Tree of The Year 2023 Finalist: Woolwich

White Elm
Woolwich Township
Elmira Nature Reserve, South Field Drive and Union Street, Elmira

Age: approximately 65 years old
Height: 16.75-18.25 m / 55-60 ft
Diameter at Breast Height: multiple trunks

“This was all buckthorn. Some of it was really big; it came halfway up the trunks of the other trees.”

Those other trees—mostly native cedar and tall stands of silver maple—include three rare white elms, dubbed the Three Sisters, as big as the maples. Mark Schwarz is standing in a grassy clearing that is presided over by the trees, an area undergoing restoration at the Elmira Nature Reserve.

The buckthorn that came halfway up those trees, crowding out nearly everything else in the understory, was the invasive common buckthorn. It was brought to North America in the 1800s for ornamental plantings and farm hedgerows. Unlike white elm, common buckthorn has far outdone itself, surpassing the “common” in its name: it is pervasive in many natural areas, woodlots, parks, and even backyards, from Saskatchewan to Nova Scotia and in much of the United States. Here at the Reserve, where Mark has overseen the painstaking eradication of acres of the shrubby stuff, tiny buckthorn seedlings are popping back up here and there. They will be mowed. He says, “Buckthorn can stick around for hundreds of years . . . we think.”

The Three Sisters were not known until Mark and work crews found them while removing the buckthorn. Everyone was very pleased, as any native elm in Southern Ontario that lives long enough to attain such a size is a minor miracle. Towering white elms were once common in our cities and forests, but in the span of a hundred years the introduced fungus that causes Dutch elm disease has all but extirpated North America’s otherwise tough native elms from their range. Even so, there are large trees that have managed to survive, most due to their isolation, a few perhaps because of their disease resistance. Developing new varieties from fungus-resistant white elms has produced some promising results so far. 

At the Elmira Nature Reserve, intensive efforts spearheaded by Trees for Woolwich and the Township of Woolwich Environmental Enhancement Committee have made progress against invasive buckthorn, garlic mustard, and phragmites grass. In their place, thousands of native trees from the Reserve’s nursery have been planted, and a diversity of habitats is taking root. In some cases, rehabilitating degraded ecosystems that were already here.

The Reserve was established in 2021 on roughly 65 acres of floodplain, former agricultural land, and neglected woodlot belonging to the Township of Woolwich. Now, the partnership of volunteers, not-for-profit organizations, municipal government, private donors, and local businesses is determined to bring natural habitats back to this place. Mark says, “This whole thing was already graded, pastured, drained . . . and it can be restored. We’re trying to push the ecosystem in certain directions.” 

The effects of these ambitious initiatives are already clear to see, and striking to behold.  Mixed forest, savanna, wetland, tallgrass prairie, and pollinator meadow habitats are transforming a forsaken patch of land into a natural oasis. Walking trails and signage are making much of it accessible to visitors. 

Sometimes, the natural world has the potential to bounce back quickly, even in highly compromised locales. All that is needed is the imagination to see it, and the resolve to act. As Inga Rinne of Trees for Woolwich puts it, “We have areas that we just write off. In fact, if you look closely, they’re hidden gems.”

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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