and their stories / 2
The majestic beauty of the trees in Westmount Park
By Michael Walsh
Previously published May 25, 2016
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree…
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.
Trees, by Joyce Kilmer – 1913
Have you noticed the number of people, walking through Westmount Park, totally unaware of the beauty of their surroundings? If this were the 1960s, the explanation would be that they were “Turned on, tuned in, and dropped out”. Even to this day most people, plugged into their social-media devices, pay as much attention to a park’s trees as they would to strangers passing them on the street.
In comparison, we enjoy taking unplugged walks, with our dog, through Westmount Park – allowing us to fully connect with the arboretum it comprises. Every tree has a story to tell – it’s an important message that has been passed on to us though time immemorial. These ancient legends collectively weave themselves into a fascinating fabric that manifests itself into what we perceive as a tree.
Our Victorian-era Westmount park has made us temporary custodians of trees that have been passed on to us from prior generations – it is a sobering thought that they will still be standing long past our lifetimes. This is an inheritance that comes with the responsibility to protect these assets, and their surrounding area, for future generations.
What follows is a sampling of some the fascinating trees that we have met during our many walks through Westmount Park and some of the stories they have to tell.
We are the heirs and temporary guardians of the trees that have been passed down to us by previous generations.
Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
The dawn redwood is one of the few deciduous conifers. These trees have conifer needles rather than leaves, but instead of keeping them all year round, the needles take on colour. like broadleaf trees. The dawn redwood is often confused with the common bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). The needles of the dawn redwood are directly opposite each other, whereas the bald cypress needles are staggered.
The dawn redwood is considered a “living fossil”. It dates back to prehistoric times and was once thought to be extinct. However, it was discovered in China in 1941, and the seeds were brought to North America, where they are now growing again.
Rowan tree (Mountain Ash)
In Greek mythology, Hebe, the goddess of youth, served ambrosia to the gods from a magical chalice. One day, however, she lost it to the demons. An eagle was sent by the gods to recover it. The ensuing fight between the eagle and demons caused the eagle’s feathers and blood to fall to the earth where they turning into rowan trees. The leaves bear the shape of the eagle’s feathers and the berries formed from the droplets of blood.
Westmount Park’s living fossil tree. The botanist Peter Crane writes that the ginkgo is unique in that “there is no other living tree with a history so intertwined with that of our planet.” In fact, these are trees that time forgot!
This tree has remained unchanged for hundreds of millions of years, predating the dinosaurs, and has a direct reproductive link to the Cycads – an ancient group of plants that existed before flowering plants – and has thrived in the Permian Period that lasted 299 to 251 million years ago.
White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
One of the most beautiful trees in Westmount Park. Its beauty is reflected by its other name, Lady of the Woods. The name birch probably came from the Sanskrit “bhurg” which translates to “a tree whose bark is used to write on”. In fact, the tree’s bark was a freely available source of writing material for many centuries.
The discovery of the 12th century Bakhshali Manuscripts, unearthed in 1881, near the village of Bakhshali (currently Pakistan) were written on birch bark. Their text is a unique example of medieval Indian mathematics that illustrated, amongst other things, the use of zero and the negative sign.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
The red oak is a fast-growing tree that has a longevity of about 200 years, or even 500 years under optimal conditions. The trunk is smooth and silver-grey up to 20-30 years and then cracks. The branches are reddish brown. In autumn the leaves turn red, and remain on the tree for much of the winter. It flowers in spring. The fruits are acorns that ripen on the tree for two years before reaching maturity. In summer or early autumn, small closed flowers can be seen on the new shoots of the year and better developed fruits on the stem of the previous year.
According to legend, 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!”
Scots (or Scotch) Pine (Pinus sylvestris)
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.
Silver Fir (Abies alba)
Also known as Sapin pectiné or Weißtanne, these trees are full and dense with strong evergreen fragrance, and are known to be some of the longest-lasting after being cut. In the forest, the evergreen tends to form stands with other firs and beeches.
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.
Red Pine (Pinus resinosa)
Also known as Norway pine, although it has never grown in Norway, red pine is frequently used in forest plantations in eastern Canada. Red pine, black pine and Scots pine are likely descended from a common ancestor that had a circumpolar boreal distribution during the Tertiary Era.
Native American reverence for pine trees is reflected in the poignant Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) legend that tells of seven dancing brothers who once rose from the earth to become stars. One of the brothers turned around and, looking back, saw his mother crying – in doing so, he fell back to earth. At the spot where he entered the ground, a towering pine tree grew, pointing to the location of the other brothers in the sky.
Sweet Crab Apple (Malus coronaria)
The sweet crab apple tree is a tree native to the east coast of North America. It can be recognized by the very flat shape and waxy appearance of its fruit. It is also characterized by the silvery colour of its wood. The apples it produces have no taste but are edible.
A bushy shrub with rigid and twisted branches, it frequently becomes a small tree that can reach 10 metres in height, with a wide open crown. It flowers about two weeks later than the house apple, and its fragrant fruit clings to the branches on clustered stems long after the leaves have fallen.
In his botanical manuscript, Bartholomeus Anglicus (1240) mentions the “’Malus 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”.
Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)
The Northern Catalpa, also known as hardy catalpa, western catalpa, cigar tree, catawba-tree or Chavanon Wood, is a species of Catalpa native to the midwestern United States.
A beautiful tree with a conical, slender and irregular habit that becomes broad with age, its light green leaves are very large and heart-shaped. It is one of the last trees to make its leaves in spring. Its flowers, white with yellow and red dots, are grouped in panicles in June-July. Its long pod-shaped fruits persist through the winter.
The word “Catalpa” (a misspelling of “Catawba”) originates from the ancestral lands of the Catawba Indians along the Catawba River in North Carolina. The trees are native to western Georgia, western Florida, Alabama and eastern Mississippi.
Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) tree
The horse chestnut or white chestnut tree is often confused with the common chestnut tree which produces the real edible chestnut. Although named “chestnuts”, horse chestnuts 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 origins of this tree were first sought in India, particularly in the mountainous regions in the north of the country, but in vain. It was an English traveller and geologist, John Hawkins, who discovered the origin of this species in the 1790s: the mountainous regions of Greek Macedonia.
Midland Hawthorns (Crataegus laevigata)
The name “hawthorn “is derived from Old English hagathorn – “hedge thorn” and describes their dark coloured fruit (“haws”) that appears late in the summer. Rich in polyphenolic compounds (flavonoids, caffeic and chlorogenic acids) and triterpenic compounds, the fruits are not toxic, but their floury and bland flesh does not encourage consumption anyway.
Lime tree (Tilia)
Commonly known, in North America, as Basswood. Greek mythology tells the story of Zeus and Hermes visiting the land of the mortals and finding that the only house that would offer them shelter belonged to Philemon and Baucis. To reward them for their hospitality the gods granted their wish: to be together after death. When the time came Zeus, true to his word, turned Philemon into an Oak and Baucis into a Lime tree to stay together for eternity.
Images: Michael Walsh
Feature image: Andrew BurloneRead also: other articles by Michael Walsh
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He enjoys walking with the family’s Saint Bernard while photographing the beauty and hidden history of Westmount through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.