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City workers remove the remains of a Lawson Cypress tree due to root rot in front of City Hall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. The tree will be replaced by a blue sequoia tree which has resistance to root rot. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)
City workers remove the remains of a Lawson Cypress tree due to root rot in front of City Hall in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, August 27, 2014. The tree will be replaced by a blue sequoia tree which has resistance to root rot. (Rafal Gerszak For The Globe and Mail)

Cedars in front of City Hall in Vancouver doomed from the start Add to ...

When Vancouver’s new art deco City Hall opened in 1936, a make-work project for the tough Depression years, its clean south façade of vertical lines was punctuated by two tidy cedar trees.

At first, they fit in with the buns-and-rockets landscaping shapes then prevalent. Historical pictures of City Hall show that off.

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But those shrubby pillars quickly developed into mighty cedars, prompting picture-takers of later decades to focus on the unobstructed north side. The trees, however, became ideal for annual Christmas light displays.

This Wednesday, one of the two cedars – presumably now 78 years old – was hauled away. A crew came in at dawn to take down the one in front of City Hall’s west wing, after it got infected with root rot, turned brown and died in the last few years.

“This is fairly rare, having trees die in Vancouver,” says Douglas Justice, associate director of the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden and one of the city’s top plant experts. “But this is a special case with this type of tree. These are beautiful trees, but they’re all going to die.”

Mr. Justice said City Hall’s cedar trees are part of a wave of Lawson cypress cedars exported from their native terrain of southern Oregon and northern California up and down the coast in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Vancouver, Victoria and Seattle particularly embraced the tree as decorative greenery during the postwar housing boom.

They were planted all over Vancouver, sometimes as hedges around places like Mountain View Cemetery, sometimes on city boulevards, sometimes as grand trees on Shaughnessy estates.

“They were the foundation plants,” said Mr. Justice.

But it turned out the cedars were susceptible to a soil-borne mould that is easily transmitted from place to place by dirty shoes.

“It’s slowly been making its way around,” Mr. Justice said.

For many years, he’s been warning anyone who will listen about the problem. “I’ve been a voice in the wilderness talking about this,” said Mr. Justice, who wrote an article called The Untimely Demise of the Lawson Cypress for Pacific Horticulture magazine in 2002.

There aren’t many cures for the root rot that infects these cedars, although avoiding over-watering, foot traffic, or fertilizer can “delay the inevitable.” Newly planted trees can be protected by grafting the tree onto a different root base.

Mr. Justice said the Lawson cedar problem is unique among the city’s older trees. For the rest, “there’s very little that goes wrong with stuff here.”

The park board does take down about 1,500 dead, dying or hazardous trees a year, though the removals are not connected to the age of the tree.

The city experienced a rash of falling trees and branches this summer, including a maple at the Victory Square park that crashed onto a car and trapped a couple of people for a while.

In the meantime, the city’s fallen soldier will be replaced with a blue Sequoiadendron tree.

“That’s not a bad substitution,” said Mr. Justice. “They’ll just have to careful not to set it too close to the wall.”

As for the remaining cedar, it’s likely just a matter of time before it goes.

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