In My Opinion: Residents can celebrate the great red oak in Kew Gardens at May 25 Heritage Toronto Plaque unveiling

Photo: Submitted An unveiling ceremony for a plaque recognizing the history of this red oak tree in Kew Gardens park in the Beach is set for Thursday, May 25 at 2 p.m. Photo: Submitted.

By BIRGIT SIBER

How many of you are acquainted with the great red oak in Kew Gardens?

The one with the long limb that reaches down to meet us at ground level? The huge oak that snaps us out of our thoughts and invites us to pause in awe for a moment under the shade of its branches.

If you are under the age of 20 and visited this park, you may fondly remember clamoring onto its immense limb when you were a youngster.

This very tree has been recognized as a Heritage Tree by Forests Ontario in 2021. And on Thursday, May 25, at 2 p.m. there will be the unveiling of a Heritage Toronto Plaque that commemorates this red oak and its local significance.

We hope that this will capture the imagination and spark curiosity. There is so much that this remarkable tree invites us to consider and explore.

Standing more than 118 feet tall, it is about the height of a 11-storey building. Today this tree, measured at breast height, has a diameter of 169.5 centimetres (five-feet, six-inches) and a 532cm (17-feet, five-inches) circumference. It would take four adults holding hands to encircle this oak.

The age of this immense oak is guesswork at best. Tree experts suspects it took root some 220 years ago. It could be older. Irrespective of precise age, this oak is a link to our history, geography, ecological and cultural roots.

This magnificent red oak was here before colonization. It bordered wetlands, creeks and rivulets that once flowed freely through what is now Kew Gardens, although, these waterways have since been diverted into culverts below the park.

This was once a red oak woodland similar to the woodland enclosures on the west side of the park.

It is fun to speculate on the vegetation and the animals that roamed through here. Perhaps porcupine, moose, wolf, bear as well as many others.

Indigenous peoples lived on these lands and thrived. The vegetation may have included some of the native woodland plants featured in the recently planted garden under the oak’s immense limb. The garden was an initiative led by Urban Forestry and planted with the support of the Parks department.

In 1805, Treaty 13 was signed by the British Crown and the Mississaugas at the head of Lake Ontario. Colonization parceled off land and in the 1850s what is now Kew Gardens, was part of a farm owned by Joseph Williams.

Williams transformed this 8.4 hectare property into a tourist destination and in 1907 the land was purchased by the City of Toronto. It has been a municipal park ever since. And what a great park!

A good friend who is a forester enthusiastically shared that Kew Gardens has one of the greatest oak stands in the City of Toronto. In his words “It is a gem”.

This particular oak is an ecological elder in what remains of a red oak woodland that extends through Kew Gardens and the surrounding Beach community. Several large oaks that predate the roads and houses can still be spotted throughout this area.

In 2021, ecologist Douglas W. Tallamy published The Nature of Oaks, The Rich Ecology of our Most Essential Native Trees. He identifies oak as a keystone species stating that “oaks support more forms of life and more fascinating interactions than any other tree genus in North America.”

Oaks provide habitat and nourishment for well over 200 species, large and small. Painstaking research has revealed that the roots extend over three times the breadth of the canopy, intertwined with neighbouring trees and fungal networks. It is mind-blowing to imagine the complex life that flourishes, unseen, below our feet.

I feel fortunate to live close to this oak and appreciate it daily for more than 30 years. A neighbour who grew up here has a name for the great oak and its sister oak a few feet to the north. So do I! And so might you?

Many of you may have noticed the long limb dropping a foot lower with each passing year, becoming increasingly irresistible for selfies and heaps of attention and love. The time felt right to recalibrate our relationship with this remarkable tree.

I reached out to Urban Forestry who provided very helpful guidance. Then, two years ago, I submitted applications for both Forest Ontario Heritage Tree Recognition (a partnership between Forests Ontario and the Ontario Urban Forest Council) and a Heritage Toronto Commemorative Plaque.

Everyone involved was so supportive and guided these applications through. All to say, this has been a collaboration.

You can now look up this very oak on the Forest Ontario website and Tree Map at https://forestsontario.ca/en/program/heritage-tree

It was a surprise when in 2022, the red oak was designated the official tree of Toronto! A happy coincidence.

I hope you will join us to celebrate this remarkable red oak and the unveiling of the Commemorative Plaque on May 25.


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1 comments

Thanks very much for your efforts and for this article.
Those two have been my favourites since I moved to this neighbourhood over twenty years ago.

Cheers.

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