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We must plant the right trees

I write this in the midst of City Hall’s post mortem review of the December ice storm. The information I have is preliminary and incomplete, but it is sufficient to confirm that the overall impact ranks it as one of the most costly natural disasters that Toronto has faced since Hurricane Hazel.

And it is not your imagination: while we were by no means the only community to endure a serious impact, Leaside took a bigger hit than most.

The reason is not hard to guess. The damage done this time was mostly a direct result of the impact of the storm on trees, and Leaside has a lot of them. 

The storm has taught a lot of us a thing or two about trees of which we were blissfully unaware until we found so many of their broken branches lying on our lawns, roads, and cars.

Most significantly, we learned that not all trees are created equal.

Siberian elm trees, in particular, suffered serious damage. Many of them lost between 30 percent and 50 percent  of their upper branches, and will have to be taken down altogether. Older black locusts also suffered to a significant degree. Certain other black locusts were also damaged, but generally to a lesser extent.

Manitoba maples, “crack” willows, white mulberries, white elms and silver maples in many parts of the city were badly damaged. We are told that most of those trees, however, will survive after undergoing suitable pruning.

Leaside has a large number of older Norway maples. Many of these lost a lot of branches. My information is that our Norway maples are largely within about 20 years of the end of their natural lives in any event, as they were all planted within the same time period when most of the original homes were built.

Which draws attention to an important lesson: It is to be remembered that there was less recognition then than now of the merits of (a) planting a healthy variety of trees in any one community, and (b) planting native species rather than exotics. It turns out there is a reason why native species get to be native species in the first place: they have adapted over time to cope with the challenges of the local climate, including, it would seem, the occasional ice storm.

The number of healthy native trees that suffered damage across the city is relatively low. For the most part, oak, sugar maple, walnut, and ash trees survived well. Most that did suffer damage are seen to have had defects in them. Even at that, many with visible defects survived.

Conifers, for the most part, made out better than deciduous species. Many bent over beneath the weight of the ice, but stood up straight again after the thaw. Northern species such as white pines and spruces of all types seem to have survived well. (Some ornamental junipers stayed bent over and will have to be removed, which frankly suits me just fine.)

The preliminary indication is that about 20 percent of Toronto’s “tree canopy” was lost. Last year I encouraged Leaside residents to contribute to our community’s tree inventory; the need to do so has now become more urgent. And this time, let’s plant the right ones.