Two dozen enthusiasts accompanied Don Leopold on a tree biology and ID walk though historic Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse on June 21 to learn about the 160-acre site’s fantastic urban forest.

Leopold, Distinguished Teaching Professor, Department of Environmental Biology at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is known not only for his extensive academic contributions but for his one hundred thirty-five popular videos on YouTube that describe species from eastern hophornbeam to hackberry to shagbark hickory. He is the author of Trees of New York, Native and Naturalized (2003, Syracuse University Press).

The group convened by a Cemetery mausoleum.

With a blue bandana stuck in the back pocket of his cargo shorts, Leopold led the group among the granite markers, under the towering specimens. He shared his deep knowledge of trees and his distinctive dry observations along the way.

Fans of arboriculture came not only from Syracuse but Ithaca, DeWitt, Manlius, Honeye Falls and other locales to spend two hours on the cemetery’s trails and lawns.

One participant, Robbie Lewis of Syracuse, expressed in simple terms what brought so many on the walk: “We want to know what the trees are here.”

Don Leopold
Dana Paul, Jean Grace, Suzanne Motheral, Kevin Vorstadt
Matt Case, Tree Board, Honeye Falls
Robbie Lewis, Dave Mitchell, Tom Lewis
Horse Chestnut
White Zinc Headstone
Leopold With Cucumber Magnolia

The privately owned Cemetery’s preservation group, Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association, offers maps for self-guided walking tours (

An interesting grace note: in addition to its arboretum are the Cemetery’s twenty-five or so white zinc monuments dating to the late 1860s, when they enjoyed a brief graveyard fad for a decade.

Leopold introduced himself, saying that he had been “going to cemeteries since I was a student,” and that he has walked these particular grounds for thirty-five years. “We use this site for dendro,” he said, for ESF students. “We rely on the Cemetery because we don’t have an arboretum of our own.” He added with trademark wry humor, “We make the students walk – a lot of them have forgotten how to walk.”

Oakwood lost fully one thousand trees in western New York’s catastrophic 1998 Labor Day storm, which had gales so high the steeple was blown off a church in downtown Syracuse. It took eighteen months to clear out the Cemetery’s wreckage. “The trees’ canopies acted as sails,” recalled Leopold. “The tops were blown off one hundred blue spruces. Almost all of them put out shoots afterward.” Throughout the Cemetery it is possible to see new oaks planted in the retained stumps from the storm.

The group examined a variety of species. The cucumber magnolia, said Leopold, “has an “incredibly bitter fruit with bright orange seeds, and the flower is one of the most beautiful of any tree.”

Leopold pointed out a Native American larch, which he compared with the European variety “Our native larch grows great in a bog.” He raised the question of what tree varieties should be included on the list of invasives. In one example, he said, Norway spruce, “naturalizing isn’t necessarily bad.” The native issue, according to Leopold, is a bit of a bugaboo. “The nonnative magnolias,” he said, “are also great for pollinators.” He told the group he has forty -five fern species at his home, some native and some not. Key, he said, is a sense of balance. “Not all of us have to put in pollinator gardens,” he said. “’No Mow May’ is nonsense.”

The group paused in front of a yellowwood.

Kentucky Coffee Tree
Leopold with Kentucky Coffee Tree Branch
Kentucky Coffee Tree Legume

Then a Kentucky Coffee Tree.

The Kentucky Coffee Tree is rare in New York State.

“Yellowwood only occurs naturally in Kentucky, Indiana and the Great Smoky Mountains,” said Leopold. “One of my favorites. You can’t do better for fall color.”

“The leaves of Kentucky Coffee Tree,” he said, holding up a branch are the largest of any in New York State. “I don’t have one in my yard only because it’s just too big.”

A gingko passed along the way shared the autumnal attribute. Rick Naylor, president of Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association, said, “That neon yellow when the sun comes through in fall is just spectacular.” Leopold commented, “the seed is delicious roasted, but the smell of the fruit is the worst in the natural world.”

The ginkgo provided an object lesson in how a plant can survive despite difficulties. It seemed to be thriving despite a significant wound on one side. “Ninety percent of the trunk is dead,” said Leopold. “Trees are good at compartmentalization.”

Leopold pointed out a persimmon: “Fruit of the gods.” Also, “a nice example of dogwood with alligator skin bark.”

He gave a short treatise on the difference between oaks, singling out a black oak to ID.

“It has blackish bark,” he said. “The acorns look like a top, angled buds covered with a dense rug of hairs. It’s the only oak that that when you cut into the bark has bright yellow on the inside, and it has a bitter taste from its high level of tannin.”

Rick Naylor, Historic Oakwood Cemetery Preservation Association
Black Oak
Black Oak Leaf

Leopold weighed in on recent popular theories regarding the “mother tree.” “It’s oversimplified,” he opined. “But if people are interested in trees for questionable reasons it’s better than people not being interested in trees.”

Myth busting is Leopold’s specialty. At ESF, he told tour participants, the college claimed its iconic white pine was one hundred fifty feet tall. “They called it grandfather, or grandmother, whatever,” he said. “When they actually measured scientifically it was one hundred twenty-five feet.”

The last stop was a magnificent bur oak, a tree “easy to grow from seed.”

He told the group that in 1920, New York State was twenty percent forested. “We’ve been screwing things up for a long time.” He added, “I think learning about trees is incredibly humbling.”

“He’s a great teacher,” said Carolyn Granley, a member of the Conservation Board of the Village of Honeye Falls, as the tour began to wind down.

The tour concluded alongside a dawn redwood that abutted a historic greenhouse and was gradually outgrowing its space, but thus far preserved so that visitors could enjoy viewing it on a summer walking tour with an erudite professor.

Christina McLaughlin, DEC Urban and Community Forestry Partnership Coordinator, said, “I’m really glad to have a good turnout for our walk with Dr. Leopold. And it’s such a nice day out, with so many communities together.”

Bur Oak
Carolyn Granley, Conservation Board, Village of Honeoye Falls
Christina McLaughlin