Cesare Matrundola stands near one of the dedicated trees and its marker at the Rockdale County Master Gardener Association Memorial Arboretum, located in the Georgia International Horse Park. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
On a breezy, cool, sunny Friday morning, a group of friends and family gathered under a canopy of bare trees at the Georgia International Horse Park to dedicate a bald cypress tree in honor of the late community servant Barbara McCarthy, who died in March.
“It gives me an opportunity to share her a little more and these times will get less and less, and everybody loves her in the community,” her husband, Fox McCarthy, said of his wife who served as the Rockdale County Extension Office agent for 14 years and then as the first female Rockdale County commissioner.
McCarthy’s cypress joins over 50 other dedicated trees at the five-acre Rockdale County Master Gardener Association Memorial Arboretum, located in the horse park. The Master Gardeners established the arboretum, a collection of trees cultivated for public viewing, in 2005 to give community members an opportunity to plant trees in honor of loved ones who have died.
Families have chosen red buds, oaks, horse chestnuts, goldenrain trees, American beeches, magnolias, dogwoods, pines — 37 species in all — to be either planted or adopted in honor of a loved one.
Each tree is accompanied by a plaque mounted on a waist high telephone poll, cut at an angle and driven into the ground near the tree. The plaques are engraved with information such as the name of the deceased, birth and death dates, family members’ names and an epitaph.
“Most of the plaques have a simple message ‘in loving memory,’ and then the birth date and generally a simple message at the bottom, ‘eternal love’ or ‘lover of nature’ or, a few put in Bible passages,” said Cesare Matrundola, a Rockdale County Master Gardener who helped establish the arboretum.
About 2,500 feet of pathways lead through the arboretum so community members can visit their loved ones’ trees or simply enjoy a peaceful hike.
Master Gardener Mimi Soileau, who has a tree dedicated in honor of her three deceased sons, said she enjoys the leaves in the fall and winter, the orchids in the spring and the green cover in the summer.
“It’s beautiful at all times of the year,” Soileau said.
Matrundola said he has family members buried in Italy and Canada and he’s planted trees for all of them. He spends time at the arboretum because he cannot go to the cemeteries of his family.
The city of Conyers leases the land at the horse park to the Master Gardeners for a fee of a $1 a year. The land is about 25 percent open, and the rest shaded with trees, and is located near a wetland area.
Residents can find the arboretum by turning off of Centennial Parkway onto Gees Mill Road, which runs just next to the horse park facility, and then making a turn into Lot A. The curvy road follows along for about a quarter mile through the back area of the horse park and the arboretum appears on the right side, marked by a sign and several markers and trees in the front.
The arboretum is open to the public during regular horse park hours.
“It’s a lovely place and it’s a little hidden secret nobody really knows about,” McCarthy said of the arboretum.
To procure a tree for loved one at the arboretum, call the Rockdale County Cooperative Extension Office at 770-278-7373. Those interested may complete an application, purchase a plaque for about $35 and choose a tree, provided by the Master Gardeners, or pick an existing tree at the site.
“The only thing we request is that they maintain the 20-foot radius around the tree,” said Matrundola, who added that arches and benches are also allowed in the arboretum.
Matrundola said that some families conduct large gatherings for the dedications and others invite just a few people.
“Every individual has his own way. Lots of them are very simple, just family, and then we have a few who invite their pastors and bless the tree and have a little ceremony,” Matrundola said.
The Rockdale County Master Gardeners sponsored Barbara McCarthy’s tree, with the support of Fox McCarthy. Matrundola said he conferred with Fox McCarthy on what he thought should be written on Barbara’s marker.
“‘Eternal Love,’ he said; ‘That says it all,’” said Matrundola.