In Toronto, trees matter. And during the festive season, they shine a little brighter. To pay tribute to the tradition of the Christmas tree, Lisa Rochon asked landscape architects, urban designers, ecologists and business leaders to come up with the trees that mean the most to them. Here’s her list, culled from many dozen heartfelt nominations.
1) A trio of tall evergreens dressed in refined golden lights graces the one-storey banking pavilion at the Toronto-Dominion Centre at 77 King Street West every Christmas. While not as ostentatious as some of the mega-artificial trees attempting to dazzle us downtown, they shimmer like gold. The three trees stand behind the sublime façade of glass and black metal I-beams designed by Mies van der Rohe as if to represent the original trio of buildings at the Toronto-Dominion Centre (1964-71), including the one-storey pavilion, and the 56-storey and 46-storey towers.
2) Within the epic living room of Union Station, below an arched, Beaux Arts window, rises a nine-metre Christmas tree sparkling with thousands of LED lights that suddenly radiate every time somebody sends a social media message. Text a message to 70734 or post a message (something loving and seasonally upbeat?) to http://www.christmasspirittree.ca/ and blue strobe lights flash maniacally. Stand there and watch messages popping up about the pleasures of secret Santa, or Darth Vader conducting a Christmas flash mob or the guy who’s twittering his earnest hope for requited love. The Christmas spirit tree is the brainchild of Tribal DDB, an advertising agency and sponsored by Canadian Tire.
3) At Evergreen Brick Works, three white pines have been newly planted in Koerner Gardens below the exposed steel trusses of a 1957 factory where most of Toronto’s bricks were once manufactured. The white pines are part of the compelling narrative at work at the reinvented Brick Works, where raw industrial space frames nature. This weekend, the ice rink opens at the Koerner Gardens, so that skaters can glide on a trail around the trees perched atop the largest of three planted mounds. The white pines were selected by Montreal landscape architect Claude Cormier to help conjure up the Group of Seven.
4) Trees in the Beaches in Toronto’s east end never suffered the same kind of clear-cutting as downtown, so there are stands of massive black oaks to be found in some of the front yards and rare sunrise redwoods in Kew Gardens. At Christmastime, there’s a spectacle of artfully lit trees running along much of the boardwalk. Some 15 trees, including oaks, willows and maples, are festooned in colourful LEDs. It takes volunteer Rick DeClute, co-owner of DeClute Real Estate, and a couple of his employees three weeks to install the lights using zoom-booms rented from a movie company.
5) Let’s call it Toronto’s Charlie Brown tree. It’s a stump, the remains of a tree cut down the way so many of our street trees end up, the product of city neglect and an inability to value and maintain beauty within our public spaces. This sad thing sits in one of those nasty concrete planters, the kind that line University Avenue, Toronto’s version of a grand boulevard. Next to the historic Campbell House and diagonally across from the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, there’s nothing but existential black humour to squeeze from the stump in a box of dirt. Consider, too, the spindly, slow-dying trees when compared to the lush forest that once ran the length of University Avenue.
6) Dufferin Grove Park in Toronto’s west end is a triumph of humanity – every day, not just at Christmas. There’s the wood-baking oven, and Friday night suppers and cookies to keep teens distracted after school. In 1995, the artist and landscaper Gene Threndyle planted a nursery so that a bunch of trees could grow up together, rather than suffer alone. Set south of the field house (1913), there are white pines, trembling aspen, oak and chokecherries that attract flocks of birds. A split-rail fence surrounds this cathedral of greenery.
7) Toronto’s back lanes should represent the next promised frontier of urban development, but the city has been turtle-slow in embracing what Vancouver managed to years ago. That’s what makes the flourishing of trees in Toronto’s back lanes all the more remarkable, especially when something rare and exotic sprouts there – like the black and silver-green Russian Olive discovered by landscape architect Christopher Pommer in his St. Clair West neighbourhood. As Mr. Pommer says, “Even in winter, it’s a great tree.”
8) Orchards once flourished in the Annex when Taddle Creek and its tributaries flowed there. The once fabled stream water was buried under asphalt long ago, but the giant old silver maples that grace Albany, Howland and Brunswick Avenues live on, enhancing the civility of the neighbourhood, with their feet rooted in the groundwater that flows underneath.
9) Two hundred and fifty years ago, a red oak acorn took root in what is now the Kipling Heights area in the far west of Toronto, but was then part of an ancient Oak Savannah. Today, one of Ontario’s largest red oaks stands 24 metres high and 495 cm in circumference, and practically devours a bungalow with its branches. Trees Ontario and the Ontario Heritage Tree Program have given the red oak a Heritage Tree designation.
10) A golden giant, the willow at Fort York is a lonely, singular tree, standing just inside the fort’s thick stonewall, offering protection to a red-brick barrack. And at the fort’s southern edge, a series of poplars reach as high as 60 feet to sway against the Gardiner Expressway.