– Sergeant Joyce Kilmer (1886-1918)
While many of us may be familiar with the designation of built heritage properties under the Ontario Heritage Act, recently municipalities have been using the Ontario Heritage Act to designate individual trees as heritage trees. Municipalities like Burlington, Pelham, Thorold, Cambridge, and most recently Brant, have designated individual trees under the Ontario Heritage Act.
First enacted in 1975, the Ontario Heritage Act enables municipalities to pass by-laws designating individual properties as having cultural heritage value through Part IV of the Act. This designation provides some protection for the property from demolition, as well as regulates potential alterations to the property to maintain its heritage value. Larger areas can be designated under Part V of the Act as Heritage Conservation Districts.
In recent years the definition of cultural heritage resources covered under the Ontario Heritage Act has been expanded to include not only the commonly understood Built Heritage Resources, defined as “one or more significant buildings (including fixtures or equipment located in or forming part of a building), structures, earthworks, monuments, installations, or remains that have cultural heritage value,” but also Cultural Heritage Landscapes. Cultural Heritage Landscapes are defined as a “geographical area that human activity has modified and that has cultural heritage value.” These areas can include “one or more groupings of individual heritage features, such as structures, spaces, archaeological sites, and natural elements, which together form a significant type of heritage form distinct from that of its constituent elements or parts…villages, parks, gardens, battlefields, mainstreets and neighbourhoods, cemeteries, trails, and industrial complexes of cultural heritage value.” The addition of Cultural Heritage Landscapes as well as other amendments to the Ontario Heritage Act made in 2005, have included natural landscape features, such as trees, as integral parts of cultural heritage landscapes and built heritage properties that should be protected.
With these changes in the understanding of cultural heritage, municipalities began designating individual trees under the Ontario Heritage Act. In 2008 the City of Cambridge passed a by-law to designate a 130 year-old White Oak tree under the Ontario Heritage Act. This tree survived a disastrous flood of the Grand River in 1974. Several one-hundred year old workers’ cottages in the vicinity of the tree had to be demolished after the ’74 flood, with the construction of a levee system along the banks of the Grand River and the raising of the grade of the land by five feet. At that time John Kingswood, forester for the City of Cambridge, decided to save the then 100 year old White Oak Tree on the grounds. He constructed a well around the tree and a system of drainage pipes to feed the tree’s root system. Today the heritage designated White Oak tree is a center-piece of the Cambridge Sculpture Garden on the banks of the Grand River in downtown Cambridge. At the time of its designation, Cambridge’s White Oak was only one of ten heritage designated trees in Ontario.
The most recent heritage designated tree in Ontario is a massive Black Walnut tree located in Brant County. Estimated at more than 150 years old, the tree may have originally been planted as a cultivated nut-bearing tree on a country estate.
While there are few examples of preserved built heritage in Ontario dating back over 200 years, there are at least two heritage designated trees that have been standing for over 250 years. Oakville has designated a 250-year old White Oak that was narrowly saved from being cut down for a road expansion project in 2006. Nearby Burlington designated a 300 year-old White Oak, that for hundred of years appeared on surveyors’ maps as a significant landmark distinguishing borders like Brant’s Block, and the border between Burlington and Aldershot.
The designation of these trees and others in Ontario speaks to a growing realization that cultural heritage isn’t just about old buildings and quaint downtowns, but the preservation of diverse elements of our landscape, including natural heritage and trees, that capture our human history and the history of our environment.