Toronto is filled with thousands of trees both big and small, but one in particular, in the backyard of a North York bungalow, stands apart.
Its name is Zhelevo, and as the oldest tree in the city, it has been a constant presence while all around, landscapes have changed, newcomers have settled and a country was born.
“If that tree could talk, who knows the stories that it could tell about Canada before it was even Canada,” said Edith George, an advocate for heritage tree preservation and adviser to the Ontario Urban Forest Council.
“There are trees and heritage trees, and then there’s this tree; she is the Rolls-Royce,” said Ms. George, who has been advocating for the tree’s protection for the past 14 years. In 2009, it was designated a heritage tree by the Forests Ontario Heritage Tree Program.
Named Zhelevo after a folk tale about a tree from Ms. George’s family village of the same name in Macedonia, the red oak sitting behind 76 Coral Gable Dr. is, to the best estimate, more than 300 years old. It was here before Canada became a country, and will be here after many of Toronto’s current residents are gone as long as it’s protected, Ms. George says.
Toronto City Council recently voted to purchase the property on which Zhelevo sits to create a small park dedicated to the massive tree. The city will pay half of the purchase price and the community must fundraise for the rest, about $430,000, by Dec. 12.
If the fundraising target isn’t met and no extension is given, the city will not proceed with the property purchase. Raised funds would instead be donated to Urban Forestry’s grants programs, said Kris Scheuer, a city communications adviser.
Efforts have already raised about $113,000, which includes a $100,000 pledge from gardening writer Mark Cullen and his wife, Mary.
“If we don’t make an effort to save [the tree], then what does that say about who we are as a society and as a city?” Mr. Cullen said. “What does that say about what we value of our history?”
Zhelevo is considered a remarkable specimen, not only for its size and age but also for the fact that it survived the colonization period of the Humber River Valley, where land was cleared for farming, logging and the subdivision in which the tree is located.
“The tree itself is a representative of a lost ecosystem,” said Chris Bateman, a program manager at Heritage Toronto, who awarded the tree a commemorative heritage plaque in September, 2019. The area around the Humber Valley was once savannah land, and the tree may also have served as a marker on the historic Toronto Carrying Place trail, a portage route that went from the mouth of the Humber River to the Lake Simcoe area.
In 2018, the tree was measured and had a circumference of more than five metres at chest height and stood close to seven storeys tall. It was estimated as being more than 300 years old, although the exact age is difficult to determine without doing a core analysis, which could damage the tree, said Daniel Boven, the manager of tree protection in the city’s department of parks, forestry and recreation.
The community is hoping to use the small park as an opportunity to share a sliver of Toronto’s natural history.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we took this time, at this very moment in Canada’s history when we’re reaching out to Indigenous people and we’re going through a period of reconciliation, to dedicate this park and this tree to our Indigenous history?” Mr. Cullen said.
For Ms. George, the city’s recognition of Zhelevo’s importance marks a change in the heritage mindset. “Everyone keeps talking about built heritage,” she said. “It’s time to have respect for our natural heritage.”