One of the first things I noticed about Yakima was its enormous trees. Massive weeping birches, stately Linden trees, and colossal, craggy elms. I’d often wonder as I drove by various giant trees — What kind of tree is that? And how old are those trees, anyway?
For answers, I turned to Chip Rognlie, Yakima city arborist. He fell in love with trees as a young forest ranger and has loved them ever since. After he became an ISA Certified Arborist, he realized the city didn’t have a current inventory of its trees, so he set out to catalog them. He used GPS to map all the trees on city property and rights-of-way. Over the course of a year, Chip mapped and measured more than 6,500 trees of 91 different species. That’s not even counting the trees on private property.
Yakima is officially a “Tree City USA,” a prestigious designation which means we take care of our trees, have a community tree ordinance, a tree board, and spend at least $2 per capita on urban forestry. We are good to our trees, and according to Yakima Master Gardener Carol Barany, our trees are good to us.
“Cities have less graffiti, vandalism, and littering in outdoor spaces with natural landscapes than in comparable spaces without landscaping,” Carol says. Trees also provide crucial shade when temperatures soar, especially in cities, where the “urban heat island effect” created by acres of asphalt and concrete buildings can cause temperatures up to 10 degrees higher than in nearby rural areas.
Trees are also good for our health. They convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and clean the air, and according to Chip, “They help people with their attitudes. When you live in an area with nothing but concrete — people need to go out there into green spaces. It soothes us.”
Chip knows the location of most of the iconic trees of Yakima. He says an elm at Tahoma Cemetery is one of the two biggest trees in the city — and it has a fascinating story.
“We know there’s a grave underneath it,” Chip says, “that grave was put there in 1904 and we think the tree was planted around the same time.”
The elm is 76 inches in diameter, more than 120 feet high, and 115 years old. It is spectacular. It’s about the same size around as a Volkswagen Bug. And sure enough, there at the base on the east side, there is a small, flat marble tombstone etched with these words: “Ella Van Buskirk, Mar 17. 1875 — Sept. 8. 1904.” It’s facing in toward the trunk and is surrounded by the gnarled roots of the massive elm. Ella’s grave and her remains have been completely covered by the tree.
Ellen Allmendinger leads historic tours of the cemetery and has researched Ella’s story. She says Ella’s father was a Civil War veteran, and her brother was killed in the Spanish-American war. Ella lived with her parents and worked as a seamstress. In 1903, newspaper articles report she’d been seen acting strangely. A judge declared she should be committed to Medical Lake Hospital, a psychiatric facility now called Eastern State Hospital. A year later, she was dead. She was just 29.
A pair of 122-year-old elms flank the Gilbert House, which is now owned by the Yakima Valley Museum. The trees were grown from slips the Gilberts brought from Illinois in 1897. Susan Duffin lives in the house with Peter Arnold, executive director of the museum. The magnificent trees bring back memories for her.
“I grew up in Illinois, and my home town had elm trees in the parkways. So I grew up with these beautiful big old elm trees everywhere,” Susan says.
When she first saw the house, there were elm seeds falling from the tree, something she hadn’t seen since she was a girl. “A rush of memories came back. It’s a touch of home there in the yard,” she says.
The Ault family on 30th Avenue in the Barge Chestnut neighborhood loves the colossal Sugar Maple in their backyard. It may be the oldest Sugar Maple in Yakima, according to Chip. Its leafy canopy is enormous, throwing welcome shade over the Aults’ house and that of their neighbor Stan. Its gnarled trunk and roots nearly fill up the area west of their driveway. The tree dwarfs the cars parked underneath.
Tracy Ault says, “when I first bought this house the owners made me promise two things: You can’t cut this tree down and you can’t paint the front door.” The door is still red and the tree is still going strong.
It turns brilliant shades of yellow and orange in the fall, but there’s one drawback: When the leaves fall off. Tracy says he’s got to buy a new leaf blower/mulcher every other year because the machines wear out from the volume of leaves.
That’s another problem with big trees — they’re always shedding something. After winter storms, Tracy and his wife Sherry have to pick up fallen branches, and in the spring there’s little “propeller things” that come drifting down. Tracy says crows like to perch in it and poop on his car. But he and Sherry wouldn’t trade it for the world. They love their iconic tree.
And each tree is different, says Chip. “Trees are unique. They’re like people. They’ve got their own personalities and do their own thing.” He says one tree can grow twice as big as another planted in the same area at the same time and nobody really knows why.
So the next time you see an iconic tree, stop and admire it. Enjoy its shade. Maybe even give it a hug. It will be around a lot longer than you will.