Active History on the Grand: Heritage Trees in Ontario

Heritage White Oak Tree in Cambridge

I think that I shall never see, A poem as lovely as a tree.

– 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.




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2 thoughts on “Active History on the Grand: Heritage Trees in Ontario

  1. Stephen Harding

    I drive past the Oakville oak at least twice a week. My children know about its history as a landmark.

    My company is the business of heritage recognition. We regularly work with municipalities to help them to build signs and plaques to acknowledge our buildings and natural heritage.
    Please see our web site for more details.

  2. J.F. Geniole

    In years gone by I have had the unique opportunity to care for some of the most signifigant heritage Trees in Ontario, as well British Columbia. When I finally stumbled upon this Webplace, I was thrilled to have done so on a friday. Let me explain that, you see when you are caring for a Tree, you have the unique Tool of Time. Where your patient(Tree) has been in waiting position for what could seem like eternity, to a human being. To the Tree, we are just a visitor who could be or could not be a peaceful minded visitor. I was always respectful when visiting a Tree to simply “do my job”, always I felt like I was among a very limited edition. Peacefully I began the process of communication. Everyone can relate to this kind of interuption, “hey where is the left swinging handled winch?”, as my assistant bellowed from the truck, slamming a door afterwards I would hear the Chainsaw start up and possibly wake up the entire forest. Ah, what a beautiful morning, the grass wet with dew, a squirrel runs up and says a little blurb in squirrel talk and then grabs something real quick as it bolts towards the heavens. Distraction101, wildlife. The saws are always in good working order, never really worried about a chainsaw, we were trained to climb trees with a very sharp handsaw, wood cut the bone of a whale for sure. If a saw started to act like a resurrected finishing nail, as if recycling nails is necessary, then we wood simply just throw the dog a bone. Was fine with me, I was raised not to throw things, except frisbees and stuff. But imagine this, your working 50 feet above ground and tied to a rope, your foot wedged into whatever crotch will work, sweat beads all over your face, struggling to keep balanced and you have 30′ of wood tied off someplace else up in the Tree, your planning to cut this 30′ of wood out and hope it doesn’t take out the swimming pool slide underneath you. “ok, all set for c” the groundman affirms, all that is required is to start the saw up and make a precise undercut and then a little further out a precise overcut, unless you were going to hinge-cut the woody part and in that case the sweat could really pile up, depending on whether or not it actually tears off as we hope for in such cases. So you position yourself firmly, grab the strap that has the trusty chainsaw strapped onto, you switch the saw into run position and pull the flywheel cord and it don’t start, you try again and again and again and again and again. Now…you are right tuckered out from the pulling and pulling, the sweat is getting in your eyes…throw the saw in the pool…throw it! you hear yourself screaming inside, the guys all on the ground watching and waiting!?forget it, my arm hurts.

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