For visitors from throughout the world, Temple Square is a beloved 10 acres. For members of the Church, however, the Square is "the sacred home of the prophets of God."
The gardens themselves are a "piece of heaven" for those who appreciate such things.But what most people don't realize is that in the midst of well-known stories of the beauty of the gardens, there is an abundant history also of the trees, shrubs and flowers.
President Wilford Woodruff consecrated all of Temple Square in the temple dedicatory prayer: "O Lord, we pray thee to bless and sanctify the whole of this block . . . also the trees, plants, flowers and shrubbery that grow in its soil; may they bloom and blossom and become exceedingly beautiful and fragrant; and may thy Spirit dwell in the midst thereof."
The spiritual atmosphere of Temple Square has been nurtured from the ground up by soil sanctified by a prophet and plants as rich in history as the surrounding buildings. The following stories are recounted from among hundreds with the hope that those who enter Temple Square will more deeply feel that they are standing on "holy ground."
The Great Lawn
The North Visitors Center was designed and built by George Cannon Young. That building includes some distinctive lines of classical architecture. The dome is reminiscent of the architecture of Greece and Rome, using other classical themes in a contemporary line.
One of the classical themes that Brother Young included was the grand piazza in front, the grand patio. The comparison between that grand patio and the piazza in front of St. Marks Cathedral in Venice is inescapable. And like the one in Venice, the North Visitor's Center includes a grand staircase down to the water. However, on Temple Square the accent is a green lawn.
George Cannon Young, who with his father, had designed the Church Administration Building, was well-known to Peter Lassig, the chief gardener at Temple Square. "He designed that with elements of a Grecian Temple," Brother Lassig commented. "The pillars have `entises,' pediments, pilasters, - everything that a Grecian temple has.
"I developed a tremendous respect for him. And he could see in my eyes that he had won me."
And so he walked Brother Lassig over to the north side of the Tabernacle and asked, "Peter, do you see that that building [the North Visitors Center] is Greco-Roman?" Then he said, "Peter, those stairways [in Venice] go down to the ocean, they don't go down to the grass. We need the Great Lawn to set off the building so that it has dignity. If you were standing on the patio, or the piazza, looking toward the Tabernacle, we need the Great Lawn to set off the Tabernacle." Brother Young explained that the open space was significant in drawing the eye to the beauty of the buildings it separates. As Brother Young said, "The lawn, although it is empty, has a spirit that fills up this important space here at Temple Square."
"He charged me, `Please, during your tenure, protect that lawn and do everything in your power to keep it entire and intact. If anyone ever wants to run a sidewalk across that lawn, do your best to prevent that.'"
The David O. McKay Oak
In June of 1952, President David O. McKay and Elder Stayner Richards, an Assistant to the Twelve, selected a site some 25 miles south of London for a temple in England.
President McKay returned in August of 1953 to dedicate the site prior to the beginning of construction. On the grounds, President McKay again and again stopped at a majestic old Surrey oak on the grounds, estimated to be 350 years old. The temple was positioned to preserve the oak. The circumference of the tree, just above the ground, was measured at 21 feet. Its branches rose more than 70 feet high and nearly 100 feet wide. President McKay had a special fondness for the tree and gave instructions that everything possible be done to preserve and protect it.
Irvin T. Nelson, landscape architect of Temple Square, was assigned to landscape the site for the London Temple. He also assumed responsibility for preserving the ancient oak. Under Brother Nelson's direction workmen removed dead branches and repaired wounds. Some bracing with wire cables was required also. As evidence of the success of their work during the next season the venerable oak began dropping acorns, its first crop in several years.
Brother Nelson gathered up a bucket of the acorns and brought them with him to Temple Square. They were planted in pots and left, presumably waiting for Brother Nelson to return and complete the project he obviously had in mind.
As the years passed the potted oaks disappeared, one by one, victims of their unfortunate circumstance. Finally, when Peter Lassig assumed responsibility for the Temple Square Gardens in 1972, only one battered old pot containing one very bedraggled plant remained. It was completely potbound, its roots hopelessly tangled around and around inside the container.
Brother Lassig recalls: "I honestly didn't have time to fuss with it. I said: `It is probably hopeless but let's just dig it up, tear off some of the roots that are the worst and we'll move it up there and stuff it up in the corner.' It did nothing for five years after I planted it. It just plunked there, kind of hunkered over, looking lonely and morose."
Then, after 20 years subsisting in a meager pot and five years of listless hunkering, some shoots of new life appeared. Brother Lassig began pruning the shrubbery away from it so it would have more room. In the last few years it has begun to show the same strength and beauty of its predecessor on the London Temple grounds. Brother Lassig also refers to this oak as "The David O. McKay Oak." It stands just inside the east wall of Temple Square.
The Cedar of Lebanon
Standing near the David O. McKay Oak is a tree with a colorful story of its own, "The Cedar of Lebanon."
The Cedar of Lebanon was brought to Temple Square around 1949. At that time it was 7 inches high. It was packed in a suitcase of a Mrs. Petty who lived in Sugar House. Planted in a corner of Temple Square, it was later threatened ruination by an accident. The top was completely sheared off. So gardeners forced a branch up to become the new leader. Today you can see the trunk has a slight wiggle. However that was not the end of the challenges this cedar would face.
Brother Emil B. Fetzer, then Church architect, was given the responsibility of designing the new South Visitor's Center. Part of his design contemplated a plaza just outside that Visitor's Center. Accordingly, the Cedar of Lebanon was first marked for removal, then plans were changed. As construction began, however, due to some oversight, the Cedar of Lebanon was still slated for removal. By the time Brother Lassig noticed, construction crews were within two hours of taking out the tree. Brother Lassig hurried to Brother Fetzer's office with documentation showing the oversight. Brother Fetzer immediately halted the construction crews and the Cedar of Lebanon was saved.
About 12 years ago, a group of towering American elms on Temple Square were threatened with extinction by the encroaching Dutch elm disease. "We knew the disease was about to hit us, and we got a telephone call from Dr. Gary Strobel, a member of the Church from Montana State University. He suggested a treatment for the trees that involved inoculating each of the elms on the Square. . . .
"I learned how to play the part of a horticultural phlebotomist," continued Brother Lassig. "We found the veins of the tree and injected the trees. The trees actually slurped it up." Since then all the elm trees outside Temple Square that have belonged to other property owners succumbed to the disease.
"Our trees are miraculously alive."
The Honeymoon (Updegraff) Tree
Near the east gate on Temple Square are a pair of gnarled old honeysuckle trees that are a favorite background for brides' pictures. Some say the trees, which are actually long-lived shrubs cut like trees, are the most photographed plants on Temple Square.
"They're wonderful old gnarled trees that are in every bride's picture of the Salt Lake Temple," said Brother Lassig. "They're gray and hunkered down. They look like olive trees from the Garden of Gethsemene."
The trees probably grew from seeds carried across the plains by pioneers. Originally, the trees were at the home of the James Updegraff family, who, when contacted, willingly donated the trees to Temple Square.
"We were happy to do it," says James Updegraff today. "I often see those two trees by the temple. It's been kind of fun."
The transplanting process required three years. Gardeners dug, cut, and applied rooting acid to the roots in preparation. In 1969, a giant crane outside the square lifted the trees to another crane inside the square. As one writer observed, "Considering what they've been through, they serve as pretty good role models for all those young couples who sit by their branches and contemplate a life together." ("2 honeysuckle trees sweeten many lives," by Jerry Johnston, Deseret News, Feb. 10, 1995.)
Tree of Heaven
The "Tree of Heaven," Elantis Altissima, located outside the walls of Temple Square on the southeast corner is another historical treasure. Dozens of these trees were planted all around Temple Square by the Twelfth Quorum of Elders one Saturday in 1890. Several were planted outside the south wall at that time and Main Street was lined with Trees of Heaven.
This type of tree had been discovered only shortly before by a British plant explorer for Kew Gardens of England. The trees were billed as the "miracle Sumac" and could grow to full size in five years. However, such rapid growth typically causes brittle wood with little longevity.
Brother Lassig commented: "That tree still stands and I think it's a tribute to the tree because it's surrounded by concrete. I think because it's growing in such a hostile environment it has laid down wood at a slower rate, which is a harder wood, and therefore hasn't succumbed."
Beyond the physical marvel of the tree's survival there is an underlying miracle. "I think the thing that's so wonderful about that tree is that the Mormon pioneers were on the cutting edge of things," Brother Lassig said.
"We find evidence that the tree was planted here within 10 years of its discovery in China. Starts of the tree were probably brought over by British saints eager to see what would grow in their `lovely Deseret.' "