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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tree tuesday: Lilacs in the air

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This week’s tree walk: Natives and Outcasts: The Trees on the Fringes of the McGill Campus

(see below for details)

Lilacs aren’t native but, in a strange way, they have become outcasts. Most of the lilac bushes we find in the city are reminders of an earlier aesthetic in landscaping. On the walk I’m giving his Sunday, for instance, we’ll look at an old white lilac, one that was part of the landscaping behind the 19th century greystones on University Avenue that are now part of McGill University. The lilac pictured here was planted in the 1960s when this neighbourhood near the Pine Avenue-St-Denis Street intersection was one of the poorest in the city and where precious little grew in front of the houses. It’s one of the oldest trees on the block.

Lilacs harken back to our agricultural past. Brought over from France and Britain as early as the mid-18th century, Syringa vulgaris, a native of Turkey was being planted near the homes of  better-off colonists. The naturally forming hedges of lilac served as windbreaks, food for honey bees and a source of flowers for home and church. Sometimes by the side of the highway or a country road, you’ll see a clump of lilac bushes. More often than not, it’s an indication of an abandoned farm. The buildings may be gone but often the trees — lilacs, apples, some sugar maples, an elm (dead or alive) remain.

Lilacs, like ash trees, belong to the olive family and like the Mediterranean olive, they have long lives: up to 350 years. The oldest known lilacs in North America may be those at the Governor Wentworth estate in Portsmouth, N.H., believed to have been planted around 1750. In Montreal, the oldest ones I know of are on the grounds of some of the Square Mile mansions which would put them at roughly 125 years. And there are, no doubt, older ones around the remaining farmhouses and church buildings on the island. As they age, lilac trunks begin to twist and get shaggy with thin strips of exfoliating bark. You’ll often find several old trunks growing around the stump of one that’s died. This Sunday afternoon, as it turns out, we will have the rare opportunity to see the old lilacs behind the stone walls of the Jardin des hospitalières that is part of Hôtel Dieu hospital.

If  you’re wondering what olive trees and lilacs have in common, it’s the flower. In fact, all botanical families are determined by the structure of the flower which is the plant’s sexual organ — or organs, when both the male and female parts of the flower are combined in one flower, as is the case with lilacs. Such flowers are known as perfect flowers. Next time you’re in a Mediterranean country when the olives are in flower, you will see that the flower of the olive tree is similar in structure to the tiny, four-petaled flowers of the lilac that form large panicles.

Many North American cities hold annual Lilac festivals. Hamilton, Ontario is lilac capital of the world. The city’s Royal Botanical Gardens boasts 800 species and cultivars and they are celebrated at this time of year. At our own botanical gardens, we have a respectable 220 species and cultivars and this is a great time of year to see them.

This Sunday, on the McGill campus, in addition to the common Syringa vulgaris, you’ll see escaped Siberian pea tree, barberry bush, honeysuckle — all species that have fallen out of fashion but are interesting nonetheless and important to insects. The lilac, I fear, may be a victim of our favouritism for the visual sense. After all, this flouncing, bosomy, grandmotherly bush is first and foremost an olfactory experience. From where I am working, I can smell the lilacs in the alley even though I can’t see any. Perhaps in the Great Transition, as we, literally, come to our senses — all five of them, plus rhythm — we’ll reconsider this old and persistent gal.

Natives and Outcasts: The Trees on the Fringes of the McGill Campus

where: On the steps of the Redpath Museum, McGill University

when: 10:00, Sunday May 24 ( lasts 3 heures)

degree of difficulty: we’ll walk gradually up the University Street slope

cost: $12 or $30 for three guided tree tours during 2009

info/reservations OR 514-284-7384

bring: pencil, water, hat (if sunny) and food, as desired.


One comment

  1. I particularly appreciate the honeysuckle “trees” since I used to think of it as only a vine, but the lilac has always been a favourite.

    While I was walking back from checking out the tulip tree by the Redpath, I noticed an unknown (to me) tree on McTavish, in front of the East Asian dept. It had lobed leaves and a few clusters of small multiple layered pink with white flecks flowers. Any idea what it might be? From the lobed leaves I thought maybe a mulberry, but the flowers have nothing in common with any mulberry I can find images of. Perhaps one from East Asia? Or something else entirely?

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