Atlanta's Oakland Cemetery lost thousands of plants to December freeze

The freezing weather in December killed thousands of plants at Oakland Cemetery. (Courtesy of Historic Oakland Foundation)

Atlanta’s historic Oakland Cemetery is in recovery mode after the deep freeze in December. The cemetery, which is also the city’s oldest park, lost thousands of plants to the cold, and its greenhouse was damaged.

As cemetery staff take stock, they are estimating about $75,000 in plant losses and infrastructure repairs. The Historic Oakland Foundation, which manages the cemetery, is fundraising to help restore what was lost.

“Plants are resilient; they really do try to hold on to the end,” said Abra Lee, director of horticulture at the Oakland Cemetery.

She said for some plants there’s a chance they’ll show signs of life as spring comes around. Many of Oakland’s tea olives and camellias – typically evergreen – lost their leaves and may or may not bounce back. Others are definitely dead, including 90% of the rosemary that’s planted throughout the cemetery.

Lee, who just started in her position with the cemetery in January, said that loss immediately jumped out at her.

“Walking into Oakland on my first day, seeing the rosemary look like that – I mean, they’re just to a crisp,” she said. “That was alarming to me, because that really isn’t something that I’ve ever seen. And I have been working in southern horticulture for 23 years.”

She said the freezing temperatures themselves weren’t necessarily unusual for Atlanta; it’s how long they lasted, with temperatures staying very low for two straight days.

A pipe burst and the heater failed in the greenhouse, meaning that even plants that had been tucked away from cold winter temperatures were affected. Oakland lost about 50% of the plants in the greenhouse.

The cemetery has been a place for Atlantans not only to mourn and celebrate people’s lives – but also to walk, picnic and join in festivals – since the mid-1800s. Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, author Margaret Mitchell and musician Kenny Rogers are some of the famous people buried there.

Oakland weathered a tornado in 2008 that knocked down more than 100 trees. But Lee pointed out the cemetery’s resilience dates back much further.

“Oakland survived a Civil War,” she said. “Oakland will survive this.”