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.

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