Three years ago when Thomas Holmes, a well-loved member of Alexandria's Fort Ward neighborhood, died, his friends looked for a way to commemorate him. A collection was taken up, and the $550 donated by more than two dozen neighbors was used to buy two 14-foot-high Yoshino cherry trees, the first ones planted in Fort Ward Park on West Braddock Road.
"It's a wonderful idea. You leave a living memorial," said neighbor Charlotte Rixse, who organized the collection. "Flowers are just thrown away. These grow and bloom year after year."
Plans to gather children and grandchildren to see the blooms this spring are under way, said Margaret Holmes, Thomas Holmes' widow. Her membership in a Japanese flower-arranging club sparked the idea for Japanese cherry trees.
The Department of Parks and Recreation, which planted the trees, recorded the names of the donors and their memorial to Holmes in what has been dubbed the city's "Golden Book," a record of gifts to the city's Living Landscape Memory Fund. The usual minimum donation is $25 for a bush or $100 for a tree.
As large as a medieval folio, the leather-bound, gilt-edged Golden Book sits in a glass case in the Lee Recreation Center awaiting removal to a more fitting site in City Hall's atrium, said park and recreation officials. The White House calligrapher penned the book's title page, and in succeeding entries a local artist continues the delicate penmanship in crisp black script.
The city began the book in 1983 as an alternative to plaques designating commemorative trees, park benches and other donations. "A lot of times the signs and plaques were getting vandalized or stolen. The plaque would at times almost cost as much as the tree. There could be bad feelings," said city landscape architect Jim Chasnovitz.
One of the largest donations has been $1,500 for a hexagonal bench in Founders Park from the U.S. Military Academy Class of 1945 in memory of their classmate Henry Hughes, who was fond of leisurely strolls through that waterfront park. The bench surrounds an ash tree bought by Hughes' friends in the city and on the city staff, where he worked as an environmental engineer until his death in 1981.
"Hank used to come down and sit along the river. Sit on a bench, eat his lunch and watch the river. Years from now the tree will provide shade and somebody coming along can sit down and enjoy the river as much as Hank did. He was a popular guy," said his former classmate George Berger.
Berger said he and his wife Pat check on the tree and the bench periodically in addition to planting flowers beside them.
Chasnovitz and city arborist Jennifer Hollings hope to encourage more tree and park donations to the Living Landscape Memory Fund this spring. About 30,000 trees -- including weeping cherry trees and Carolina silverbells, Southern magnolias and Japanese maples -- now grace the city parks and streets.
Hollings, whose passion and profession are trees, often makes suggestions when arboreal inquiries come her way. Fort Ward has been a popular place to plant trees, but any of Alexandria's 89 parks or other city-owned land can also be used.
"We're trying to establish Fort Ward as an arboretum," Hollings said. "What I like to get are trees we already don't have. People tend to like things out of the ordinary."
There are other ways of commemorating people, living or dead, in the Golden Book, Chasnovitz said.
Chasnovitz and Hollings foresee parents planting trees when their children are born so the children and the trees can grow up together. An Alexandria woman planted a weeping cherry tree on the Potomac waterfront before moving to Ohio, and she checks on it whenever she returns to the city, Chasnovitz said.
One recent $100 donation will go toward a wildflower garden in the Holmes Run Greenway, a patchwork of parks being developed north of Duke Street between Van Dorn Street and Cameron Station in the city's West End.
The largest donation listed in the Golden Book is for $35,000 in improvements to the Royal Street Tot Lot by the Canterbury Group, which is renovating the old Elks Club on Prince Street into condominiums. In exchange for easements, the developer replaced the old metal playground equipment. The spruced-up playground was dedicated to the youth of Alexandria, said Canterbury vice president Michael Berman.
But so far the trees seem to have captured the imagination of the donors in the Golden Book. The reason for this may have been expressed by the 17th century English author Sir Thomas Browne when he wrote, "Generations pass while some trees stand, and old families last not three oaks."