300-year-old tree thrives in parking lot
A quest to find what is believed to be the oldest tree in Chatham has led to an unexpected location, a site surrounded by asphalt and apartment buildings.
A swamp white oak towers over a parking lot at the back of a threebuilding apartment complex at 140 Park Ave. E. in Chatham.
The tree is estimated to be 300 years old, so old that when it first took root Detroit had only been recently established as a French-Canadian village and Chatham-Kent — or Kent County for that matter — didn't exist.
Randall Van Wagner, environmental project coordinator with the Lower Thames Valley Conservation Authority, calls the tree “a hidden gem,” adding, “it's in remarkable shape.”
He only became aware of the tree about six years ago when a friend pointed out the old oak's existence.
Although swamp white oaks are indigenous to Chatham-Kent and southwestern Ontario, Van Wagner said because they are among the Carolinian forest species they are not that common. He said the three century age estimate is based on the tree's width.
But although the tree has stood the test of time, Van Wagner said there is nothing stopping the property owner from cutting it down.
He noted woodlot cutting bylaws that pertain to cutting down acreage of forest.
“Individual trees, it's very hard to get them designated so they can't be cut,” Van Wagner said. “It's ultimately up to the property owner.”
The Chatham Daily News has learned the owner of the apartment complex is from British Columbia and the facility is managed by a company from Hamilton.
The superintendent of the building said other than a large branch falling a few years ago, the swamp white oak tree has never been a problem.
However, Albert Jongbloed has had a few issues with the tree over the years with about half of it hanging over his backyard. The trunk is also pushing in on a section of his fence.
“It's a nice tree,” he said, but “I wished they'd come and cut the dead out of it.”
After a big storm comes through, Jongbloed finds a lot of smaller branches in his yard, noting some have punctured covers and solar blankets he's had on his backyard pool over the years.
Toni Ellis, heritage tree coordinator for Forests Ontario, said the charitable organization runs the Ontario Heritage Tree Program — details are available at www.forestsontario.ca.
Within the City of Toronto, she said a tree designated under this program protects it from being cut down.
But anywhere else in Ontario, “it's strictly a recognition program. It actually doesn't afford it any legal protection.”
But, Ellis said advocate groups could go to the municipality to try to get a bylaw enacted to protect the tree.
Van Wagner said he has nominated two trees in Chatham under the Ontario Heritage Tree Program, including a shumard oak located in Tecumseh Park. The park is also home to a smaller swamp white oak.
The other tree he has nominated is a large elm on Queen Street in front of the Queen's Court apartment, which was once home to the Chatham OPP headquarters.
When told about the giant swamp white oak, Ellis asked: “What did Chatham look like 300 years ago?”
When told the tree predates the municipality and grew tall while the land housed the former Sundale Manor, which opened in 1912 to serve as an orphanage and later became a home for unwed mothers around 1950, Ellis said, “look at what this tree has presided over.”
Protecting old trees and organization reforestation projects are among the mandates of Forests Ontario, she said.
Ellis said the organization is also working on a program to collect seeds from heritage trees, such as this swamp white oak.
“These are survivor trees, they've got really good genetics, so let's not lose those genetics,” she said.
Al Hudson, left, and his mother, Cathy Hudson, stretch to try to get their arms around this massive swamp white oak tree, located just metres from the apartment they live in Chatham.