Pasadena’s urban forest has been under the watchful eye of the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation for over 75 years.
BY: Tere Albanese
PHOTO BY: Fernando Cerda
On June 19, 1886, when Pasadena became the second city to be incorporated into Los Angeles County, the topography was natural Southern California foothills covered with sagebrush and tumbleweed rolling up to the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains. One hundred and twenty years later and now boasting an abundant green canopy, Pasadena’s beautiful trees are one of the city’s singular attractions. But what began this arboreal transformation? It might very well have begun with a fig tree. In 1880, Thomas Earley, who served as mayor of Pasadena from 1907 to 1911, planted a Moreton Bay fig tree in front of his residence located at 170 S. Marengo Ave., and although there is no longer a house at that address, it is still the home of the Earley Moreton Bay fig, which is coming up on its 137th birthday! This tree was nominated by the Cultural Heritage Committee and designated as a Horticultural Landmark by a unanimous vote of the Board of Directors of the city of Pasadena on April 20, 1971.
Like the ubiquitous eucalyptus, the Morton Bay fig is native to Australia and its arrival in California was part of a marketing initiative as much as anything. In order to attract settlers to migrate westward, the choice of trees like the palm and the fig were meant to resonate with the area’s preferred description as a sub-tropical paradise. Over time, the transplanting continued as more and more trees were introduced, completing the transformation from a semi-arid desert environment to a far lusher look more familiar to visitors and settlers from the east.
While the growth of Pasadena’s urban forest was, for much of its history, the result of an ad hoc, if concerted effort, since 1960 the work to maintain, improve, and expand Pasadena’s urban forest resource has been a joint concern of the city of Pasadena and the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation, a nonprofit founded that year by a group of concerned citizens who hoped to arrest what they perceived as the decay of their city.
Pasadena Beautiful is now charged with purchasing and planting all the trees on city land—about 100 new trees per year. A current board member, past president, and a member of the Foundation since 1995, Emina Darakjy, is personally in charge of selecting those new plantings. She explains that the city carefully designates a certain species of tree for every street, public building, and city park, taking into crucial consideration the location’s suitability for a particular species’ optimum health and welfare. Then, Darakjy herself gets in the car and goes to the nursery to hand pick them. “I could do it online,” she says. “This takes extra time, but I like doing it this way.” Such pride and focus have been evident in the Foundation’s work from the beginning.
Trees, of course, are essential to our existence on earth. They take in carbon dioxide, as well as a host of other harmful gasses, and release precious oxygen. The aesthetic appeal—especially of singular examples like Pasadena’s Moreton Bay fig—is undeniable. And, Darakjy cites studies that conclude that at shopping areas with beautiful trees and landscaping, patrons tend to come more often, stay longer, and spend more money. It’s also known that hospital patients tend to heal more quickly if there are trees and nature to look out upon through the windows. And the more trees there are on a school campus, the more fruitful the learning experience for students.
For over 75 years, the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation has nurtured Pasadena’s arboreal legacy and, like a Moreton Bay fig, will continue to spread its influence by planting the trees that clean and cool our air, increase our property values, reduce noise, and generally make our environment more pleasant, healthy, and livable.