Tree of the Year 2023 Finalist: Kitchener

Weeping Willow
Rockway Gardens, Floral Crescent

Age: approximately 100 years old
Height: 15.25-16.75 m / 50-55 ft
Diameter at Breast Height: 118 cm / 46.5 in

“It’s the grandmother of trees at the park here, and everyone treats it with respect. . . . It was here before the Gardens started.” 

Maryanne Weiler is walking through Kitchener’s botanical garden, urban arboretum and pleasure ground all in one: Rockway Gardens. The tree she is talking about is the giant weeping willow standing sentinel, along with dozens of other trees, on the crest of a natural rise that edges these seven acres like a spine. 

Maryanne is a longtime member of the Kitchener Horticultural Society (KHS), which has tended this heritage landscape since its creation in the early 1930s. Thanks to their expert direction, and to countless hours of planning and labour by volunteers and staff, Rockway Gardens has blossomed into a treed oasis of flower-filled rockeries and planting beds, with fountains, cascades and water lily ponds.

Contributed by Kitchener Horticultural Society Rockway Gardens

This weeping willow is a tree to linger under and daydream, gazing upwards into dangling curtains of slender branches that nearly touch the ground and rustle at the slightest breeze. The massive trunk with its deeply furrowed bark leans and twists, giving it the characteristic gnarled appearance of old willow trees. And in spite of its size, it is tucked away in a tranquil corner of the hilltop like hidden treasure, rewarding those who unexpectedly encounter it. Maryanne is particularly fond of the setting. “It’s beautiful up there after a heavy snow. So quiet.”

It is not known who planted the Rockway weeping willow, or exactly when it was planted. However, by the 1930s its immediate neighbourhood, including the adjoining Rockway Golf Course, was being developed. A 1935 photograph of the hill shows the tree clearly.

Weeping willows, although not one of our native willows, are one of the most recognizable trees in our urban forest. Their distinctive, graceful beauty, as well as the vigour, rapid growth, and easy propagation of willow species, encouraged their introduction into North America from Europe and Asia. They became a beloved cultural symbol, celebrated in literature and in song, depicted in the visual arts. 

Willows may become structurally weak and prone to breakage when they grow large, and they tend not to be very long lived, but they possess a remarkable ability to regenerate. A willow branch requires only prolonged contact with moist soil in order to root. A collapsed trunk will sprout new shoots all along its length. A storm may snap off the crown of a mature willow, only for a new tree to regrow from the stump. Little wonder that the weeping willow was a popular carved motif on nineteenth century grave markers, representing immortality, in addition to mourning. 

The story of the Rockway Gardens weeping willow, like that of most of us who live long enough, is also marked by misadventure. Lightning has hit the tree two or three times. Arborists carefully removed almost twenty metres of damaged trunk in 2019. And still it grows, irrepressibly, as willows do. “It’s resilient,” says Maryanne. “It’s not the biggest tree, and it’s not the oldest tree, but it has history. And it’s been taken care of.”

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.

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