Forests Ontario

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Heritage Trees: An Evaluator’s Perspective

Posted: April 13, 2017

by John Barker

This year, Forests Ontario invites you to celebrate our province’s 150th anniversary by celebrating the unique and storied

The St. Cuthbert’s great white oak, our latest Heritage Tree.

trees across our communities. The Ontario Heritage Tree Program recognizes and celebrates trees across the province with special cultural or historic significance.

If you’d like to help tell the story of Ontario’s forests, including by becoming an evaluator, contact our Heritage Tree Coordinator Toni Ellis at or visit

When a tree is nominated for recognition, a trained evaluator will assess its potential as a Heritage Tree. Evaluator John Barker describes his experience in helping to designate our latest Heritage Tree.

When my father was a boy, he attended church at St. Cuthbert’s on Bayview Avenue in Toronto. On Sundays, he walked with my aunts and grandparents under the leafy boughs of a white oak that arched over the steps to the church doors. Fifty-some

Premier Kathleen Wynne, FO President Steve Hounsell and TD’s Chris Kivell honour the St. Cuthbert’s great white oak.

years later, I stood under the same tree, appraising its spreading branches and submitting an evaluation of that tree, which became the first Ontario Heritage Tree to be designated in 2017.

At more than 125 years of age, that tree was witness to a long period of fairly rapid change in the Leaside neighbourhood. Walking past this large oak tree, it can easily be taken for granted, as many trees in our communities often are. One could assume it was old, seeing its size and the extent of its canopy, but since the tree cannot speak to what it has witnessed, the details of its life remained private until people stepped forward to tell its story.

As an evaluator, I was in a unique position to help tell that story by examining this tree in detail and teasing out some of its past through the lens of my profession. And I was not alone. A truly dedicated team of people from the church helped to make the case for the designation of this tree by telling the story of its place in the neighbourhood. Designating this tree truly was a community effort. Evaluators are a part of that community, and we can use our professional skills as arborists, foresters, etc., to shine a light on the beauty of the heritage trees in our neighbourhoods and towns.

I signed up to be a volunteer evaluator because it’s a simple and effective way to help raise the profile of the extra special trees in our communities. The time commitment required of an evaluator is minor and, whether one is working or retired, it’s an excellent way to get better acquainted with the trees in our neighbourhoods and the people who care about them. Fundamentally, the process of designating heritage trees comes down to sustaining good relationships–human relationships and the relationships we have with the trees that have watched us grow up, or that we may have only recently come to know.

In 2017, there will be many events to commemorate Canada’s 150th. This year provides the perfect opportunity to celebrate the significance trees have in our communities and define the natural legacy we intend to leave for the future. Across the province, in every town or city, there are potential heritage trees, waiting for people to step forward and tell their stories.

John lives in Toronto and works as an Urban Forest Health Specialist with BioForest. He is an ISA Certified Arborist and holds a Master of Forest Conservation (MFC) degree from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Forestry. His favourite tree is Eastern hemlock (Tsuga canadensis).