluster emerges with dozens of minute lime-green strands, which rapidly stretch into the light with each passing day. If you pay close attention, you can see the transformation overnight, as a single cluster of young needles may grow an inch in under a week. At Cypress Lawn, life is ever present and always changing — if you only look, the secrets of spring are yours to discover!
Two particularly impressive Deodar cedars stand resolutely to either side of the cherished Coleman family mausoleum, just beyond the old archway as you enter our East Campus. As pillars of the past, they together have borne witness to the centurial history of Cypress Lawn. Since near the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, these two cedars have stood watch, in memoriam to the beloved people who lie in peace evermore, graced by their shade. Here, the land connects us — people and trees — together in a kinship that transcends any one lifetime.
The Origin of the Deodar Cedar
Cedrus deodara has a living legacy all its own, spanning across a vast stretch of human history, in a land far from the soils of Colma. This cedar’s native home is the Himalayan foothills of India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Tibet, and Pakistan. In the latter of these countries, it stands as a symbol of life — the people’s national tree.
In this most ancient part of the world, our Tree of the Month has a hallowed and spiritual origin story. The name “Deodar” is derived from an ancient Sanskrit word, “devādaru.” The Sanskrit language is the sacred liturgical tongue of age-old Hinduism, and “devādaru” translates to “wood of the gods.” Pure forest stands of Deodar cedar have been spiritual epicenters for Hindu sages since time immemorial, and it is said that practitioners of Ayurvedic meditation would retreat into the “devādaru” forests of the Himalayas for connecting and communing with all of nature, in spiritual solitude.
The wood itself, and the essential oils derived from the tree’s needles and sap, are healing compounds in the ancient practices of Ayurvedic medicine. Even today, Himalayan cedar oil is used in homeopathic treatment for common colds, coughs, body aches, and more. The human connection with this “wood of the gods” is deeply rooted in our planetary cultural history, transcending place and uniting us in kinship with the earth and all its life.
What We Can Learn from Trees in Uncertain Times
Here at the Cypress Lawn Arboretum, nature’s gifts are all around us. We need only give our attention to the trees to see their wisdom, hear their timeless songs on the wind, and feel their steady, comforting presence. In these most turbulent and trying times, the solace I find in the company of the trees gives me the clarity and confidence to persevere on into the unknown.
I once told a dear friend that I would rather find myself in a crowd of trees than in a crowd of people — smiling, he nodded in agreement. There is just something intrinsically good in embracing our kinship with trees, perhaps today more than ever in human history.
Surely, to heal our relationship with the planet — with Mother Nature — we must heed the lessons of the stalwart cedars, finding a way to stretch into the sunlight each and every day. The trees need our stewardship to grow and thrive, and we too need theirs. I urge you, today and each tomorrow, to spend just a moment in the company of a tree that is special to you.
And remember, you can always find a new friend, or even get lost in the crowd, amongst the living here at Cypress Lawn.