Tree Tuesday: Remarkable trees, remarkable people

Biggest bur oak on the island. Côte St-Luc. (photo: Roger Latour)

Truly remarkable: bur oak (Quercus marcrocarpa, Chêne à gros fruits), (photo: Roger Latour)

Next tree tour: Remarkable trees of a Plateau neighbourhood, this Sunday, 10:30 – 1 pm, meet Parc Jean-Jacques Olier, Drolet, south of Duluth, Metro Sherbrooke, $12. 514-284-7384 or

Every since Thomas Pakenham begin writing his books on remarkable trees, there’s been a fashion to write on such trees, deemed remarkable usually by their size and/or age. I’ve never much liked the term, remarkable, mostly because I find all trees remarkable, from the Siberian elm that forces its way up through a crack in a sidewalk to those crazy self-seeded giant cottonwoods that dominate every second Montreal alley. I guess I’ve been bothered by the elitism in the term.

I have to admit, however, that I’m reconsidering this position. After meeting a couple of truly remarkable trees in Côte St-Luc last week, namely the titanesque oak above, and this bitternut hickory below, I’m beginning to think there is a value in noting, prominently, those trees that stand out. In other words, remarking on their exceptional qualities.

Bitternut hickory, 200+ years, notes the mulit-leaflet, compound leaf, similar to ash leaf but with narrower leaflets and no stem on terminal leaflet. Bark of mature tree is grey and looks and feels like stone. (photo:Charles L'Heureux

Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis, Caryer cordiforme), 200+ years. Bark of mature tree is grey and looks and feels like stone. (photo:Charles L'Heureux)

Of course, exceptional is a relative term. In the case of this oak and hickory, status is a function of their size, age and rareness. At more than 200 years of age, both trees are at least remnants of the agricultural era of Côte St-Luc,which lasted from late 18th century until 1950.

Bur oak leaf and fruit (acorn).

Bur oak leaf and fruit (acorn).

Detail of bitternut hickory leaf, nut and twig

Detail of bitternut hickory leaf, nut and twig

From what I can make out, Côteau St-Luc, as the land was known before 1903, was a mixture of wetland forest and savannah. White oaks, the rounded lobed oaks which include the bur, white and swamp white species, are savannah trees; they like to grow in open, sunny fields. In fact, they’re now cultivated in the old tobacco fields of Ontario, to provide wood for the wine casks needed for another crop that replaced tobacco: grapes. In Côte St-Luc, I found two younger bur oaks, mere 60-year-olds, but an acquaintance who grew up in the area tells me there’s another ancient one on the Meadowbrook golfcourse, found at the tail end of Côte St-Luc Road. (Try as I might, I didn’t get permission to explore that privately owned land.)

Perhaps because they were already impressive when the chainsaws and back-hoes came to clear the land in the 1940s, some of the developers, or individual home-builders, of that era may have decided to keep them, integrating them into the housing development. Alexander Jakerov, who built his house on the corner of Kildaire and Wolseley streets in 1949, the first in the area, told me that the bitternut hickory was already a good size when he arrived from Montreal. The other mature trees in front of his house include two silver maples and a bur oak, all of which he transplanted as young trees from the land behind his house.

Both the acorns and the hickory nuts — bitter as they are — are appreciated by the squirrels. Jakerov later planted a mountain ash to attract birds to the garden. On the day we spoke, he expressed concern that the robins that normally gorge themselves on the distinctive cluster of orange-red berries before flying south, hadn’t shown up this year. He was also preparing to graft branches from a young apple tree, bearing sweet apples, onto an older one that bears sour fruit. Neither of these apples trees nor the mountain ash could be called remarkable at this stage, but individuals, like Mr. Jakerov, through planting and caring for their trees,prepare the ground for future remarkable trees.

If fact, I would wager that where there’s a remarkable tree, there’s usually a remarkable person or – given the age of such trees – series of people. Another remarkable tree in Côte St-Luc is the biggest silver maple I have ever seen. It was huge when Bella Hoffman first looked at it in 1954 when she and her husband were looking for a house and the tree itself is what sold them on their home. Growing for at least the past 150 years, the sprawling tree offers its cascading branches not only to the Hoffmans but to the neighbouring houses. This is a please to some neighbours, a worry to others who are concerned about the potential danger and damage such huges branches pose.

This means that the Hoffmans have a big responsibility in keeping the tree monitored by a forestry engineer and having it pruned from time to time to assure that its structure is sound. Silver maples, which line many west end streets that were developed in the 1950s, tend to hollow out with age and lose branches in high winds or heavy ice and snow. Typically, they live to 130 years, as compared to harder maples, like the sugar maple, which lives 200 years and more. Most likely, the Hoffman silver maple grew along the banks of the Petite rivière St-Pierre, long underground but still visible in the Meadowbrook golfcourse. By nature, silver maples, like red ash and red (also known as slippery) elm, are a floodplain species, preferring moist bottomlands and lots of sun.

Maintaining big old trees can be costly and, while many Montreal island municipalities now have policies or bylaws that emphasize the collective value of trees and don’t allow homeowners to cut down their own trees without city permission, few offer help to citizens with remarkably large trees on their land. So, the cost of maintaining a tree for the good of the collective is assumed by the individual. This is something that city councillor Dida Berku, who wrote Côte St-Luc’s tree bylaw, and horticultural superviser Violette Sauriol are looking at. In the case of this three-metre-round silver maple, Sauriol offered the Hoffman’s the services of the forestry engineer she hires, on occasion, to evaluate the health and stability of the city trees.

Both Berku and Sauriol, who encourages citizens to opt for long-lasting, salt- and pollution-tolerant trees for their front lawns, such as the ginkgo and honey locust, are concerned with the forest canopy of their city over the longterm. Aside from certain citizens wanting to reduce the number of  backyard trees, there is the overall weakening of the city trees due to the radical pruning by Hydro Quebec. Have a look at this valiant Norway maple, the predominant city tree in CSL, after recovering from the Hydro cut:

Norway maple hydro cut sm

Remarkable Norway maples. A few years after the Hydro cut, the trees have encircled the wires. In the distance, you can see one that's grown in a perfect circle.

Planting smaller trees, such as crabapples, elders and serviceberries is one way of avoiding the Hydro cut disfiguration, notes Sauriol. The other is planting big trees, like the honey locust, whose lateral way of growing soon fills in around the wires. Even though the Norway maple gets a lot of bad press these days (because of its ability to get established in sugar maple groves and gradually replace our top native maple), I do find these ones remarkable for soldiering on and creating for themselves a new urban look!

For more or remarkable trees see Charles L’Heureux’s remarkable blog, Les arbres remarquables de Montréal

For the evolving schedule of Fall tree walks, please see: Les promenades dans la Forêt Montréal.


  1. I’m glad someone is taking on the ghastly Hydro-Québec pruning massacres.

    Often the villains are NOT Hydro’s own crews, but subcontractors who follow certain “guidelines” by the book without logic, distances of so many metres from the lines when no such distances exist in densely-populated neighbourhoods. They almost destroyed the beautiful Norway Maple in front of my window and balcony – I live in a housing co-op and the tree was the reason I chose this particular flat. We pruned back the taller side to rebalance the tree, but its neighbour, whose roots are not on the co-op property, is utterly askew, as are trees all along many streets in Petite Italie south of the Jean-Talon market.

    It should be criminal to massacre trees thusly.

    And interesting to see there is something worth looking at in “sentenced me to twenty years of boredom” Côte-St-Luc.

  2. Maria,

    Before exploring in CSL, I had never noticed the HQ massacres, as you put it. Now I’m seeing the HQ effect all over the place. Violette Sauriol, the horticulture supervisor in CSL told me that all tree branches have to be three metres from the wires to avoid all risk of electrocution by someone touching a tree that’s in contact with the wire. Yet, I often see trees whose branches are either close to, or touching, Hydro wires. Does that make them dangerous?

    Something for me to probe further with whoever at HQ came up with these directives. I’ll keep you posted.

    p.s. What’s interesting in young cities like CSL — and, I imagine, parts of Ville St-Laurent and TMR — is that there are still citizens around that remember the beginning years of housing development and the remnants of topography and vegetation.

  3. Merci Bronwyn .

    Il semble bien que la Vie protégera et inventera de la Beauté… Nous ne pouvons détruire notre propre lumière !!!

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