It was just seven years before his death that John Aston Warder led a group of early conservationists in Chicago to found what would become the oldest conservation nonprofit in the country, American Forests, in 1875. He was 63 years old.

Ohio state champion western white pine at Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum

Ohio state champion western white pine at Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum; Credit: Dave Gressley/Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum

What path led Warder into forest conservation later in life? As a child, he had enjoyed wandering the woods of his Pennsylvania home — an adventurous young naturalist, fascinated by the plants and animals he discovered. But he didn’t wait six decades to harness his passion for the betterment of nature. Long before he was known for his work with forests and forestry, he had left his mark on the world of horticulture. In fact, Warder was enjoying an established career as a horticulturist just as the rural cemetery movement was taking root across the nation.

In the mid-1850s, he was presented with an opportunity to landscape one of the early rural cemeteries — Spring Grove in Cincinnati — in a more organic fashion as a way to promote the growth of nature within the city. He worked with Robert Buchanan, Spring Grove’s first president, to plan the plantings of what would become Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum. He not only selected materials and plants, but also did much of the actual labor of tree planting, along with volunteers, before leaving the cemetery in the hands of Superintendent Adolph Strauch. Warder’s ideas to use a catalpa tree hedge and unfenced lots were considered highly original for the time.

Today, Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum remains one of the nation’s most breathtaking garden cemeteries, with more than 300 acres of undeveloped green space. And, decades after his death, Warder’s legacy continues to leave its mark on Spring Grove: The cemetery is now home to 23 Ohio state champion trees. Around the country, state champion tree programs have been inspired by the American Forests National Big Tree Program.

John Aston Warder is buried at Spring Grove. A large scarlet oak, a seedling planted from his home farm, grows by his grave.

Learn more about Spring Grove Cemetery and Arboretum at www.springgrove.org.