Manitoulin’s Notable Trees: Recording habitat, history and heart

In the grounds of Mindemoya’s Pioneer Museum and Welcome Centre is a Black Cherry tree thought to have been planted by the great-great grandparents of Gloria Corbiere.

by Isobel Harry

MANITOULIN—The Manitoulin Nature Club, founded in 1979, is a very active group of about 70 members—both residents and visitors are warmly welcomed—with a shared interest in the Island’s plant and animal biodiversity who meet monthly in Mindemoya from September to May. Speakers cover topics from mushrooms to migrating birds and unusual trees, and meetings highlight the sharing of travel experiences and local “What did you see?” moments. Bird counts take place at Christmas and in February; in October, Sandhill cranes are counted; in summer, field trips are organized to interesting habitats on- and off-Island, and there’s a club picnic in August.

In the spring of 2015, the Manitoulin Nature Club launched the Notable Trees of Manitoulin Island project, following up on a previous mission begun in 1992 by Edith and Grant Garrette. The Garrettes’ “Great Tree Hunt on Manitoulin Island” sought nominations for the largest trees based on a points formula used by the Ontario Forestry Association in the Honour Roll of Ontario Trees. They produced an Honour Roll of Manitoulin Trees booklet, which, if you can find it in a library, is a fascinating read. The winning tree, selected from among 84 entries, was a sugar maple nominated by Norman Aguonie of Sheguiandah First Nation; standing in a sugar bush, the tree is “a magnificent specimen as befits our national arboreal emblem,” and is between 200 and 300 years-old.

What Nature Club members and tree nominators also uncovered was more intangible, a feeling that another Tree Hunt organizer in Kitchener-Waterloo, Samm McKay, had described: “The most striking discovery of the Tree Hunt was the deep affection, if not passion, that people have for trees, especially for trees that they regard with enough esteem to nominate in a tree hunt.”

Looking around at what is, here, is hugely rewarding; we become aware, more conscious of our place in the grand scheme of things; perhaps we learn to quiet our minds and simply to be more observant in noticing and reading our surroundings and the life within them. Nature is all around us and we have no choice but to see it and recognize its patterns and movements as our keys to a greater understanding of and appreciation for our environment.

This unusual Balm of Gilead tree in Little Current has been  nominated as a Notable Tree of Manitoulin.
This unusual Balm of Gilead tree in Little Current has been
nominated as a Notable Tree of Manitoulin.

This first ‘tree contest’ was the inspiration for the current Notable Trees project, led by Programs Committee members Gail Robinson, Linda Lee and Nancy Kairns. Unlike the previous Honour Roll project that focused on tree size to determine the winners, Notable Trees looks for nominations of trees “that have become prominent landmarks or associated with local folklore, myths, legends or traditions,” including “witness trees” that are described in family histories as being present at events such as reunions and weddings. In May, the Nature Club held its two-day ‘Trees, Trees, Trees’ Conference where attendees could visit several of the nominated trees.

In such a project, which is ongoing, there is much feeling expressed by tree nominators (50 so far). Gail Robinson kindly shared a binder that securely holds all the nominations, their reasons and accompanying photos; the project’s eventual culmination is to be discussed in a future committee meeting.

Ms. Robinson is the collector of nominations for Notable Trees; holding dual American and Canadian citizenship–she was born in Toronto to American parents–and having inherited, with the rest of her family, her great-great uncle’s island cottage in McGregor Bay, the retired teacher of horticulture’s connection to nature on and around the Island is deep, with 70 years’ love of the area worn on her sleeve like a proud badge of belonging. In fact, Ms. Robinson moved to Little Current seven years ago because, she says, “I wanted to live closer to McGregor Bay.”

Put tree-loving information gatherers together with passionate tree nominators and you have the makings of an exciting undertaking. Nominations include a Balm of Gilead in a front yard in Little Current that has “family significance,” many “regionally uncommon” trees—such as the Catalpa in a Manitowaning garden, and a Black Walnut on Monument Road for its “size, shape and beauty,” among many others.

Trees often are planted to commemorate special events such as a birth, death and other milestones, and there are plenty nominated as Notable Trees. We have memorial ornamental cherry trees, Ginkgo and Weeping Caragana to remember loved ones; an ancient hawthorn (aka hawberry) in Sheguiandah that was planted in 1869 to mark the grave of the Rev. Jabez Waters Sims.

Some nominated trees are on private property and permission must be obtained for a viewing, but many more are in public spaces for all to see. In June 2015, The Expositor reported on the first nomination received: Jan McQuay, photographer, writer, publisher and eco-activist, had nominated a hawthorn tree, native to the Island and legendary for saving lives during a famine and preventing scurvy with its tart berries. In recognition of the hawberries’ gift of survival, Manitoulin-born settlers are called Haweaters.

Ms. McQuay wrote that, “Since visitors are always asking to see a Manitoulin hawthorn tree, and there are very few to point out to them that are accessible, I’m suggesting this one at the Strawberry Channel Lookout, a healthy hawthorn tree on Highway 6 east of Little Current, near the lookout structure,” on the east side of Highway 6, directly across from the turnoff to the Green Bush Road.

A very tall Striped Maple (also called Moosewood for the moose further north that chew the bark) at Misery Bay Provincial Park can be seen just south of the Interpretive Centre; staff will point out the tree that stands on the shoreline of what was once Lake Nipissing during the last Glacial Era.

A 60-foot Red Oak dominates Blair’s Cash and Carry on Hwy 542 in M’Chigeeng. The famous “Maple tree with a saw in it” can be seen (especially when leaves have fallen) across from the entrance to Oakes Cottages on Monument Road near Mindemoya. A Black Cherry tree that “has been there at least 70 years” and a nearby Chokecherry tree likely were planted by the great-great grandparents of Gloria Corbiere, and can be viewed in the grounds of Mindemoya’s Pioneer Museum and Welcome Centre.

A striking tree of singular provenance is to be found on Queen Street’s north side in Manitowaning, just west of the LCBO; the “dramatic weeping habit” of the Camperdown Elm and its thick, contorted branches are noted by all who pass, but few know its history. The elm is a cultivar and cannot reproduce from seed; it must be grafted to a Wych Elm, as it is here. In 1835-1840, in Dundee, Scotland, a young contorted elm tree was discovered in the forest of Camperdown House by the Earl of Camperdown’s gardener. Every Camperdown Elm in the world is descended from a cutting from that original Scottish tree, and we might well imagine early settlers bringing a cutting in their belongings to their new home.

There are many more examples of distinctive trees collected in the Notable Trees project, and even more will be gathered. “We encourage people to go out, look around the property and send us an entry,” says Gail Robinson. “Residents can find their own ‘deep affection’ for nature and submit the trees that touch their hearts.”

For information on the Manitoulin Nature Club, contact Marcel Beneteau at mbeneteau@usudbury.ca

Nomination forms for Notable Trees of Manitoulin can be obtained by emailing Gail Robinson at notabletreesofmanitoulin@gmail.com