The Trees of Westmount Park

Westmount Park’s Brewer Spruce

There is quite a remarkable solitary spruce growing in Westmount Park near the lagoon’s western portion. One can easily identify it as a spruce by its short sharp needles that are not flat in appearance. Specifically, this is a Brewer Spruce (Picea breweriana) also known as Weeping spruce a name that describes its distinctive beautiful dropping branches.  It was first discovered by William Henry Brewer, from Yale University, in the late 1800s

It has been described as “one of the most attractive conifers in the world”.  In fact, it is also one of the rarest spruces – its rarity comprises an interesting story.

The species (now termed a “relict”) flourished in the Arcto-Tertiary forests that extended from the south-west coast of North America to the arctic regions. This massive forest began to retreat when tectonic plate movements and volcanic activity occurred during the Pliocene era (10 million years ago) forming the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain range.  A further retreat of the forest occurred during the Pleistocene era (1 million years ago) when the glacial ice sheets covered most of North America.

One area; however, was unaffected by these massive geological and climatic changes: the Siskiyou mountains within the current Klamath-Siskiyou region that today straddles the border between California and Oregon.  It is within in this protected region, the Brewer’s Spruce, and 30 other conifer species, found nowhere else in this world, still persist to this very day.

The next time, when you walk by this particular tree– think of the time span it represents and how that it is currently measured in human terms. The best description I have found is by Rachel Sussman while describing her book The Oldest Living Things in the World :

“One of my primary goals with this work was to create a little jolt of recognition at the shallowness of human timekeeping and the blink that is a human lifespan. Does our understanding of time have to be tethered to our physiological experience of it? I don’t think so. Deep time is like deep water: We are constantly brought back to the surface, pulled by the wants and needs of the moment.”

Westmount Park’s Jack Pine

One of our favourite movies during the holiday season is “A Charlie Brown Christmas” – although produced in 1965 it has stood the test of time and become a season classic. In one scene, Charlie Brown hangs a single glass ornament on the spindly Christmas tree he brought home causing it to bend.  He remarks: “I’ve killed it. Oh! Everything I touch gets ruined.”

I have often wondered if Westmount Park contains a pine tree, similar to the one depicted in the movie.

As luck may have it, during our many walks through the park, I have noticed a pine tree that very closely resembles the one depicted in the movie.   With its tall and spindly shape, it can be easily overlooked in its location near the lagoon south of the clay tennis courts.

This particular tree is a Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana) also known as: scrub pine, gray pine, Banksian pine, black pine, and in within Canada, princess pine or Hudson Bay pine. Interestingly, its scientific name honors Sir Joseph Banks – the British naturalist who also arranged Captain William Bligh’s expedition to Tahiti on the HMS Bounty – a voyage that ended with a mutiny.

Jack pines are native to the north-eastern states and across Canada – in fact, their northern latitude extends further than any other American pine.

They are easily identified by their long needles, in bundles of two, and their unique shape caused by a twist from base to tip. In addition, they are the sole pine species containing cones that twist at their tips. These cones can remain closed for many years.  Normally, forest fires result in the opening of the cones causing the distribution of seeds on the ash bed.

Next time you pass by this lonely-looking pine, remember Linus Van Pelt’s description: “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

Westmount Park’s Norway Spruces

One has to admit, there was a spectacular display of autumn colours in Westmount Park.  Now that the leaves have fallen, we enter a period where most of us begin to experience a sense of outdoor colour deprivation.  As such, we develop a greater awareness of the various green conifers that grace the park.

For instance, have you ever wondered if the conifer you are looking at is a pine, spruce or fir?  There is a simple way to differentiate between these three families. (Of course, there are always exceptions).  Pines have long slender needles in bundles of two to five.  In spruces, the needles are short, sharp and four-sided.  Firs have short, blunt and flat needles and attached by short stalks to the twigs.

There is a beautiful stand of Norway Spruces (Picea abies) adjacent to the park’s gazebo.  The species is used extensively in Europe as Christmas decorations.  Looking closely, one can tell it’s a spruce with its single, sharp, four-sided needles.  The type of spruce is simple to identify:  Norway Spruces are unique in that the tree’s cones are downward facing and their branches droop towards the ground allowing the tree to shed its winter snow.  Although commonly named “evergreens”, the needles are eventually shed – although this might occur once every 10 years.

In the 1800s, resin was collected from these trees to manufacture spruce gum. It was widely sold as a long lasting, “woodsy flavoured”, purplish chewing gum.  Children living in the country would obtain their gum directly from hardened resin on the tree’s trunk.  Once collected, the resin is boiled and allowed to cool before being broken into bite-sized pieces and dusted with corn starch.

In addition, the tree’s branches and needles, when boiled with water and molasses, comprise the basis of an excellent spruce beer.

Interestingly, Norway Spruces possess the ability to regenerate their trucks.  Specifically, the tree’s trunk can have a lifespan of up to 600 years; however, when it finally dies a new one is propagated from the roots. In fact, the world’s oldest known tree is a Norway Spruce located in central Sweden’s mountainous Dalarna Province – it contains a root system that has been growing for 9,550 years!

Westmount Park’s Catalpa Trees

As a young child one of my first books were the “Dick and Jane” series.

One particular story described a cottage that was covered with red and orange nasturtiums so vividly coloured that villagers summoned their fire department thinking there was a fire!

Westmount Park would be the perfect location for a continuation of that series – I have noticed many people stopped in fascination by what looked like a blanket of snow, in the middle of June, covering the park’s lawns and portions of the lagoon.

In fact, these were the white blossoms from the park’s Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) trees distinguished by their large heart-shaped leaves. (The Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides) have leaves, that when bruised, emit a disagreeable odour).

Closely examining a single blossom leaves one amazed at their beauty. Each flower resembles a white orchid with ruffled edges. Their interiors are lined with purple and maroon dots as well as lines interspersed with yellow streaking.

The word “Catalpa” (a misspelling of “Catawba”) originates from the Catawba Indians’ ancestral lands along the Catawba River in North Carolina. The trees are native to western Georgia, western Florida, Alabama and eastern Mississippi.

The tree was first described by Mark Catesby in 1726 during an expedition from England to document the New World’s flora and fauna.

The trees bloom mid to late June with large clusters of flowers. Each cluster contains a total of twenty-seven flowers from a common stem (inflorescence). Each inflorescence blossoms from 5-6 days. The entire tree blossoms for 8-12 days.

Interestingly, the flower’s stigmas (pollen-receptive surfaces) are sensitive to motion. If disturbed, and no pollen is deposited, the flower’s lobes will close within one minute and reopen five minutes later. If, however, pollen is deposited the lobes close permanently.

The flowers develop into fruit resembling long bean pods filled with seeds that remain on the tree throughout the winter.

Fisherman have valued the tree as a source of worms for the past 140 years. Specifically, larva of the Catalpa Sphinx (sphinx moth) only feeds on Catalpa leaves and are prized as fish bait.

Finally, appreciating the true beauty of these trees in Westmount Park demonstrates that certain things we regard as “commonplace” are really truly exotic!

Westmount Park’s Crab Apple Blossoms

Did you enjoy Westmount Park’s unofficial “apple blossom festival”? Throughout the world, the arrival of spring is heralded by brilliant colour displays from blossoming trees.

In Japan’s Honshui Island’s Hirosaki Park, sakura (cherry blossoms) numbering in the millions bloom in early spring. In Washington warmer temperatures are marked with the blossoming of thousands of Yoshino (cherry) trees (given as a gift of friendship, in 1912, from Japan).

Westmount cannot compete with either location, but in our own small way, we did have a spectacular, head-turning, display of thousands of flowers, albeit for only two short weeks, from the park’s sweet crab apple (Malus coronaria) trees. During that time the park was ablaze with white and pinkish coloured blossoms that filled the air with a beautiful sweet fragrance.

Crab trees are native to Britain (originally introduced by the Romans) and are the ancestors of today’s cultivated (cultivar) apples. The tree’s name “crab” originates from the Norse word for scrubby: “skrab”.

The path from ancient crab trees to today’s domesticated apple cultivars is a fascinating story. (No it wasn’t solely “Johnny Appleseed” as we were taught in school).

The story starts with the Old Silk Roads – ancient trade routes from the Caspian Region (Black Sea) to Western China – established in the Neolithic (10,000 B.C.) period.

Trains of pack-animals would spread seeds from ingested fruit along the route causing new hybrids to develop from previously isolated species. The invention of grafting techniques (by either the Persians or Chinese) and used by the Greeks created new apple cultivars as described in the botanical works of Theophrastus (around 300 B.C.).

The Romans brought apple cultivars to Britain where they flourished and hybridized, amongst themselves, to such an extent, that by the nineteenth century every town and village in central and southern England could lay claim to a local apple.

Apples were introduced to North America by the colonists in the sixteenth century in the form of seeds (grafting was rarely practiced). In fact, entire apple orchards were started with seeds (pips) that allowed hybridization with local crab trees to produce new species of cultivars in a fashion described as a “vast experimental station”.

Next time you are walking through Westmount Park, where the paths are lined with crab apple trees – think back over seven centuries to Bartholomeus Anglicus who, in 1240, in one of the earliest botanical books describes “’Malus the Appyll tree” as containing “dyurs blossomes, and floures of swetnesse and Iykynge: with goode fruyte and noble… some beryth sourysh fruyte and harde, and some ryght soure and some ryght swete, with a good savoure and mery”.

Westmount Park’s Red Pine & Coppiced Trees

I have always been intrigued with the conifer, next to Westmount Park’s gazebo, that has four trunks. The tree’s long slender needles (attached in bundles) make it a pine. One can tell it is a Red Pine (Pinus resinosa) by its reddish-brown bark in armour-like plates, the needles being attached in bundles of two; and interestingly, their ability to break if one wraps them around a finger!

The species is commonly known as Norway Pine – although native to North America – it never grew in Norway.

The four trunks are an interesting story. This is commonly known as coppicing (from French couper). It is the ability of a tree, if damaged, to regenerate from a stump (“main stool”).

One can only speculate that either severe weather or insect damage caused the park’s Red Pine to lose its main trunk (the thick bark is resistant to surface fires of moderate intensity).

Coppicing produces a self-renewing source of wood (that can last for hundreds of years) and, in the past, was a sustainable form of lumber production. In fact, in Britain, the oldest trees are coppice stools that date well over 1,000 years.

This form of lumber production dates to the Neolithic (stone age) era evidenced by ancient wooden tracks, from coppiced trees, across the peat moors in Somerset Levels England.

Along the Anatolian coast (present-day Turkey), a honey is produced from Red Pines. One specific insect (Marcheliana hellenica) burrows under the bark, concealed in whitish secretions, and produces a sugary pinkish coloured honey-dew that is collected by bees.

Native Americans (particularly the Ojibwe people) used the trees’ needles to make dancing figures. The needles were cut to form a dress and arms, then placed on a sheet of birch bark – that when tilted – gave the appearance of the figures dancing.

Finally, the reverence Native Americans had to pine trees is reflected in the poignant Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend that tells of seven dancing brothers that one day rose from earth to become stars. One of the brothers looked back and saw their mother crying – in doing so, he fell back to earth. At the point where he entered the ground, a towering pine tree grew that pointed to the location of the other brothers in the sky.

Westmount Park’s Silver Firs & Snow Caves

Have you noticed the “snow caves” in Westmount Park? This is our dog’s favourite area to explore during the winter season. They are located in a stand of six beautiful silver firs (Abies alba) adjacent to Westmount Park’s clay tennis courts. This time of year their boughs are downward-sloped creating a wall of snow containing snow-free areas.

Silver firs (also known as Sapin pectiné or Weißtanne) have a striking silver colour from the needle’s underside containing two parallel white lines (comprised of stomates) adjacent to their midribs. The bark is a greyish silver bearing upright barrel-shaped cones (as in all “true firs”) on the highest branches. The cone’s scales fall off at maturity leaving the empty portion attached to the tree. Their crowns are initially conical and flatten over time – often referred to as “storks’ nests”. The tree’s shape has been described as a “Chinese pagoda” with large cones that “hang like bells”.

The trees’ native habitat are the mountainous areas of central and southern Europe. Here, their snow caves offer snowshoe hares protection during the winter season. Large groves of silver firs still exist in the Vosges Mountains in France’s Alsatian territory – protected within the Parc naturel régional des Ballons des Vosges.

In Northern Europe, the silver fir is regarded as a birth-tree. In Old Irish, the tree is named “ailm” – relating to the word “palm”, the birth-tree of the Middle East, from which the Phoenix (a bird that undergoes a fiery death and then rises again from the ashes) is born. In Greek, the tree is named “elate” from Eileithyia (Elate-Thuia) the goddess of childbirth that symbolically wields a burning pine-torch.

Greek mythology tells the story of Pan (god of the woods and pastures) pursuing the nymph Pitys who avoids capture by turning into a fir tree. Unable to catch his quarry, Pan removes a bough from the tree and, from that day on, always wore it as a crown. Pitys’ mournful songs; however, are still heard when the wind blows through the tree’s branches.

In the past people believed that these trees could impart healing powers. For example, in Sonnenberg Germany gout sufferers would tie a knot on a bough and say “god guard thee noble fir, I bring thee my gout.” In Bohemia, poachers had a more insidious use: rendering themselves invisible by ingesting the cone’s seeds before dawn on St. John’s Day.

The species has a myriad of uses: Its family name “Pinaceae” (a tree family dating to the Triassic period – 200-250 million years ago) is derived from the Burgundy pitch (from boiling tar) it produces. The Egyptians used pitch in their embalming and mummification processes as early as 2200 BCE.

In medieval times Strasbourg turpentine also known as “Tuscan olio di abezzo” (named after a forest of silver firs in the Hockwald) was manufactured from this species. It was used as a varnish on oil and tempura paintings – many artists utilized the less expensive Venice turpentine (from the larch). Strasbourg turpentine was also applied as a protective varnish, on sculptures, against verdigris (green pigments) that occur when certain metals oxidize.

In the 18th century, pitch was used for caulking and as a protective agent on rigging, in ocean vessels, against the detrimental effects of salt spray. A 1700s book describes the value of pitch as (it) “…will not only preserve the Health of her Men, by Lodging them warm and in good Order, but it will also add to the Motion of the Machine, and make her to Sail much swifter”.

By the 1800s, the Prussian and Austrian governments, encouraged the use of a skin plaster made from Burgundy pitch as a prevention from epidemic cholera.

The tree’s cones are used in the production of Templin oil, a pine, balsamic and sweet orange fragrance, also used as an additive found in cold and arthritis remedies. The wood is also used in the manufacturing of violins – it produces excellent resonance. (The Norway spruce is more commonly used).

Finally, while standing amongst these trees in Westmount Park – watching our dog explore these snow caves – I am reminded of a quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“The pine-tree seems to listen, the fir-tree to wait: and both without impatience: they give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity.” Der Wanderer und sein Schatten (The Wanderer and His Shadow)

Westmount Park’s White Pine Trees

While taking pictures in Westmount Park, I have been asked on several occasions if I am the person that “writes about trees” and how this interest developed.

This started as a young Biology student working as part of a research project, sponsored by the Canadian Forest Service, investigating the devastating effect the white pine weevil had on this species.  Weevil damage was causing the abandonment of pine reforestation efforts and had a huge economic impact on lumber production.

It wasn’t until many years later, that I became the aware of the historical and spiritual significance of these trees.  Did you know that the white pine was the catalyst for the American Revolution as well as the basis of Constitution of the United States of America? (Space constraints prevents a discussion of the latter).

To begin, the white pine (Pinus strobus) is easy to recognize:  it is the only conifer with needles in bundles of five and possess remarkable crowns that reach well past any surrounding trees.

In Westmount Park, there is a beautiful white pine east of the clay tennis courts, with a girth of only sixty-eight centimeters, it towers, like a ship’s mast, over the children’s library.

In fact, that is exactly what the English explorer George Weymouth envisaged, in the 1600s, when he saw large forests of white pines along the coast line of New England.  (In England they are still known as Weymouth pines). The trees were over sixty meters in height, their trunks contained no knots and they would bend, rather than splinter, in high winds.  To that end, they would make ideal masts for the Royal Navy.  Upon this discovery, the British Crown laid claim to all white pines wider than sixty centimeters and within sixteen kilometers of a navigable waterway.  These were marked, on their trunk, by the “King’s Broad Arrow”:  three hatchet marks – a vertical line with an inverted “V”.  (This is the origin of today’s roads named King’s Wood and King’s Pines).  These trees provided the Royal Navy with masts for the next 125 years.

Needless to say, the colonists were outraged by the British Broad Arrow Policy denying them the use of these trees.  The policy was largely ignored by the colonists and not fully enforced by the governors of New England.  This initial challenge to royal authority, known as the “Pine Tree Riot”, in the 1700s, laid the framework for the “Boston Tea Party” and eventually the American Revolution.  The white pine’s importance in the American revolutionary cause was symbolized in its inclusion on a number of flags (named Pine Tree Flags) used in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Next time you are near the children’s library, take a moment to appreciate how this tree, with a small girth, can support such a great height.  In fact, the species has been described as “inhabiting two worlds” – “earthly life and the realm of the divine”.

Finally, with Quebec and Maine sharing a common border, one can only speculate, that the park’s tree might be a distant descendant of an extant ancient white pine, located deep in the New England woods,  that still bears the King’s Broad Arrow markings.

Westmount Park’s Scots Trees

Those of us with children have spent many happy hours, in the summer, by the park’s wading pond.

The pond itself has gone through many changes:  in the 1930s it was used by the Model Yacht Club as well as the Anglers’ Club for casting practise.

Have you noticed the Scots (or Scotch) pines (Pinus sylvestris) by the pond?  They have been bearing a silent witness to all the changes that have occurred to both the park and our City over the years.

Former names for this species are Riga, Norway and Mongolian pine. It is one of the easiest trees to recognize with its low branches, reddish brown scaly bark and needles comprising two per bundle.

Their origins are from the Caledonian Forest that, at one point, covered 1.5 million hectares of the Highlands, Scotland.  The forest is legendary in myth – a place where Merlin (of King Arthur’s kingdom) wandered in his madness lamenting the futility of war as well as a home of, as yet unnamed, mythical creatures and hermits.

The Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve contains the last remains of the Caledonian Forest.  Here, the Scots pine is named “The Harp of Trees” (Clàrsach Nan Craobh) for the sounds made by the wind as it blows through the trees’ needles.

The trees are long lived.  In Lapland there is one that dates back to 1244 and Sweden claims one that is at least 700 years old.

The Druids made bonfires with Scots pine to draw back the sun during the winter solstice. The trees were also decorated with reflective objects that represented the Divine Light – that, over time, led to our present day custom of Christmas trees.  In fact, the species being able to retain their needles, accounts for over 30 percent of today’s Christmas tree market.  (The Norway spruce is currently more popular).

In the Highlands Scots pines were used to mark the burial places of heroes.  In England they were used mark crossroads as well as the perimeters of fields.

The English poet William Wordsworth describes this tree as an “enchanting tree with its often gnarled and twisted silhouette set against a winter landscape or moonlight shadows”.

More recently, following a public poll, the Scots pine was chosen as the National Tree of Scotland (the Rowan was second and the Holly third).

Next time you walk by the park’s wading pond patiently listen to the sounds of the tree in a breeze, and see if you agree it sounds like a  Celtic Clàrsach harp.

Westmount Park’s “King of Trees”

Have you ever noticed parents walking with their children near the lagoon’s footbridge?  They continue along the foot path and their children use a low brick wall, rising on an incline, as stairs until reaching a height equal to that of their parents!  This used to be a favourite route, to the playground, when our daughter was small.

What is overlooked; however, are two majestic red oaks (Quercus rubra) that have been “standing guard” for centuries directly behind that same brick wall.  In Europe oaks were called the “King of Trees”, in Finland they were referred to as “God’s Tree”.  As such, they were highly venerated and possess a fascinating history.

The red oak, in the picture, measures 2.9 meters making it well over 200 years old.  Their place in mythology dates much further back:  to the Druids and the Greeks in 200 BCE.  The Druids believed that oaks were entrances to other worlds and performed their rituals in groves of these trees. Interestingly, the words “oak” and “door” are derived from Sanskrit “Duir” suggesting, in part, an entrance into another realm. The Druids also believed that mistletoe (a parasitic plant), growing in the oak’s uppermost branches, was sent from Heaven and could only be cut using a golden sickle during a solemn ceremony.

The sanctuary Dodona (located in Greece) had an oak tree that was sacred to Zeus (god of the sky).  The area was an important religious-political center in north-west Greece around 250 BCE.  The tree’s leaves rustlings would be interpreted by priests to believers that travelled to this site.  In fact, a reference to these priests is mentioned in Homer’s epic “The IIiad”.

The tree’s magical qualities are mentioned in legends of fairies dancing around old oak trees.

Legend also states that elves live in oak trees and use the holes in their trunks as their doorways. An old English rhyme originating from the New Forest mentions turning one’s coat inside out to ward off fairies:   “Turn your cloaks, for fairy folks are in old oaks!”

Finally, in England, creatures called “oakmen” are said to live in oak saplings.  A sure sign of their presence are bluebells growing nearby.  The oakmen will offer poisonous fungi, disguised as food, to passing mortals.

Just being aware of a fraction of these trees’ place in a historical context, gives one a new appreciation as we walk through Westmount Park past these magnificent trees with their acorns strewed along our path.


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