Westmount’s Trees and Their Stories / 3
Westmount Park’s Horse Chestnut, Big-Bud Hickory and Hawthorn Trees
By Michael Walsh
Horse Chestnut Trees
Have you ever played “conkers”? It’s a children’s game that uses horse chestnuts. A string is passed, through a hole made in the chestnut and fastened by a knot at one end. Players then strike their chestnuts against each other’s in an attempt to break their opponent’s conkers. The last remaining unbroken chestnut is declared the winner. Children wouldn’t need to look very far for potential conkers in Westmount Park – there are several horse chestnut trees with their glossy brown seeds strewn around their trunks.
Although named chestnuts, horse chestnuts (Aesculus hippocastanum) contain the toxin aesculin and should not be confused with a distant relative, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) that bears edible seeds distinguished by their pointed tips. Interestingly, the horse chestnut’s roots secrete poisons (phytotoxins) that inhibit the growth of any nearby plants.
The range of colours are the result of younger flowers containing yellow spots that act as nectar guides for pollinating insects – once pollinated these spots change to a deep crimson colour.
There is a beautiful horse chestnut tree near the Lansdowne entrance to the park that can be easily recognized by its long (12-24 cm) ovate (egg-shaped) palm-like leaves in groups of 5-7.
The tree is covered with a spectacular array of blossom between May and June. The flowers are in bunches of forty that occur at the end of each branch. Each flower grows vertically (called a “candle”) and collectively they grow in a whorl-like fashion (called a “candelabra”). Each petal contains a claw that presses against the stamen preventing the nectar from rain and damaging insects.
The beauty of these trees comes from the variation of colours within each cluster of flowers that ranges from yellow to a brilliant crimson. The range of colours are the result of younger flowers containing yellow spots that act as nectar guides for pollinating insects – once pollinated these spots change to a deep crimson colour.
The tree’s native distribution is restricted to the Balkan Peninsula and remained cultivated within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire until the 1500s. The first known description of the tree was from a letter dated 1557 from the Holy Roman Emperor’s physician to a colleague in Prague: “A species of chestnut frequently found here… which has ‘horse’ as its common second name, because devoured… they give relief to horses sick with chest complaints…”
It wasn’t long until the tree was introduced throughout Western Europe – today it can be found in temperate regions throughout the world.
In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful
Now that warmer weather prevails, our dog-walking route entails Westmount Park’s footpath. It’s an unpaved trail, well worn over the years, that begins on the south side of the library and traverses in a westerly direction running parallel to the park’s lagoon.
On the north side of this trail, there is a beautiful garden that is carefully tended by the green house staff. Beyond this garden, past the Scots Pines and Cedars, there are three quite remarkable looking trees. Looking closely, one can ascertain they were planted, as saplings, so close together that the trunks were touching. As a result, over the decades, two the trees’ trunks have fused and now share a common vascular system – as if they are a single tree! In addition, one of these trees has grown in girth and incorporated a metal post into its bark. Presumably, this was a portion of a fence that, many years ago, comprised a guardrail separating the footpath from one of the park’s original ravines.
This fusion of tree trunks is known as “inosculation” – and is a very old method of tree sculpturing. This can occur naturally in the roots as well as the stems and branches. Inosculation is more commonly observed between trees of the same species. In this case, each of these trees is a Big-Bud hickory (Carya tomentosa) easily identified with their large, down covered, winter buds. This species is also known as the Mockernut or White Hickory. (The name hickory originates from the Algonquin word “pawcohiccora” that describes a milky white liquid prepared using the tree’s fruit). The genus Carya is in the Juglandaceae family that includes Walnuts, Pecan, Butternuts and Wingnuts.
The tree’s leaves are compound containing 7-9 leaflets with serrated borders and are pointed a one end. The bark is deeply furrowed and not scaly. The tree’s fruit is pear-sharped comprising a very thick four-piece husk. The species is naturally distributed from the Saint Lawrence region to Florida along the great lakes to Nebraska and south to Texas.
Greek mythology tells the love story of Carya and the god Dionysus. Upon her death, Dionysus transformed her into a walnut tree. A temple was built by her father containing columns representing young women (Caryatides) also known as maidens of the walnut tree – this feature can still be found in Grecian architecture.
Finally, a precaution is advised in handling hickory leaves – they are a staple food for the Hickory Tussock Moth (Lophocampa caryae). In their larval form the caterpillars are covered with beautiful long black and white hairs (setae). If handled, however, these setae – attached to venom glands – will break off and remain embedded to exposed skin causing a reaction similar to stinging nettle.
Have you noticed the tall circular concrete planter near the children’s playground? One can easily overlook it, however, this summer the city has adorned it with a blanket of red Impatiens.
I sometimes wondered why the planter is so high until looking closely at the four small trees it contains – their branches are covered with 5 cm spikes! These are Midland Hawthorns (Crataegus laevigata) – commonly known as English Hawthorns (a member of the rose family). The name “hawthorn” is derived from Old English hagathorn – “hedge thorn” and describes their dark coloured fruit (haws) that appears late in the summer.
In northeast Ireland, these trees are associated with a wide array of folklore. Here they are called Fairy Thorns or by an older name, Gentry. The latter also refers to fairies that were known as The Gentry. Villagers would leave offerings of milk and honey and, in return, their “tiny music” was played in the evenings.
In Britain, they are regarded as the “unluckiest of trees”. In fact, Brehon (ancient Irish) laws made it unlawful to cut down a Hawthorn or damage its branches. The belief that bad luck follows damaging Hawthorns still exists. For example, a multi-million pound highway bypass, constructed in County Clair, was reconfigured to circumvent a Hawthorn in its original path.
Finally there is an interesting story that relates to construction of the DeLorean car factory near Belfast. There was a Hawthorn growing on the site and workers, despite direct orders, refused to cut it down. The tree was well known locally and villagers told stories of the “wee folk” that left their footprints near the area. One day however, the tree was gone, believed cut down by the foreign construction manager. From that day on, the factory was plagued with misfortune, some were convinced it was cursed. The factory closed in 1982 leaving thousands of workers without jobs.
Charming folklore or truth – perhaps somewhere in between?
It may be so, and it may be not, but if we tell our children we have heard it is so, perhaps we shall see fewer primroses and daises and buttercups scattered along roads, to be trampled by iron-shod feet…
The Irish Naturalists’ Journal (1929)
Images: Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident and a higher education IT professional. A mycologist and statistician by training. While not at work, he walks his dog and tries to impart the beauty and hidden history Westmount has to offer to residents and visitors alike through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.