Our heritage of trees: Look up, way up, at these gentle giants

By Jamie Morris

American sycamores, Victoria Avenue north of Peel Street. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Consider this an introduction to a collection of remarkable local residents. Some were here long before any of us were born and will be here long after we die; some are, comparatively, youngsters; one is dead. All of them — even the one that’s dead — contribute immeasurably to our town and ask little in return.

Your guide is Tom Mikel, coordinator of Fleming’s urban forestry programs. Each year he takes his students on a field walk to check out these residents, our Lindsay trees. Described here are the ones that always impress those students, that impressed me when he took me on a tour, and that might just impress you, too.

All but one are within a 10-minute stroll of Lindsay’s former town hall (the green municipal building by the library) and all reward a visit at any time of year — whether for leaf colour, fruit, bark, or structure.

American sycamores, Victoria Avenue north of Peel Street Hard to miss these: Sycamores are Eastern North America’s largest deciduous trees, and these five are well over 100 years old. Look up the street from the farmers’ market and they fill the sky, their canopies stretching out over the street to the boulevard. Up close you’ll be struck by the mottled appearance of the trunk (the tree is “exfoliating” and regularly sloughs off bark). You’ll also notice several are hollowed out, with cavities a couple of feet across. One cavity has been filled with concrete, the old way for foresters to treat the tree; another has been left for the tree to “compartmentalize,” or bury the injury in new wood, which is the more recent approach.

Heritage Tree designations are awarded by Forests Ontario on the basis of association with important local figures, and if any of our trees deserve that designation, these are they. The sycamores were planted by the Sylvesters, brothers who operated a factory that made agricultural and farm implements — it stood where Tim Horton’s, Home Hardware and Lindsay Dry Cleaners are now. The brothers also owned and donated to the town property that became Victoria Park.

Silver Maples. Photo: Jamie Morris.

Silver maples, Victoria Park It’s the silvery leaf undersides that give this tree its name. There’s a particularly large specimen southwest of the fountain, towering over the Armoury, but you’ll see many in the park. Because they’re fast-growing and adaptable to urban conditions they were too often in the past.

Sadly, because of the tree’s structure, high winds and ice can bring down large limbs, particularly when there are hidden cavities (April’s ice-storm brought down a number). In the wild, silver maples can live to 400 years, but ours won’t be living that long.

Sugar maple, 73 Peel Street Sugar maples have long been a popular species for planting along streets. Those that line the north side of Bond Street between Sussex and Albert Streets blaze with colour in fall and in spring, some homeowners tap them to harvest sap for maple syrup.

The specimen at 73 Peel St. though is worth checking out for its layered, gnarly bark. You could almost imagine a figure emerging from rough clay. From the appearance of the bark, Tom suspects that beneath the outer surface you would find bird’s-eye maple, prized by cabinetmakers. Should it ever have to be removed, he’d love to put it on the college’s sawmill and see the lumber being used.

Black walnuts, Walnut Grove (Albert Street South) or 10 Adelaide Street South Their taproots make black walnuts hard to transplant. But, as Tom notes, “squirrels do an amazing job of propagating them.” He tells of once collecting nuts in a five-gallon pail and having a squirrel jump out of the nearly-emptied container when he went back. “I’m still having to uproot seedlings,” from all the extra plantings the squirrel did.

The walnuts are tall (up to 30 metres) and have well-formed trunks, but are sometimes unpopular with gardeners (the roots release juglone, a substance that inhibits growth of some other plants). Woodworkers appreciate them — the heartwood of black walnut trees can have a second life as fine furniture or veneer.

Wildlife tree (Frost Campus, near Kawartha TransCanada Trail). A dead tree with lopped limbs, bored holes, and chain-sawed cavities? Tom’s colleague, arboriculture program coordinator Katrina van-Osch Saxon, explains what’s going on. “Trees provide such a valuable suite of other services to wildlife including habitat, food sources, shelter and wildlife corridors. In some cases, when a tree does not pose a risk, it can be retained and turned into a “wildlife tree,” mimicking the natural process of decay where we leave parts of the tree and sometimes create nesting cavities and structures that would appeal to different species. In urban areas, these trees are then monitored annually for signs of wildlife and also safety. We lost several ash trees to the emerald ash borer on campus so instead of just removing them we have turned a few into wildlife trees.”

Want to check out more? At Riverside Cemetery you’ll find mature Austrian pines, some with their bark rubbed smooth by arboriculture students learning tree-climbing techniques. In Victoria Park, northwest of the inukshuk, is a hackberry, an elm relative with black edible fall fruit that attracts birds, and leaves that feed butterfly larvae. And for sure you should be aware of the modestly-sized ornamental trees planted in 1997 through the Green Streets Canada program. No fewer than 110 run up the spine of the Victoria Avenue boulevard. There are six species, including Schubert cherry, Chanticleer pear, and ivory silk lilac. Any of them would be a pleasing choice for a backyard.

Maintaining our Urban Forest

For Tom the keys are ensuring that when any tree is removed another replaces it, and avoiding the past practice of planting monocultures — all ash or all silver maple, for example. Wander around Victoria Park and you’ll see personnel from the city’s parks department practicing what Tom is preaching: Several dozen different species have been planted over the past couple of decades. On Frost campus you’ll find a Kentucky coffee tree and other examples of “assisted migration” — trees from more southerly areas that because of global warming can now survive here. Their presence may be the only good news coming out of the climate emergency.

Katrina encourages all of us to plant more trees and to take care of the ones we have. Take the time to do a little watering during droughts, and to mulch around the base, preferably with chopped fallen leaves, to control weeds, retain moisture and return nutrients to the soil. Not much to ask when trees give us so much.

Want to see photos of all the trees mentioned here? See page 14 of the Advocate’s print edition here.

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