Westmount’s Trees and Their Stories / 2
The trees of Westmount Park
By Michael Walsh
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, 1914, Joyce Kilmer
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.
Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides)
Also known as the Fossil Tree. Thought to be extinct for over 5 million years, it was rediscovered, in the 1940s, in China.
Commonly known as Mountain Ash In Greek mythology Hebe (goddess of youth) served ambrosia to the gods from a magical chalice. One day; however, she lost 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 gingko is unique in that “there is no other living tree with a prehistory so intertwined with that of our planet.” In fact, these are trees that time forgot!
This is a tree that 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) that 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)
Legend 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!”
Scots (or Scotch) Pine (Pinus sylvestris) near the park’s wading pond
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.
Stand of Silver Firs (Abies alba)
Also known as Sapin pectiné or Weißtanne. 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 never grew in Norway. 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.
Sweet Crab Apple (Malus coronaria) tree blossoms
Bartholomeus Anglicus 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”.
Northern Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) tree in blossom
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.
Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) tree
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.
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.
Lime (Tilia) tree
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 Burlone
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.