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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tree Tuesday: Hawthorns and other cemetery favourites

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'Paul's Scarlet' English hawthorn in front of Jewish Studies building on McTavish
'Paul's Scarlet' English hawthorn in front of 3438 McTavish Street, McGill University

Sunday tree walk: Trees of Mount Royal Cemetery, no charge, 1 p.m. – 4 p.m., to reserve: 514-279-7358 or

The Mount Royal Cemetery is a treasure trove of trees. From its beginnings in 1852 as Canada’s first ‘rural’ cemetery – along the lines of Europe’s first ‘rural’ cemetery, Père Lachaise (1804) and Mount Auburn Cemetery (1831) in Cambridge, Mass.) — the trees have been integrated into the burial areas. This is what gives the cemetery the feeling of being a park, and, in many parts, are fairly natural one, at that.

Most cemeteries opt to keep trees away from tombstones for the simple reason that the long-rooted ones complicate the task of digging. But, as Myriam Cloutier told me this week: “That’s the price we are willing to pay to have this magnificent setting.”

Cloutier is communications coordinator for the cemetery and one of the people who organizes public programming. She leads a historical walk every year. This year, the theme is catastrophic events. Having worked at the Mount Royal Cemetery since 1995, Cloutier knows the locations of many of the prominent, both the buried dead and the living trees. She steered me to the areas with the greatest concentration of interesting trees as I was plotted my course for the two tree walks I am giving (this Sunday, in English, next Sunday, in French).

Entrance from Chemin de la forêt, the continuation of Mount Royal Blvd.

I was anxious to see the hawthorns. Aside from the horsechestnuts (see below) and lilacs, they’re the only trees in bright bloom. The hawthorn flowers you see in this photo, like the ones I will show at the cemetery, are no simple five-petaled flowers as they are in their wild state. This is a double, or triple, layered flower, that looks like a miniature peony. Known as ‘Paul’s Scarlet’, this cultivar of the English hawthorn produces a velvety button of a flower.


Not many thorns on this cultivar unlike the wild species that you find growing in abandoned farmers’ fields or on the forest edge. My first experience of hawthorn was a number of years ago at the Botanical Gardens. I was walking with my family through an area of the arboretum was perplexed by the danger tape wrapped around some of the trees. Had they been sprayed with something toxic? I wondered. Approaching one of them, I soon had my answer: inch-long thorns covered the branches and trunk of this pretty little tree.

Because of its nature as ferocious protector (both of itself, its resident birds and small mammal, and of more fragile forest plants), the hawthorn has a long association with cemeteries. Pre-Christians believed, for instance, that the hawthorn lifted spirits, banished melancholy, and provided a meeting place for spirits and fairies. Later, the Christian church dedicated this sacred tree to the Virgin Mary and claimed that its thorns were the thorns in Christ’s crown. These same thorns were said to have pierced a bird’s breast staining it red and, lo, the robin – a common bird in the Mount Royal Cemetery – was born!

For more on the hawthorn, ginkgo, dawn redwood, tulip tree, and one enormous elm, come to this Sunday’s (in English) or next Sunday’s (in French) walk.

For details, call 514-279-7358 or see



  1. I’ve spotted two of these English hawthorns in the last couple of days on my bike ride into work. One a few streets from mine in Verdun; the other along the Lachine canal near Pont Charlevoix. Both are actually flowering more vigorously than the one on McTavish, last time I saw it.
    Another nice tree flowering (more modestly) right now is the Magnolia sieboldii near the big ginkgo-ess on Dr. Penfield. Has the tulip tree blossomed yet? It wasn’t on Tuesday when I went by.
    Astonishingly, on another street near my place in Verdun, someone has planted two empress trees. They resemble the pair you directed me to on University, though not quite as tall.
    Sadly, the Bell Centre saw fit to uproot the Chinese catalpa I noticed there last year, so I never got a chance to see it flower.

  2. Kevin,

    Today I saw the first bloosoms on tulip tree in the Redpath Dell. Thankfully, because the tree is lower than the walking path, one has the opportunity to see the flowers up close. The trouble with these tall trees with loverly flower is that there oftn hard to see. Another flower to look up to right now is that of the black locust. Their long panicles of pea flowers just opened this week and they’re smelling like jasmin. There are three or four of them around the parking lot, corner St-Urbain and Prince Arthur.



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