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Life and death, side by side in an endless cycle. This juxtaposition was evident at Sunday’s tour of the Historic City Cemetery where native plants live and thrive amid decaying tombstones of the long dead.
In the first “Blooms among the Tombs” walk, landscape architect and gardener Cassandra Nguyen Musto led visitors through the California Native Plant Society demonstration garden. Her talk highlighted the society’s restoration work bringing native plants and beauty to graveyard plots.
Not only was it a story of bringing new plant life to the cemetery, but it was also the story of the birth-death-rebirth cycle of the cemetery itself.
The original city cemetery was located at Alhambra Boulevard between I and J streets. As Sacramento’s population burgeoned during the Gold Rush, a larger site was needed. With Captain John Sutter’s donation of 10 acres, the Sacramento City Cemetery was established in 1849 at its current Broadway location.
Soon after its opening, the new cemetery quickly became the final home for over 600 people who succumbed to cholera in an 1850 epidemic.
The cemetery continued to grow, especially with Margaret Crocker’s donation of land in 1880. It peaked at 60 acres but is now down to 44 acres. Over 25,000 pioneers, immigrants and their relatives are buried on the grounds.
For a time, the cemetery flourished not only as a burial place but also as the first open space for the city. Carriage paths throughout the grounds brought picnickers to the site to enjoy the parklike setting.
By the 1920s, the cemetery had fallen into disrepair. The city did not have funds to maintain the landscaping and decided to cement over many of the plots. In addition, vandals destroyed many monuments and tombstones.
In 1986, concerned citizens formed the Old City Cemetery Committee and dedicated themselves to restoring and preserving the cemetery. Since then, the committee has enlisted many volunteers, city staff and county sheriff’s work release program representatives to help.
The Sacramento Valley California Native Plant Society joined the renewal effort in 1997. The society now maintains 130 plots on one acre of the grounds. When members started their work, the area was overrun with weeds, but it is now home to native trees, wildflowers, shrubs, grasses and perennials. Of the 422 plants native to California, 120 of them are represented in the cemetery.
Musto invited participants to enjoy the beauty of the late winter-early spring blooms, taste the fruity-flavored buds of the Western Redbud and breathe in the sweet piney scent of Hummingbird Sage.
Society volunteer Bonnie Ross stressed the importance of native plantings.
“People plant more non-native plants than native,” she said. “Native pollinators no longer have a place to do their pollinating, which is why you see so many fewer butterflies, bees and moths.”
Musto said that although the California Native Plant Society has been restoring the site for 15 years, they only began their public tours and programs last year, once they felt the site was ready to show.
The society will be hosting future cemetery tours and a regional native plant garden tour on March 31.
The Old City Cemetery Committee also offers regular public tours and events throughout the year. Some upcoming tours include “Early Blooms in the Rose Garden” on March 31, “Elixers, Potions and Other Notions” on May 20 and Stonecutters-Sacramento’s First Artists in June.
The Historic City Cemetery is once again thriving and, with continued dedication from the volunteers, this chapter of the cemetery lifecycle will be a long one.