Remarkable trees back of beyond

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Neil Carleton 2by Neil Carleton 

While hiking last year I happened to mention a chance meeting with an ancient oak tree. One of my companions remarked that “you’d have to go to the back of beyond to find one of those”. It was indeed growing at a far away location, in a European farm yard. To the people living in that rural neighbourhood it was a local tree.

In the past 50 columns I’ve been introducing readers to some of our local shady characters here in Mississippi Mills and vicinity. The first 9 columns were print features. Shady Characters made its appearance as a Millstone News posting in September 2011.

To celebrate 50 columns of local arboreal treasures, this month’s posting is about some notable trees I’ve met on my travels in other local neighbourhoods a ways over the horizon. Each was a remarkable find.

Victoria Trip 50The farthest west I’ve travelled is Vancouver Island. In March 2010, I had to pull over and get out of the car in Victoria when I chanced upon this spectacular lump of a tree. No new leaves had emerged yet, and last fall’s leaf litter had been thoroughly cleaned up, perhaps vacuumed. The striking, gnarly shape of the branches looked like a Garry oak to me. In the white oak group, it’s the only native oak tree west of Manitoba, and grows only on southeastern Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and as some isolated groups in the lower Fraser Valley. The mystery of this streetside wonder is the odd shape and size of its trunk. If my travels bring me back to Victoria, I’ll be making a closer inspection and consulting with city staff to confirm the tree’s identity and condition.

March 2010 Victoria Trip 21Garry oak, Quercus garrana, was named by botanist and explorer David Douglas for Nicholas Garry, deputy governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company from 1822-35, who helped him during his travels. They’re trees of significance in Victoria, and their images can be seen on utility boxes along some city streets.

March 2010 Victoria Trip 67Further up Vancouver Island, our explorations took us to Cathedral Growth in MacMillan Provincial Park, about 25 km west of Qualicum Beach. It’s a remnant of an old growth Douglas fir ecosystem. Pseudotsuga menziesii is an evergreen species that’s native to western North America. We strolled through a network of trails under the shadows of towering giants. Some of them, we learned, were about 800 years old and measured 75 m / 250 ft in height, and 9 m / 27 ft in circumference. It was a humbling experience to walk among such big and ancient living things.

March 2010 Victoria Trip 100We also walked the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island near Tofino, along the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s on the tip of the Esowista Peninsula, at the southern edge of Clayoquot Sound. The postcard photos we saw earlier didn’t prepare us for the actual size of The Hanging Garden Tree. It a Pacific redcedar, Thuja plicata, an evergreen in the cypress family. Well past its prime, this ancient cedar is estimated to be more than 2,000 years old. It’s a must-see-to-believe 18.3 m / 60 ft in circumference.

Our adventures eastward took us to Sweden in September 2013 for a celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary with friends on the island of Gotland in the Baltic. We also wore our diplomatic hats for special presentations in Stockholm on behalf of the R. Tait McKenzie Memorial Museum at the Mill of Kintail. http://www.canadainternational.gc.ca/sweden-suede/eyes_abroad-coupdoeil/Joy_of_Effort-joie_effort.aspx?lang=en

Sweden Trip 106While we were cycling for a few days with our friends on the neighbouring island of Fårö, we came upon a sign by a farm gate. The image of a large tree caught our attention, and we stopped to learn more. The ancient oak known as Avaeken stood nearby in the farmyard at Ava farm.

Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus stopped here in 1741 and wrote about this tree. “Ave peasant farm was 3/4 mil from the church to the east bank. He saw the cover and ordentelig out. Here fanned ourselves in the oppressive heat under a large oak tree that stood in the yard. The oak was one of the most significant thing, because its trunk was seven cubits around, its height 37 cubits, and its branches: stretching or diameter around the crown was 44 cubits. ”

Linnaeus laid the foundations for the modern biological naming scheme of binomial nomenclature (genus + species). He’s known as the father of modern taxonomy.

Sweden Trip 110

When Linneas and his group took shelter from the sun under Avaeken in 1741, he recorded that the crown diameter was 44 cubits, about 22 m / 72.2ft. Over the span of 272 years, it’s trunk circumference increased from 4.15 m / 13.6 ft to 6.25 m / 20.5 ft. In 1911 Avaeken was declared a Swedish national monument. It’s estimated to be 1000 years old.

On our way home we made a rendezvous with Almonte area friends in Copenhagen, Denmark. On the last afternoon of our brief stay, when their hosts learned of my arboreal interests, we were encouraged to see a unique tree in Frederiksberg Gardens.

Reaching the age of 3 years is a milestone in Denmark. No longer a baby, you’re just about to leave day nursery and start kindergarten. That means giving up your pacifier.

Sweden Trip 419Throughout the year in Frederiksberg Gardens small children come with their families to hang up their pacifiers in this special tree. Known far and wide as Pacifier Tree, this cultural icon is a European or common hornbeam, Carpinus betulus, with plenty of low branches. It was a sight to behold as we rounded a pathway curve and took it all in on our slow approach. Every available twig was hung with clusters of pacifiers, tied with ribbons, and accompanied by messages.

Sweden Trip 421The touching letters, written with the help of mommies, are personal messages to the tree and their pacifiers. One was “Dear Pacifier Tree. Please take good care of my pacifiers. Now I’m a big girl.” Another dictation was “Goodbye Pacifier. My best friend. I love you.”

Sweden Trip 422

European hornbeam is a shade-loving tree. As it stands up well to cutting back and has dense foliage, it has been popular for park and landscape gardening. This black crayon rubbing was made in my travel diary of a fallen leaf beneath the pacifier tree. The prominent veins give it a distinctive corrugated texture, and a serrated margin.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <ve3nce@gmail.ca>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010 to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Committee is Ron Ayling, 613-804-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with shady characters.

Photos: © Neil Carleton