Recognizing a little piece of Toronto’s past

There’s nothing more powerful than our own history. Knowing where we’re from, how our ancestors lived, and that moments in time were marked - somehow by someone related to us - is an amazing thing. For me, I feel most connected with my ancestors when I can visit something that was around while they were – something they may have touched, seen or visited. In a southern Ontario context (far away from where my ancestors made their mark on Canadian History, which may or may not be a statue in Montreal), these are the ancient trees that have stood guard through the passing of time.


You may be wondering where these historical gems are hiding in our busy urban centres. Well, for those of you who missed our Tree Tour in September, the wonderful people at Trees Ontario have introduced the Heritage Tree Program – and through it we can nominate heritage trees in all the places they stand. And the Ontario Urban Forest Council has developed a Heritage Tree Toolkit which is used to evaluate candidate trees.


When someone sends in a request to have a tree recognized, one of Toronto’s five volunteer Heritage Tree Assessors (that’s me!) is asked to go out to take a look. Once a tree has been recognized, it gets added to their online Heritage Tree map of Ontario so we can easily keep tabs and share information about it with others.


Heritage Tree Map


Whether on public or private land, the eight trees currently designated in the City of Toronto are breathtaking.   With their giant, arching canopies, these trees provide shade, not just to single homes, but rather to what seems like entire neighbourhoods. These trees have trunks so thick you need more than just one person to give it a proper hug. And like sleeping giants, they have watched Toronto through the ages – a few were standing even before Toronto was a mark on the map.


Lucky for me, there’s one not far from where I live – a massive American elm (Ulmus americana) on Humewood Drive. Some of you may recognize it from our Photo of the Month blog series. It’s a tree that gives me a feeling of awe whenever I am around it, as it has defied death time and again.


American Elm


It could have easily succumbed in the 1970s when Dutch Elm Disease (DED) ravaged North American elms, but instead, it lived. Its root area is contained in what today would be considered too small for such a large-growing species – a ten-by-six foot boulevard space between the road and the sidewalk. You can tell what kind of stress this tree has experienced from growing in such cramped quarters, as its massive roots have encroached over the sidewalk and curb.


Tree roots growing over sidewalk


This elm has been growing for over 200 years – present before the historic Humewood House was first established in 1912. This tree inspired me to add the American elm to LEAF’s Backyard Tree Planting Program this fall.  We now offer a Dutch elm disease resistant variety of elm to property owners in Toronto and York Region.


All of Toronto’s heritage trees have the ability to amaze and inspire us. In Toronto, most are oaks that have seen the passing of the great Tecumseh, the triumph of the War of 1812, industrialization and two subsequent World Wars. One oak was present before the establishment of Fort Toronto (the second attempt in 1750), even before York could be called a township. Can you imagine what this tree has seen in its lifetime?


Fort York


Let’s be honest – trees can be like children, everyone thinks their own is special. And most of them are. But heritage trees represent something that goes beyond a single relationship. They have the ability to define a neighbourhood – even an entire town. Despite the heritage designation offering little physical safety for the tree, protection comes in the form of knowledge.


The more citizens that know and love a heritage tree, the more will be willing to fight for it should the need arise. So I urge you, get out of the house and explore your city! Walk the neighbourhoods, find the heritage trees, feel connected to their histories and learn first-hand what makes them so great. They will not be with us forever, but we’d like to keep them with us as long as we can.