Some Town Trees

Here Connell visits some old and interesting specimen trees, both native and exotic species, that were planted by early settlers in Victoria and muses over their cultural and historic associations.

From the Victoria Colonist, November 6th, 1938-

I respect the lover of trees, but for the planter of them I have a great admiration. Thirty years ago Henry Miller, of the Miller and Lux Corporation, was a familiar figure from Oregon to Colorado. As a poor German boy he is said to have sold sausages on the streets of San Francisco. He had no schooling; I believe he could barely write his name. But his natural sagacity combined with prudence and industry and favored by the expansion of a new country enabled him to rise to the position of one of the greatest cattle kings of the West. Of his oddities and eccentricities countless were the stories; of his essential kindness below a rather forbidding manner I had evidence myself in getting leave to establish for a week my troop of Boy Scouts among the madrona [Arbutus] groves of Madonna Park [in Gilroy, California]. He paid all his bills in gold and silver. He never forgot his old employees or their dependents. The roads he built across his large estates were open to the public at all times. But his chief attraction for me was his love of trees and his devotion to their planting. Wherever there was a corner in the valley around his home-farm or among the neighboring foothills, trees of one kind or another were established. His wife, who long pre-deceased him, was buried in a secluded combe, and around her grave he planted a great grove of cypress such as I have seen pictured in Mediterranean landscapes.

But all planters of trees cannot do their work on Henry Miller’s scale. A friend of mine from the prairies years ago so filled his little Victoria garden lot with shrubs so that in a very short time his cottage was buried behind a forest of exotic evergreens. But he was giving expression to a love of trees long inhibited by dwelling in a land of limited and dwarfed species and of complete treelessness over great areas. It was the rapidity of growth here that took him by surprise and gave him a miniature forest in a year or two.

In Old Gardens

But there have been many Victorians who have planted trees more successfully because of larger room. To them we owe the truly magnificent specimens found here and there in the old gardens. Most of these trees are of foreign origin. They have come from other parts of this continent, from the British Isles, from continental Europe, from Asia Major and Minor. But there are also trees from our own Island: mountain pine, Douglas fir, large-leafed maple, arbutus, dogwood and others. But generally speaking the saying that a prophet is not with honor save in their own country is applicable to trees and their smaller relatives. There are inhabitants of our gardens and parks that have come across the world and that are much less handsome than some of our native species. Of all of these the arbutus has won the most attention because of its strange beauty, and the other afternoon I set out to see some specimens that were planted many years ago and that stand a little out of the ordinary line of traffic.

Arbutus trees near Victoria by Robert Connell from a sketch made in August, 1908

On my way up Oak Bay Avenue I passed a tree-of-heaven, or Chinese sumach, botanically Ailantus glandulosa. Its generic name is said to be derived from the Malaccan name, ailanto, “tree-of-heaven”. Its great feather-like leaves resemble those of the ordinary sumach. It makes a tall, open, graceful tree, but having once upon a time had a row of them just outside our bedroom windows I must say that the pollen gives out a very unpleasant mousy smell when it is ripe.

Arbutus Trees

Belmont Avenue south of Fort Street runs sharply uphill, and just after reaching the top the trees I have specially come to see appear. On the left, just before the entrance to the old Martin grounds are reached, stands a little way back a handsome lime tree or linden; then immediately adjacent to the fence is a tall arbutus; next, further back, is seen a very large and beautiful arbutus, particularly graceful in its three-fold division of branches and with a really substantial girth below. In the corner is a smaller, thick-foliaged specimen. We are now at Maud Street, which runs at right angles to Belmont Avenue, and along its one short block are seen on the north side four more arbutus trees and on the south side six. These trees meet overhead and one of the northern ones completely shades the central roadway with its magnificent arch of branch and foliage. Other trees of the same species grow along the Martin avenue.

The Martin residence “Ballinahinch” once stood at 1035 Belmont Street in the Rockland district of Victoria.

Foliage of the Arbutus

At this season, and indeed for many weeks past, the glossy evergreen foliage of the arbutus is usually still further brightened by the grape-like bunches of scarlet berries. These Belmont Avenue and Maud Street specimens are no exception and the rich profusion of their fruit, the vigor of their growth and their girth and height, together make them remarkable and noteworthy. According to Sudworth, the United States tree authority, arbutus trees twelve to sixteen inches through are from sixty to eighty-five years old. I have not measured the girth of the Belmont-Maud ones, but I feel sure the tree standing furthest back in the Belmont corner exceeds this. Now the age of this tree we know very closely, for it was planted by Chief Justice Martin in 1896, together with some of the others; the remainder he planted later. The trees, in common with others in the city, answer the question often asked: “Can you transplant arbutuses?” But they also show how splendidly they grow in suitable places. I think there is no doubt that they do best and attain their finest symmetry on sloping, well-drained land, such as a hillside or hilltop, and with a certain amount of shade, but not too much, if the tree is to be symmetrical.

A fine arbutus growing outside Victoria in September, 2021

Killarney Myrtles

I suppose the planter was drawn to his work not only by the beauty of the trees but also by their Irish associations. The Lakes of Killarney are famous for their arbutus, or strawberry trees, as well as for their scenery. In an old-fashioned book of travel, “A Pilgrimage Through Ireland”, by Julius Rodenburg, published in 1860, I find this account of Killarney’s trees: “The islands derive their peculiar character from a tree of thoroughly southern growth and splendor. In the language of science the tree is called Arbutus unedo. The English call it ‘arbutus’, the Irish the ‘myrtle of Killarney’. It is found at several parts of Southern Ireland, but nowhere so abundantly as on the shores and islets of the Lakes of Killarney. Its brilliantly green heavy leaves seem to have drunk in the sun and while the red, strawberry-resembling fruit is ripening on some of the fantastic gnarled branches, on others the tall, lily-like flower is bursting from its green capsule. Thus uniting the charm of maidenhood with the magic or womanly maturity, the myrtle of Killarney glistens – a wondrous tree in a land of wonders!”

On the Island if Innisfallen in the Lake of Killarney, 1843

The writer’s description fits our species so well that if the geography were omitted one might think he was describing it. His account of the flowers is misleading, though, for the Irish tree has flowers very similar to ours and not single of lily-like. The strawberry-like fruit of theirs is rougher and larger than ours, and the leaves are generally more pointed and are distinctly toothed. I find no reference in any book I have to that peculiar redness of the branches and stems which is so charming a characteristic of our species.

But I must add the account of the arbutus in that amusing book illustrated by John Leech, “A Little Tour of Ireland”, published just a year before the other: “Among the trees, brightest and greenest of them all, the arbutus! Wherever you see it, it gleams amid the duller tints, refreshing as a child’s laugh on a rainy day, or a view-halloo in the coverts of a vulpecide, or the ace of trumps in a bad hand at wist. Like Xerxes we fell in love with the arbutus; and though we could not pour wine in honor of our idol, as the romans were wont to do, we drank our ale admiringly beneath its branches and made a libation (principally of froth) to its roots.” The classical allusion reminds us that the arbutus was honored by the poets; Horace in his first Ode speaks of him who “scorns not to filch a part from the unbroken day, stretched at length beneath a leafy arbutus.”

From Maud Street I passed along Pemberton Road, where some magnificent specimens of Garry oak are to be seen in the neighboring grounds. They illustrate admirably the difference between specimens growing on rocky places or on light soil exposed to the wind and those on richer ground or in protected quarters.

A Pemberton Road mansion with a large Garry oak in the garden, 1954

Passing these and some fine imported trees, I am reminded of the days when the visitor to Victoria was driven about the environs of the city in a tally-ho behind four spanking horses. The route usually lay along these old streets with their fine trees and beautiful gardens. Of the latter, peeps at least were obtained, and I well remember coming up Pemberton Road one day when the tally-ho had stopped outside a high board fence and the passengers had risen from their seats to gaze at the secluded flower beds.

Big Trees and Redwoods

Along Rockland Avenue there are some very fine sequoias, both the big-tree and the redwood. The giant sequoia or big-tree, Sequoia gigantea, is confined to an area in California on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada, where it occurs in scattered groves or occasionally singly. It is at once both the largest of trees and the longest in duration of life. It grows usually to a height of about 250 feet, but certain specimens reach 300 feet or more. Its diameter averages about 15 feet, but may be as much as nearly 30 feet, measured at eight or ten feet above the massively buttressed base. The redwood, Sequoia sempivirens, or evergreen sequoia, is a much more plentiful tree in spite of the havoc wrought in its forests by logging and fire. It occurs in the coastal region from Southern Oregon to come distance south of the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, rejoicing in the mists that sweep in from the ocean. It is a more slender tree than the big-tree, reaching a height of from 200 to 350 feet with a diameter from eight to fifteen feet or more. The foliage of the two trees is quite different. The big-tree has closely arranged bract-like leaves and long, slender, pendant sprays of branchlets, but the redwood needles are more like those of a balsam fir, in two flat rows, but unequal in size and sharply pointed like those of a yew. Both species are distinguished by their peculiar purplish brown bark. Of the two sequoias, there are fine specimens in the grounds just west of the Government House ones, and a fine solitary specimen of the big-tree stands on a vacant lot at the corner of Moss and Richardson Streets, one whose growth I have watched with interest for the past quarter of a century.

The redwood (Sequoia sempivirens) at the corner of Moss and Richardson, Victoria.

But specimens of these trees and many other beautiful and interesting ones are found here and there all over the older parts of the city. The taste for planting trees was evidently very powerfully at work fifty years ago and more, and the result is that, thanks to the planters of trees, domestic and foreign, the lover of trees can delight their heart within the city’s bounds, particularly in James Bay district, in the streets and in and about the upper part of Fort Street and Rockland Avenue, and even out along the Gorge Road, where some beautiful specimens are to be seen of such species as the Cedar of Lebanon. There one of these stately conifers spreads its great branches over the sidewalk and in the autumn covers it with its velvety cones. By tracing the history of the planting if these trees back we might be able to compile a valuable manual of arboriculture at this corner of Vancouver Island.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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