Heritage Trees

By Andrea McDowell, originally published August 17, 2010

When I first heard that Heritage Toronto was looking for a blogger to cover natural heritage, I understood it right away. Of course, now that I’m sitting down to try to define it, it’s not so simple. Natural Heritage is an idea more easily understood than described: natural or non-human features of the landscape or environment with special ecological or cultural significance, whether due to their history, their current ecological role, their rarity, their beauty, or some combination of the above or other factors.

It could be a species, a single plant, a plant or animal community, a landscape, an ecosystem, a geological formation, a type of landscape or ecosystem wherever found–but whatever it is, it’s important enough to be protected for the use, study and enjoyment of future generations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated 176 sites globally as natural World Heritage Sites, including nine in Canada, based on the following four criteria:

  • to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  • to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  • to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;
  • to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

We define things a little differently in Canada. In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) defines and enforces through the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS, a guidance document for municipal Official Plans) a definition of natural heritage based largely on ecological function, (1) while the Ministry of Culture via the Ontario Heritage Act allows for the infrequent designation of particular sites or specimens as protected Natural Heritage features, (2) and the Ontario Heritage Trust’s Natural Land Acquisition and Stewardship Program purchases significant sites for conservation. Through theOntario Planning Act and related legislation and regulations, municipalities may create their own Policies, boards or other bodies regarding Natural Heritage including the designation and protection of particular features, sites or specimens–though many don’t. And all of these documents, laws, regulations, guidelines, policies, plans, procedures, boards, commissions, organizations, ministries and municipalities work together, not quite seamlessly, to define, designate, and protect our Natural Heritage.

So this is, more or less, what I will be writing about here for Heritage Toronto: Toronto’s unique specimens, landscapes, ecosystems, species, formations deserving protection, regardless of whether they`ve got it; where those features fit within our various designation and protection frameworks, and what’s needed to ensure that heritage lasts far, far into the future; and a fair dollop of background scientific, legislative and broader ecological information, to put all of this into some context. I hope you enjoy it, and please ask questions and leave comments!

Ministry of Natural Resources, Natural Heritage Reference Manual for Natural Heritage Policies of the Provincial Policy Statement, 2005, found athttp://www.mnr.gov.on.ca/stdprodconsume/groups/lr/@mnr/@lueps/documents/… and accessed July 2010. See S. 3.1 for an example.


Two hundred and fifty years ago, a red oak acorn took root in what is now the Kipling Heights area of Toronto, but was then part of an ancient Oak Savannah. It grew alongside the historic Carrying Place Trail, and withstood the onslaught of urban and suburban development to still stand today in a private yard. At 24 metres high and 495 cm in circumference, it is one of the largest red oaks still standing in Ontario, if not the country. (1) And thanks to Trees Ontario and the Ontario Heritage Tree Program, it has received Heritage Tree designation and its seeds will be propogated and the tree itself cared for properly by arborists, to preserve this important part of our natural heritage.

What is it that makes this tree a heritage tree? Is it its size, health, species, historical provenance, or beauty? All of the above and something more, says Madeleine McDowell, a Toronto tree activist who has been working with the City of Toronto for eight years to develop a Heritage Tree policy. (2) “There is a communion of these trees with the spirits of the past,” she says. “They are living, breathing witnesses of our heritage.”

Heritage trees, as with so many other aspects of natural heritage, are variably defined depending on who you ask. The provincial Ministry of Culture has designated five trees (3) in the province as heritage trees under the Ontario Heritage Act. Trees Ontario and the Ontario Urban Forest Council rely on a definition of heritage trees developed by Paul Aird in 2005, and published in a July/August 2005 article in Forestry Chronicle. They have so far designated four trees within Toronto alone, (1) with others currently nominated and awaiting review.

According to Aird and Trees Ontario, a heritage tree is:

  • A notable specimen because of its size, form, shape, beauty, age, colour, rarity, genetic constitution, or other distinctive features;
  • A living relic that displays evidence of cultural modification by Aboriginal or non-Aboriginal people, including strips of bark or knot-gree wood removed, test hole cut to determine soundness, furrows cut to collect pitch or sap, or blazes to mark a trail;
  • A prominent community landmark;
  • A specimen associated with a historic person, place, event or period;
  • A representative of a crop grown by ancestors and their successors that is at risk of disappearing from cultivation;
  • A tree associated with local folklore, myths, legends, or traditions.

Trees designated by Trees Ontario will be visited regularly by a professional arborist, who will keep them in prime health and ensure their seeds are collected for propagation. This is especially important, says McDowell, since due to the trees’ advanced age “we’ve got a window of maybe twenty years to propagate and replant” them. “We’ve still got a very substantial remnant of the gene pool that was here over eight or ten thousand years.”

The legislative framework for heritage trees is patchy and varies by municipality. The Ontario Heritage Act can designate trees, but rarely does; the Planning Act goes beyond by giving municipalities the tools to define natural heritage and incorporate it into their Official Plans, thus giving them some official protection, but says nothing about heritage trees specifically. The Municipal Act allows municipalities to create by-laws prohibiting the destruction of trees (see S 135), including private trees and heritage trees. Some municipalities, such as the City of Mississauga, (4) have taken advantage and created or are in the process of creating Heritage Tree policies that designate and protect specimens–but not Toronto. Or not yet, anyway.

The patchiness of the various frameworks dealing with heritage trees may make sense when one considers all the factors that make a heritage tree important: its ecological role and genetic legacy bring in environmental agencies and laws, while its historical significance necessitates the involvement of cultural and heritage groups. But the patchwork often leaves gaps through which significant heritage trees can slip, or left only to the protection of underfunded and volunteer-run organizations with neither the financial resources nor the enforcement clout of a government agency. Many of Toronto’s tree advocates hope that the City will finally step into that breach and provide Toronto’s heritage trees with the protections that they deserve so that Toronto and Ontario citizens can enjoy their cultural and ecological legacies for decades or centuries to come.

Andrea McDowell coordinates environmental approvals and studies for wind energy projects by day and writes about environmental issues by night. This leaves twilight for hiking all over Southern Ontario’s conservation areas, parks and trails, taking photographs and cataloguing whatever she finds there at her blog Zoopolis (http://blog1.andreamcdowell.com). She has contributed to This Magazine, Spacing, Corporate Knights, Brain, Child and Rabble.ca. Send your questions or comments about natural heritage for possible use here to: andrea@andreamcdowell.com.

Trees Ontario, Ontario Heritage Tree Program Interactive Map, found athttp://www.treesontario.ca/programs/htrees.php and accessed July 2010.
Interview with Madeleine McDowell, July 19 2010, 416-767-7633
Ministry of Culture, Ontario Heritage Properties Database, search for “tree or landscape feature” athttp://www.hpd.mcl.gov.on.ca/scripts/hpdsearch/english/heritageSearch.as…, accessed July 2010. Database is no longer being kept up to date.
Peppin, Gay. “Promoting and Protecting Heritage Trees.” The Bridge, fall 2009. Found at http://www.mississauga.ca/file/COM/TheBridge1.pdf and accessed July 2010. Also: Heritage Tree Subcommittee, “Mississauga Heritage Tree Proposals.” undated. Found at http://www.oufc.org/Documents_OHTA/MISSISSAUGA%20HERITAGE%20TREE%20PROPO…and accessed July 2010 Alberta’s Heritage Trees,http://www.heritagetreefoundation.com/, accessed July 2010
Tzavaras, Maria. “Helping to protect Toronto’s heritage trees.” Inside Toronto, April 5 2010. Found at http://www.insidetoronto.com/community/life/article/660065 and accessed July 2010

This entry was posted in Toronto's Stories. Bookmark the permalink.