During autumn’s chilly (and dark) early evenings – one can warm up in the park’s public library and enjoy the latest artistic offerings in an adjacent gallery.
A large planter containing the park’s Hawthorn trees. British and Irish folklore contains many accounts of fairies making their homes under ancient Hawthorns.
A version of this article appeared in Westmount Magazine:
One of the unexpected pleasures associated with looking for trees to include in this series is meeting the nicest people with a similar interest!
Recently, while walking through Westmount Park, I noticed a couple carrying a (large) field guide to the trees of North America trying to identify a beautiful tree, covered with small fragrant white flowers, next to the park’s lagoon.
In an unabashed fashion I walked over and suggested it might be a Japanese Lilac; looking at me rather suspiciously, I continued to talk about the Fossil Tree (Dawn Redwood) near the children’s playground and the spectacular Catalpa, in full bloom, directly behind us. Luckily for me, the latter was the tree that instigated their interest to know the names and stories of the other trees that grace our park and others throughout the island.
Once they warmed up to me, we looked through their tree guide’s index under “Japanese” – Japanese Larch – Japanese Lime – Japanese Magnolia – no Japanese Lilac was listed. For some reason, the authors (and book editors) decided not to include it within the constraints that comprise the numerous parameters that constitute today’s book publishing industry.
What follows is another sample of trees, growing in Westmount Park (including the Japanese Lilac). They are analogous to another dimension, planted in the past, and genetically programmed to live well beyond our lifetimes – until we intervene. Until that point, they reach out to us, as if from our past, to display their timeless beauty.
Japanese Tree Lilac (Syringa reticulata)
One can’t help but notice the Japanese tree lilacs in Westmount Park. With their beautiful fragrance and small creamy coloured flowers. Look closely, one can see that the flowers grow separately along the stem’s axis (termed a “raceme”) then begin to branch forming “panicles” (a compound raceme).
The genus name syringa is from the Greek “syrinx”, meaning “pipe” and describes the tree’s hollow stems. The species name reticulata is from Latin meaning “net-like” describing the vein pattern in the leaves.
In fact, the leaves are the defining characteristic of this tree: they are egg-shaped (ovate) and tapered at the tip – they also contain minute hairs (cilia) on their undersides.
This species, introduced to North America in 1876, is native to eastern Asia, northern Japan, northern China, Korea, and far southeastern Russia and is the only lilac that develops into a tree at maturity. This can be quite a surprise for those presuming they are planting a bush in their garden.
Finally, lilac aficionados, by the thousands, attend a celebration held annually on the second Sunday in May (Lilac Sunday) at The Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. The university’s arboretum contains one of the most extensive lilac collections in North America.
Thornless Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis)
Walking through the park from the Melville Avenue entrance, there is a row of trees, on the east side of the path that are a similar species. (I have often thought there must have been a sale when these trees were planted). They are; however, beautiful to behold. Their small yellow green leaves grow from a single stem (termed “compound”) and can contain up to 30 horizontal leaflets with none at the stem’s tip (if one is present, then it is a Black Locust). Their canopy has been described as “almost fractal, with its layers of intersecting, ascending, and spiraling symmetrical leaves and twisted twigs”. (Honeylocust Media Systems)
Their genus Gleditsia is named after Johann Gleditsch (1714-1778) the director of Berlin-Dahlem Botanical Garden and Botanical Museum. The species triacanthos translates to “three-horned” – from the Greek treis (three) and akantha (spine) and describes the tree’s thorns.
Their native range is the east central United States – from central Pennsylvania to South Dakota extending to central Texas, Alabama and Maryland. They have been widely planted in urban environments replacing elms that succumbed to the fungal Dutch elm disease.
The variety in Westmount Park is a cultivar – selectively bred for the urban environment. Interestingly, their true native counterparts contain massive thorns, in groups of three, that can be over a foot long – coloured like polished mahogany pointing downwards towards from the tree’s trunk. Hardly a species one would want to plant in a city park! In the past, these thorns were used as nails and as pins for tattered uniforms during the American Civil War.
A member of the Legume family (common members include beans and peas), the tree develops dark-brown pods, over a foot long, containing hard seeds. Biblical references include John the Baptist who sustained himself in the desert with the pods of the carob or “locust tree”.
Early colonists, in encountering this pod-bearing tree, used the biblical word “locust” and the word “honey” to describe the sweet pulp of the immature seeds. In fact, the seeds contain maltose – which is rarely found in plant tissue.
Finally, folklore tells the story of why the honey locust developed formidable spines. The Devil climbed one to enter the Garden of Eden in an attempt to destroy Adam’s favourite tree – a dogwood. “Ashamed that she had helped the Devil, the locust grew a bristling necklace of strong spikes to wear so no one would be ever able to climb her again”. (Legends and Lore of Texas Wildflowers, Elizabeth Silverthorne)
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”.
There is a particular beauty this time of year: the unique shade of green displayed by the park’s emerging trees’ foliage. This phenomena only lasts a few days; however, I was hoping these images reflect this gift that nature bestows for us to enjoy.
The park’s Service Berry bushes in full blossom.
During the past couple of days yellow caution tape was blocking a portion of the park’s paths. This morning the city started to remove another mature (Lime) tree to ensure pedestrian safety. I couldn’t ascertain the tree’s age (the boughs were cut in a jagged fashion) – my guess is that it was nearly 100 years old.
The approach of Spring invariably coincides with the cutting of the park’s (unsafe) trees. Counting the rings on this latest casualty showed that it had graced the park for over 80 years.
Trees, do have a lifespan; however, unlike us, they should last for several centuries. Growing in an urban environment will reduce their lifespan – this 100+ year old Lime (I think!) was recently cut down for safety reasons. At the risk of sounding anthropomorphic, one can only image the lost stories, that that should have been told, that had occurred beneath its boughs.
A version of this article appeared in the Westmount Independent – April 29, 2016
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.”