Washington's Secret Park

From left, Mike Smith, Bill Davit, Franz Mayer, Josh Wardo and John Steffens pose among the trees in the Crestview Water Tower Planting at the corner of Crestview Drive and Madison Avenue in Washington. The pocket-sized nature reserve is open to the public and in want of more visitors. When the trees were planted in 2009, the plan called for placing a bench or two along the path to encourage people to stay awhile and take in the scenery. But they were cut to stay within budget. However, now might be a good time to revisit the idea, Davit said, especially if someone is interested in donating the funds as a memorial gift perhaps. Contact Wayne Dunker at the Washington Parks Department at 636-390-1080.

OK, it’s not actually a park, more of a pocket-size nature reserve, but you probably didn’t know it existed. No one tried to keep it a secret; it just sort of happened that way.

From a distance it looks like private property, part of someone’s yard, because it is in the middle of a neighborhood. But look closer and you can see the sign near the corner of Madison Avenue and Crestview Drive: “This planting is a recreation of a Native Ozark Plant Community.”

Members of the Washington Urban Forestry Council (WUFC), which helped establish and dedicate this area in April 2009, said from the beginning the purpose was to educate the public about native trees and plantings.

“One of the WUFC objectives is to increase canopy cover in the city,” Mike Smith, past chairman of the WUFC, told The Missourian in December 2007, when the project was being planned. “This site is ideal because it is a large open space that will not interfere with anyone’s view.

“This is a good project for Washington because Washington is on the northern edge of the Ozark region. The Ozarks are known for their great variety of interesting tree and plant species. This is an opportunity to display and educate our community about them.”

Unfortunately, few people visit the area, as far as anyone can tell, but the WUFC hopes to change that with a little publicity.

Washington Parks Director Wayne Dunker said he would like nothing more than to see people frequent the site. There are open and shaded areas that makes it a pleasant place to spend recreational time.

“It would be really educational if someone wanted to learn about the different species of trees since they’re all tagged. You could bring a blanket, sit and eat your lunch. Watch the birds.”

Josh Wardo, arborist and horticulturist with the Washington Parks Department, agreed.

“The purpose is to have people see it. The motive is to get people to know this asset is here,” Wardo said.

The big blue water tower overlooking Highway 47 in Washington serves as a massive pin icon, similar in shape to those on digital maps, marking the location.

Bill Davit, a WUFC member who lives near Krakow, said he and his wife like to come to the area to have lunch. They have made four or five visits already this year.

“To me, it’s like a little hidden gem of Washington,” Davit said. “Nobody knows about it.

“It’s a great place to come birding. When we are sitting in the car eating lunch and listening to music, we see so many birds here.”

Davit is quick to add that the reception of the classical radio station 107.3 FM is crystal clear on Crestview Drive. It’s the best place in town to tune in, he said.

John Steffens, WUFC member, said with all that is going on in the world today — COVID-19, employment concerns, racial tension — people can find some natural stress relief by spending more time in natural areas.

Dr. Charlie Hall, a professor at Texas A&M University, has noted that “good health is determined not just by access to medical care, but by a range of factors, including the quality of the physical environment” and that “exposure to natural spaces is good for our health.”

In a study from 2011, he listed benefits from exposure to green spaces, plants and flowers included improved concentration and memory, improved learning, reduced stress, accelerated healing and more.

Davit said initial plans for the area, officially called the Crestview Water Tower Planting, included placing a bench or two along the path to encourage people to stay awhile and take in the scenery. But they were cut to stay within budget.

However, now might be a good time to revisit the idea, Davit said, especially if someone is interested in donating the funds as a memorial gift perhaps.

Concern After 9/11 Led to Discussion

Before the WUFC suggested planting the Native Ozark Plant Community on the site, it was merely an open space. The group had been looking for a project to spearhead and a place to do it, and the late Bernie Hillermann suggested the land around Crestview Water Tower, Smith recalled.

Steffens said in the aftermath of 9/11, there was talk of installing fencing or even barbed wire around the water tower as a way to protect it from potential terrorist attacks. That idea fell by the wayside, and no fence or wire was ever installed.

After getting approval from the Washington Parks and Public Works departments to create the Native Ozark Plant Community to the side of the water tower, members of the WUFC began preparing the soil in early 2008.

“We buried this whole area in a foot of city compost to get the soil ready and to suppress a lot of the undesirable vegetation,” Franz Mayer, WUFC, said.

“It was good soil to begin with and amending it that way for a year and a half made it even better,” Smith said.

The initial plant list and design was created by Mayer, a wholesale nurseryman who spent more than 30 years hiking and studying plants of the Ozarks. Trees and “woody” plants representative of an Ozark forest were selected.

More than 10 years later, members of the WUFC are pleased with the growth and maturity of the trees and plants.

“Now more than ever we understand the importance of using native plants in our landscape, but one of the problems is that people don’t know what the different plants are,” Smith said. “This is a place where people can come, look at the plantings — these are all native species — check the ID tags and then go back to the nursery to buy some for their yards.”

The ID tags were added a few years ago by Nick Jones as his Eagle Scout project. “Even the posts are native wood, Osage orange, and that was purposely chosen because it’s one of the most durable woods, even in the soil,” Mayer remarked.

But as pretty as the area is today, WUFC members said it will only get better with time.

“This is just the beginning,” Mayer said. “Wait until our children and grandchildren walk through here.”

What You’ll See

A tree inventory of the area performed by Davey Resource Group in February 2018 identified 73 trees (representing 28 species) that provided nearly $2,000 in annual benefits, including:

$13.89 in carbon avoidance and sequestration;

$212.84 in stormwater runoff reduction;

$77 in energy savings;

$28.62 in air quality benefits; and

$1,637.33 in aesthetic and property benefits.

Among the native trees and plants you’ll see:

• Spice bush.

• Shining sumac shrub/small tree.

• Sycamore trees.

• Pecan tree.

• Persimmon tree.

• Viburnum tree.

• Short-leaf pine tree.

• Fragrant sumac.

• Possumhaw, which features seed capsules that have a butterfly shape.

• Bur oak, which produces the largest leaves and largest acorns of any oaks in Missouri.

• Hybrid Bur/Swamp oak tree.

• Black gum tree, known for the brilliant red leaves it produces in the fall.

• Swamp white oak.

• Redbud tree.

What’s interesting about redbud trees is if they get too hot from being in the sun, the leaves will droop down on their stems, Davit said. Leaves on the same tree that are in the shade, however, will continue to appear straight on their stems. •Yellowwood tree.

This tree, which is native to southwest Missouri, has an unusual striped appearance and bears white flowers. Even though it’s not local, “it’s a tree that should be planted more,” Davit said.

Vacancies on WUFC Board

The city of Washington maintains the area, officially referred to as the Crestview Water Tower Planting, by mowing the grass, spreading mulch and pruning the trees, as needed, Dunker said. It doesn’t have a manicured look, and it isn’t intended to.

The WUFC meets there occasionally to maintain the area. The members generally do some pruning, pick up fallen branches and remove unwanted trees/bushes that may have sprouted.

They are planning a workday there next month.

The WUFC is an eight-member board that meets the third Wednesday of every month, alternating between meetings and workdays.

Board members are appointed by the mayor and serve two-year terms.

Currently there are two vacancies on the board and one member recently announced plans to move out of town.

Anyone interested in joining the WUFC should contact Dunker at wdunker@washmo.gov or 636-390-1080.