Trees and The City
The Christmas tree was introduced to Britain in the 18th century by the wife of King George III, the duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg – an ardent botanist, and descendant of the Germanic pagan tribes who worshipped trees. Sophia might be surprised at the extent to which her ritual has caught on: as many as 80 million trees are now sacrificed every Christmas, worldwide.
To old Germanic pagans, this would probably seem an odd way of celebrating a birth. So, in their spirit, let’s briefly devote our attention to the living trees around Victoria instead – some of which, according to the British Columbia government’s big tree registry, are among the greatest in the province.
Victoria’s best-loved native tree is the Garry oak, first identified by the botanist David Douglas, who named it after a Hudson’s Bay Company governor, Nicholas Garry, who’d put him up at Fort Garry (today’s Winnipeg). The largest Garry oak by volume in B.C. is at Quamichan Lake near Duncan, but the biggest by circumference (5.46 metres around) is at 520 Falkland Road in Oak Bay. Neighbours have dedicated poems to this massive tree (pictured right), nicknamed “Ed Wood”.
Neighbours are also devoted to a stand of record Garry oaks at the junction of Mills and West Saanich Roads in North Saanich. These are the “Genevieve Sangster oaks,” named after the wife of a dairy farmer who promised her that they’d never be cut down. BC Hydro removed one in May 2006 because it was decayed and threatening power lines, drawing howls of outrage from residents at council meetings. But the rest of the trees have been saved, including one that towers 32.6 metres, making it the tallest Garry oak in the province.
It’s well known that First Nations cultivated the meadows around Garry oaks for edible plants; what’s less known is that if nothing else was available, they ate the oak’s acorns as well, mashing them into a paste and boiling it in water. Their reverence, however, was reserved for the arbutus. According to legend, the W’SANEC people of the Saanich peninsula survived a great flood by tying their canoes to an arbutus atop today’s Mount Newton, and thereafter refused to cut or burn such trees as a sign of respect.
Unfortunately blight has affected some local arbutus – cutting notices have been posted on parts of the wonderful grove that forms a canopy over Torquay Road in Gordon Head – but many record trees remain. One massive arbutus (7.8m around) stands at CFB Esquimalt’s dockyard next to building 56. The big tree registry notes others that flourish at Witty’s Lagoon, just north of the park’s main entrance, and at 205 Seafield Road in Colwood, the latter of them reportedly immortalized in paintings (above left) by Emily Carr, a bit of a tree-worshipper herself.
The largest native trees, cedars and Douglas fir, were so beloved by loggers that any potential record-setters in this area were removed long ago. (Although one Doug fir in the registry endures on the west side of Beaver Lake, with another tree leaning against it.) Instead, the biggest trees in town are giant sequoias, native to California, some of which grew from seeds advertised in the Daily Colonist as early as 1860, or were raised in local nurseries.
A 48-metre-tall sequoia at the corner of Moss and Richardson streets, planted as a seedling in 1854 as a gift from the state of California, is generally considered to be Victoria’s biggest tree – and has its own fans, including the IWA-Canada forestry workers’ union, who donated $2,000 in 1991 to pay for the tree’s pruning. But it may not be the tallest in the city after all. Al Carder, who’s spent nearly all his 97 years documenting big trees, including many in the provincial registry, says that the sequoia in Irving Park (above right) on James Bay’s Menzies Street, is taller yet. “It looks about 52 metres,” says Carder, who notes that the Moss sequoia has been topped, unlike the one on Menzies. “It’s still going up.”
Of course, size isn’t everything. As the superb 1988 guidebook Trees of Greater Victoria: A Heritage points out, a greater assortment of tree species thrive here than anywhere else in Canada. Some are curious, such as the weeping sequoia, a cultivated variety that bends into odd shapes. (A famous pair droops in front of the Empress Hotel. Another, pictured left, forms an arched entrance to the small park just west of the Parliament Buildings.) Some are rare, such as the ginkgo behind the McPherson Playhouse, a species that is effectively extinct in the wild. Some are historic, like the last surviving apple tree from Michael Finnerty’s orchard, which is today’s UVic quadrangle. (The apple, pictured below right, is hidden amid the double row of tall trees near the Cornett building.) And some are commemorative, such as the now-huge London plane trees that line parts of Shelbourne Street, planted as a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I.
This urban bounty has been coming under increasing attack from landowners. (Perhaps the most notorious is hockey player Len Barrie, who cut down 28 big trees on the Royal Colwood golf course in 1999, claiming they threatened his property; Barrie was kicked out of the club, so now he’s cutting trees to develop his own golf resort at Bear Mountain.) But local tree lovers have been fighting back, and winning the law to their side. In 1997, Saanich became one of the first municipalities in Canada to enact a bylaw protecting heritage trees on public and private land, and since then many parts of the capital region (with the notable exceptions of Colwood and Langford) have followed suit.
Sadly, the laws came too late for some trees. A few significant individuals mentioned in the Heritage book and the provincial registry no longer exist – including a 14.9-metre-tall Scouler’s willow, once the largest native willow in B.C., which seems to have vanished from 10471 Resthaven Drive in Sidney. Clearly, when a heritage tree falls in a city or a forest, simply being there to hear it is not good enough. You have to get political about it as well.
PS A relevant story in today's Times Colonist: the District of Saanich reached a $20,000 out-of-court settlement with a guy who hired men with chainsaws to cut down five Douglas fir, three arbutus and a willow tree in a public park in order to improve the view from his condo.
PPS Sometimes our Island’s trees have set records even after they’ve been cut. In 1958, as a gift from British Columbia in celebration of the province’s 100th birthday, loggers felled a 37-tonne Douglas fir from Copper Canyon near Chemainus, strapped it to the side of a freighter, and shipped it to London (photo left), where it was hewed into the world's largest flagpole, and erected at Kew Gardens. Alas, this past August the 68-metre pole was removed, a victim of decay and woodpeckers. Perhaps all records, like trees, eventually fall – making it all the more important for us to appreciate them while they still stand.
For info on Victoria's flowering street trees, see the archived post here.
UPDATE (February 28, 2010): The Finnerty apple tree at UVic is gone. According to this letter in today’s TC, the old tree fell in a windstorm last November. Arborists grafted its budwood to a new tree nearby, but that one was killed too – by the notorious campus rabbits.