Cambridge Sculpture Garden, Grand Ave. S.
Age: approximately 140 years old
Height: 21.25 m / 70 ft (including trunk below grade)
Diameter at Breast Height: 109.25 cm / 43 in
“It survived,” says Judy Welsh. “That’s why it was designated. Not because of its age or size. Because it survived.”
Indeed, the remarkable 140-year-old white oak growing on a lush, narrow strip of green between Grand Avenue and the Grand River in Cambridge overcame discouraging odds simply to have remained standing, let alone to have earned an Ontario Heritage Act heritage designation, usually reserved for noteworthy buildings. And at key moments in its story, the intervention, determination, and cooperation of its human stewards was almost as remarkable as the tree itself.
Stewards such as Judy Welsh. In the 1990s, Judy suspected that development was being considered for this site, endangering precious greenspace and the oak along with it. So, beginning in 2000, she and a small group of volunteers collaborated with the City of Cambridge and the Grand River Conservation Authority to preserve the site for public use, reimagining it as the Cambridge Sculpture Garden. She applied for the oak’s heritage designation in 2008. Today, native and ornamental plantings combine with art installations to provide a reflective, restorative experience to visitors. “All of our events are held under the tree,” Judy says.
Years earlier, John Kingswood was a keen advocate. The Grand’s natural seasonal cycles occasionally inundated floodplain areas, and severe flooding in 1974 prompted plans to build up levees in Cambridge. John was a forester with the City. Passionate about trees, he didn’t want the engineering project, which would dramatically raise downtown Galt’s riverbanks, to cost the community its stately riverside oak. In the end, some houses had to go, including the one with the oak in its backyard. But incredibly, the tree stayed. John masterminded an ingenious solution to the problem of burying its roots. A water distribution and drainage bed was put in place, and covered by the thick overburden, which was kept clear of the trunk by a gap. It worked. At least a metre of trunk now sits below grade. The levee does its job; the oak grows ever larger.
Before John and Judy, the oak was a cherished backyard tree for generations of families living at 63 Grand Ave. S., who have shared memories of its honoured place in their lives. More recently, it has earned a nickname: the “Grand Oak.” Weddings happen under it. A large National Day for Truth and Reconciliation gathering was held there in 2022. As Judy observes, “It’s truly a community tree.”
Cambridge is a good place to be a tree. Its official Urban Forest Plan sets ambitious goals. There is a tree protection bylaw. City departments work to increase tree canopy coverage by promoting and planting native species. A vast street tree inventory has been mapped. The volunteers of Cambridge City Green organize tree walking tours and planting initiatives. For its efforts, Cambridge is one of 22 Canadian cities named a Tree City of the World.
But for all of our oaks, another threat looms. Oak wilt, caused by a potentially deadly fungus, was first detected this side of the border in 2023. Its effect on Eastern Canada’s oaks, estimated at over 180 million by the Canadian not-for-profit Invasive Species Centre, remains to be seen. The white oak group of species has demonstrated a higher survival rate than red oaks.
Come what may to the Grand Oak, its story offers evidence that dedicated people will go to great lengths to keep it around. As Judy says, “Everything happens under the tree.”
Thanks to Tree Trust and the Echo Foundation for making the “Tree of the Year” initiative possible. Tree Trust is a program started by the Elora Environment Centre, and delivered in Waterloo Region by Reep Green Solutions, with a mission to conserve legacy, mature trees for their significant environmental value. If you wish to contribute to the specialist care and protection of mature trees across the Waterloo Region, you can donate here by selecting ‘Tree Trust – Waterloo Region’ from the dropdown provided.