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Down in the Valley: A Piece of History in Toronto’s Urban Forest

Posted: August 14, 2018

by Alex Walker

When you think of a forest, you might picture a space in the heart of the Canadian wilderness. Surrounded by tall trees, the forest offers you a spot to quietly contemplate the world around you and spend some time in the natural environment. This might be a complete contrast to the image that comes to mind when you think of the urban forest – in fact, “urban” and “forest” might not be two words you would normally associate with one another! Urban forests encompass all of the trees and vegetation that make their home within a city’s boundaries (City of Toronto, 2013, 1).

From the trees in your backyard to the shrubs in your favourite neighbourhood park, each plant comes together to shape the urban forest. Trees found in the cities we inhabit are an important part of our daily lives, providing oxygen and removing carbon from the atmosphere. In fact, trees accumulate most of their carbon when they reach older ages (Köhl et al, 2017, 9). This makes Heritage Trees that much more significant – not only do they offer a window into the cultural history of a space, they also provide countless ecological benefits as well.

The Heritage Tree Program, run by Forests Ontario along with key program supporter TD Bank Group, recognizes unique and historically significant trees found all across the province. This series of blog posts will highlight several of the 100 trees that are already part of the Heritage Tree Program. We hope these stories will inspire individuals and communities to share historically significant trees found all across Ontario. 

This English oak in Scarborough has served as a significant cultural landmark

This 240-year-old English oak grows on land once owned by Richard Sylvester, one of the early settlers of the Scarborough area.  Sylvester purchased the land, 100 acres in total, in 1836, and developed it into farmland.  Over the years, the farm has been in the hands of a number of Canadian luminaries, including Gooderham of Gooderham and Worts. Gooderham was the owner of the largest distillery in Canada and used the farm to grow grains for his distillery.  Additionally, the farm was owned by Senator Frank O’Connor, founder of Laura Secord Candies. Senator O’Connor was a prominent Liberal Senator and was instrumental in getting Mackenzie King elected as Prime Minister. Upon purchasing the property, Senator O’Connor named it Maryvale after his daughter.

By today’s standards, the size of the farm is astonishing. Driving north on the Don Valley Parkway from Lawrence Avenue east to York Mills Road, everything on the right was once the O’Connor’s farm, the same property that the English oak has stood on for over two centuries.

When Senator O’Connor died in 1939, he left the property to the De La Salle brothers. In the late 1940s they sold off the farm to what we know today as the Maryvale Community. The fact that this tree has survived to this day speaks to its resiliency especially in the face of urban sprawl.

In addition to being a historical marvel, this tree is also incredibly ecologically significant. This tree has intercepted approximately 30,000 L of rain water, which is equivalent to 430 loads of laundry (Davey Tree, 2018). This English oak has also diverted approximately 50 kg of carbon, which is the equivalent of a drive from Lake Ontario to Georgian Bay (Davey Tree, 2018). Trees are especially important when it comes to our health. Studies show that there’s a direct relationship “between the presence of trees and a decline in stress levels” (Trees Ontario, 2012, 12).

Living in Ontario, we’re lucky to have access to a bounty of green spaces. Whether you’re standing in a forest or sitting in the middle of an urban park, you can always find a forest to appreciate.

If a tree comes to mind with an important historic story that you’d like to celebrate through the Heritage Tree program, nominate it! Visit for more information.

Alex is currently working towards her Masters in Landscape Architecture at the University of Toronto, where she was introduced to and gained an appreciation for urban forestry. Alex is spending the summer as a Forests Ontario intern, assisting with outreach and promotion of the Heritage Tree Program. 


City of Toronto, Parks, Forestry and Recreation, Urban Forestry “Sustaining & Expanding the Urban Forest: Toronto’s Strategic Forest Management Plan.” Toronto, Ontario. 2013.

Davey Tree. “National Tree Benefit Calculator” last modified 2018. Accessed August 13,2018 from <>.

Köhl, Michael, Prem R. Neupane, and Neda Lotfiomran. “The Impact of Tree Age on Biomass Growth and Carbon Accumulation Capacity: A Retrospective Analysis Using Tree Ring Data of Three Tropical Tree Species Grown in Natural Forests of Suriname.” Ed. Sylvain Delzon. PLoS ONE 12.8 (2017): e0181187. PMC. Accessed August 14, 2018.

Trees Ontario. “A Healthy Dose of Green: A Prescription for a Healthy Population” Trees Ontario (August 2012): 1-20.