We are excited to be sharing an article by field botanist, Paul O’Hara.
A condensed version was published by the Hamilton Spectator.
Original Trees of the Hammer
By Paul O’Hara
This Arbour Day (April 28th) I’ll be 20 years in Hamilton. In the spring of 1997, I came to the city fresh out of college to begin a summer job as a student gardener at Royal Botanical Gardens. I was a real keener, soaking up everything I could about the botany of Southern Ontario. It was the study of trees that got me hooked on plants, and trees remain my primary fascination today, especially original trees.
Original trees are remnants of the natural habitats that used to occur in our cities, now stranded amid the urban and suburban neighbourhoods that have been built up around them over the last 200 years. They’re the oldest living things in our streets and, in many neighbourhoods, the last voices of our local natural heritage.
Original trees aren’t lined up like soldiers like the planted, (mostly) exotic trees in our streets. They stand a little offbeat, singly and in clusters, on boulevards, highway edges and property boundaries, butted up against fences or too close to sidewalks.
They are often large trees, towering over houses and hanging over streets. Some were saved by tree loving citizens in decades past as our cities and towns grew in a wave over remnant forests. Others were saved by the luck of the draw, being well enough away from road and building footprints not to be a bother. Still others were transplanted from back forty forests through government tree planting programs in the late 1800s that paid farmers a quarter for each tree that survived three years.
Naturally, the original trees in our streets are the same species that were found in our pre-settlement forests – sugar maple, red maple, white pine, red oak, white oak, bur oak, black oak, shagbark hickory, basswood, black cherry, white ash, and shagbark hickory among others.
I’ve spent the last 20 years observing the original trees of the Hammer and thought I’d share a dozen of my favourites. Many of the trees occur on private property so please be respectful while viewing them.
Bruce Park Bur Oak (Quercus macrocarpa)
There are a bunch of beautiful original trees (oaks, maples, hickories and hawthorns) on the mountain in Bruce Park, site of the home of Hamilton-born painter William Blair Bruce. One of my favourite original bur oaks is found on a residential property in the southwest corner of the park at Brucedale Avenue East and East 6th Street – a graceful, open-grown oak with gnarly bark.
Durand Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
Most of the original shagbark hickories in the city occur on Hamilton Mountain and in Waterdown, but this one occurs on Ravenscliffe Avenue in the lower city (just look for the tree with the long, shaggy bark). Shagbark hickory is a slow-grower so I’d put this original beauty at 150-200 years old, maybe older.
Westcliffe Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum)
There are many original sugar maples in the streets of Hamilton but they are best viewed in the neighbourhoods along the escarpment rim. Some of my favourites are on Scenic Drive in the Westcliffe neighbourhood (Check out the sugar maple pair that grow on either side of West 34th at Scenic Drive). Get to know the difference in late April/early May between the soft yellow flowers of our native sugar maple and the lemon yellow flowers of the non-native Norway maple (an invasive species and unfortunately, the most planted tree in the city).
Strathcona Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)
This tree is a real survivor. For one, bitternut hickory, although common in the forests of Southern Ontario, rarely occurs as an original tree in the streets of the Golden Horseshoe. Secondly, this tree is butted up against the curb on Margaret Street in between the roar of traffic along King and Main Streets. Here, it’s probably lived 200 winters, watching as the city was slowly built around it.
Westdale Black Oak (Quercus velutina)
There’s a monster black oak at Paisley Avenue North and Haddon Avenue North. Stand on the sidewalk under its black boughs and try to picture the open, grassy savannas that once stretched through the western lower city at the time of settlement. This original oak is a relic of our prairie and savanna past.
Ancaster White Oak (Quercus alba)
I have a dozen favourite original white oaks in Hamilton. In the interests of spreading the tree love throughout the city, check out the open-grown giant on Lloymin Avenue at Wade Road in the Oak Hill neighbourhood of Ancaster. White oak is the queen of oak trees, of all trees – tough, strong, graceful, slow-growing, and long-lived.
Oak Knoll Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
There are many handsome original trees on Oak Knoll Drive in Westdale (mostly red and white oaks) but there’s also one mature sassafras near the western intersection of Dalewood Crescent. Sassafras is uncommon in the forests of Hamilton Region but is extremely rare in its streets. In fact, this is the only original sassafras that I’ve found growing in our city streets.
Highway 8 Chinquapin Oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
This tree has been greeting commuters along Highway 8 (King Street West) at the base of the hill in Dundas at Fisher’s Mill Park for many decades. Look for the big tree with the funny-looking oak leaves; toothed, not lobed. Chinquapin oak is an uncommon oak in Hamilton, restricted to the rocky soils of the Flamborough Plain and hot, south and west-facing slopes. On tough sites, chinquapin oak can look like bonzais, but give them rich, well-drained soils and they can grow large like this lovely original tree.
Glenview West Black Maple (Acer nigrum)
This picturesque original tree is on King Street East between Summerhill and Glencairn in the Glenview West neighbourhood of east Hamilton. Black maple is common along the escarpment forests through the city where it grows with sugar maple (and the invasive Norway maple). Black maple looks a lot like sugar maple; it differs as its leaves have a wilting appearance and much softer lobing than that of sugar maple (the leaf on the Canadian flag).
Prairie Mountain Hill’s Oak (Quercus ellipsoidalis)
Hill’s oak was only discovered in southern Ontario about 40 years ago where it grows on the well-drained soils of the Norfolk Sand Plain. One of the easiest places to view Hill’s oak in the city is at Upper Wellington and Dragoon Drive. Look for the oak with the small, pointed leaves and deep sinuses standing beside the fence of the old pioneer cemetery. Like the Westdale black oak, this tree also tells the story of Hamilton’s prairie past when grasslands once covered an estimated 5000 hectares of the city.
Dundas Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Any talk of original trees in the City of Hamilton eventually ends up on this well-known tuliptree in Dundas. It’s a giant (over 1.5m in diameter and 35m tall) and is located on Cross Street near the intersection at Melville. Tuliptree’s range extends as far south as Florida, but Dundas is the northern terminus of this classic Carolinian tree.
Stinson Red Oak (Quercus rubra)
This Red Oak is one of my faves. It’s located in front of the apartment building on West Avenue South at Hunter Street East, just east of the downtown. Its trunk is a metre wide pillar that rises 12 metres before branching into a large spreading crown. Red oak is a good grower so it’s hard to say if this tree was planted in the late 1800s/early 1900s or is a remnant of the pine-oak-hickory forests that once dominated east Hamilton.
Hope you enjoyed this little tour of the original trees of Hamilton. And I hope they inspire you to plant a native tree for Hamiltonians to enjoy a couple centuries from now. Planting a native tree is the best thing we can do to help our local pollinators and the City of Hamilton’s free tree program offers many native tree choices.
In the meantime, I wanna tip a pint to this incredible landscape at the Head of Lake Ontario. Its natural history and original trees have been fascinating me for 20 years. Here’s looking forward to 20 more. Cheers.
Paul O’Hara is a field botanist, landscape designer and native plant gardening expert. He is the owner/operator of Blue Oak Native Landscapes (www.blueoak.ca) and lives in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Hamilton.