Opinion Column

Ontario’s oldest tree discovered by accident

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

An image of Lion’s Head Provincial Park, on the Bruce Peninsula, where ancient stands of white cedar are found.

An image of Lion’s Head Provincial Park, on the Bruce Peninsula, where ancient stands of white cedar are found.

The year is 688 A.D.

In China, where it is the Year of the Rat, Wang Zhihuan, who became one of his country’s most famous poets, is born. Also born that year is Ganjin, who became a Buddhist monk and one of the key proponents of Buddhism in Japan.

In Europe, Justinian II is leading the eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) in a Balkan campaign. A Lombardian king by the name of Perctarit is assassinated in what will become northern Italy.

In southern Britain, King Ethelred of Mercia solidifies the hold his tribe has over a large portion of what will become Great Britain.

In Ontario, corn will soon see a century of use as an agricultural product, mostly at the hands of the Huron along the east and south shores of Georgian Bay between Barrie, Midland and Collingwood.

To the west of Georgian Bay, on the Bruce Peninsula, a seed from a white cedar starts growing — one of millions across the province.

Skip ahead to the 21st century. That white cedar is still going. It’s the oldest tree in Ontario. In fact, the thin screen of trees that cover the Bruce has among it some of the oldest trees in the country.

Who knew?

Well, not many know even today — and no one knew these twisted, gnarly cedars were part of an old growth forest until the late 1980s. Under the guidance of the University of Guelph’s Douglas Larson, a student, Caedmon Nash, was sent off to examine the effects hiking and climbing on the Niagara Escarpment were having on the trees growing there. Those activities are very popular on the Bruce — it’s where the Bruce Trail, one of the country’s most famous hiking destinations, starts.

One of the ways to determine the effects was to find out how old the trees were, but that wasn’t easy. A common way to determine a tree’s age is to count the rings each year of growth leaves. The rings on the cedars Nash and Larson were looking at were so small and tightly packed, they were almost invisible.

Larson, whose passion is making guitars, planed and sanded the pencil-thin core that had been extracted from one of the cedars enough so he could finally find the rings to count. What he found astonished him so much he reportedly couldn’t sleep for days.

Larson and his team travelled North America to determine if the Niagara Escarpment was unique in its community of ancient cedars. They found it wasn’t. In fact, white cedars, they found, were remarkably capable survivalists.

These tough trees, often wizened tiny things for their age — in Michael Henry and Peter Quinby’s book, Ontario’s Old-Growth Forests, one is described as being “the size of a small Christmas tree” — have been hiding in plain sight for centuries. (If you can describe clinging to the cliff faces of steep, dangerous perches, plain sight.)

These tiny ancient forests are scattered across the province — maybe not in the same density as on the Bruce or along the Escarpment, but they exist on the outskirts of cities like Toronto and Hamilton and along Georgian Bay — if you know where to look.

Tom Villemaire is a writer based in Toronto and the Bruce Peninsula. Tom@Historylab.ca