Four trees out of so many

by Bronwyn Chester with photos by Claudio Calligaris

This European spindle is one of McGill's most recognizable trees

Back in March, 1998, when Daniel McCabe was interviewing me for the position of associate editor at the McGill Reporter, little did he know that his hiring me would ignite an interest in trees that has lasted till this day.

“Got any story ideas?” he asked. In truth, I was long out of touch with the University and had few ideas. However, only the completely distracted could fail to notice that the campus trees were pretty mangled by the ice storm of January, 1998.

“Sure,” I replied. “I think there’s a good story to be told on how the campus trees are faring three months after the storm."

I’m not sure if my answer got me the job, but I did end up writing that story and numerous other ones relating to the McGill trees, which include the downtown and Macdonald campuses, not to mention the Morgan Arboretum, Mont St-Hilaire, the Molson Reserve, etc. McGill is home to thousands of trees.

And out of those thousands, Daniel, now editor of the News, has asked me to write on my favourite four on the downtown campus. That’s like being asked to name your favourite children. All one can reply is: This is my favourite first-born child, etc.

Still, this is a nice writing exercise and am grateful to put pen to trees. Let me start with an old and gnarly European spindle tree that grows, almost horizontally, out of the hill in front of the Arts Building. Likely planted in 1893 when the original Macdonald Engineering Building was constructed (it later burned in 1907), the spindle tree, Euonymous europaeus, was a popular ornamental tree in the late 19th century around well-to-do homes. Its name derives from the fact that the extremely hard wood was ideal for making the spindles used in the textile industry. Fusain, the French name for this meandering tree is also the same name given to artists’ charcoal, the other popular use for the wood.

One of the oldest tulip trees in the Montreal area

I love this tree for it’s woven bark, it’s peculiar way of growing – in fact it probably grew out and over the Burn, the creek that ran down that side of the campus and gave name to James McGill’s house, Burnside – the unusual pink colour of the autumn leaves, and the gorgeous fruit. Next time you are on the campus in fall, look up (or down on the ground) to see the little four-lobed pink seed pods, which split open to reveal the bright orange, flesh-covered seeds within. The naughty name in French for the fusain was Bonnet d’evêque and you can see the resemblance to the Bishop’s mitre.

Moving from this garden to Redpath Dell, you’ll find a tree growing on the southern rim of the park with most unusually shaped leaves. Resembling maple leaves with their top lobes lopped off, these leaves can only be those of the tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera.One of only two native species in the magnolia family, the tulip tree’s natural habitat is the Carolinian Forest, between Toronto and Windsor and across the border into the Appalachians where it is one of the tallest species of the forest. Not only are the leaves unusual but so are the luscious yellow-orange flowers and the fruit; once the winged seeds have flown in fall, a lovely structure is left behind resembling a wooden flower.

A close-up view of the red, fleshy seed of the Japanese Oyama magnolia

This tree was planted by the class of 1949, under the direction of R. Darnley Gibbs, then professor of botany and University Garden Master. It’s among the oldest tulip trees in the Montreal area and one of the few where one can easily observe the flowers and fruit, due to the tree’s position down in the dell; the viewer, on the other hand, can remain high on the roadside leading up to the Redpath Museum.

Another magnolia that has a special place in my heart is the Japanese Oyama magnolia, Magnolia sieboldii, two of which grown on the grounds of Chancellor Day Hall. Each located at one end of a black granite bench, installed to commemorate the lives of two brothers, both of whom were law students, these small trees seem to bloom all summer. At least, white, compact (for magnolia, that is) flowers will be blooming on some branches, while the bright pink fruit are developing on others. Even in late fall, it’s possible to see the bright red, fleshy seed of the magnolia still connected to its cone-like fruit.

One of two Japanese Oyama magnolias on the grounds of Chancellor Day Hall

Now, walk past the enormous ginkgo, planted in roughly 1892, when the James Ross mansion was built, past the equally old pale grey-barked yellow-wood tree and make your way up the stairs to the Stewart Biology Building Plaza. Brace yourself for rare site. Arms outstretched to greet you, stands the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Until 1941, this soft-needled, deciduous conifer was believed to exist only in the fossil record. Then, a Chinese botanist found a living tree. Due to the war, it was only in 1948, that Western botanists could visit the tree and collect seeds. By 1949, seeds and seedling were being planted all over the temperate world.

A rare dawn redwood

R. Darnley Gibbs planted this tree in roughly 1965 at the opening of the Biology Building. You can see how beautifully straight and tall it has grown. The sheltered situation in the plaza no doubt protects this tree which is a little north of its range. Be sure to sit beneath the dawn redwood. If you’re lucky, you’ll find one of the small woody cones whose scales present themselves horizontally as opposed to the usual vertical positions in cones. If you’re very lucky, there will still be seeds inside the cones – put a few in a paper bag and shake to release them – and you too will be able to grow your own living fossil, if only in Bonsai size!

Bronwyn Chester, BSW ’81, is the author of A Leafy Legacy: The Trees of McGill University, available from the Redpath Museum, $7. For two years she wrote the Montreal Gazette column, "Island of Trees," which may still be read at: This spring, look out for her new book: Island of Trees: 50 Trees, 50 Tales of Montreal, Véhicule Press.