Viewing local history through the trees
Heritage tree project documents St. Albert's significant trees
By: Susan Jones
| Posted: Wednesday, Sep 19, 2012 06:00 am
The last time John Beedle counted, which was in 2011, there were 65,000 trees on public property in St. Albert.
“There would be more now because I counted last year, but if you think about it, that’s one tree per citizen,” said Beedle.
Beedle is the keeper and the counter of all things related to trees in St. Albert. Though he retired from his position as city parks planner in 1990, he continued to serve the community as a volunteer at the St. Albert Botanic Park. During his 30 years of work at the city, he planted hundreds of trees and supervised the planting of thousands more.
Beedle is so passionate about trees that last spring he and fellow retired tree lovers Peter Murphy, Richard Plain and Edgar Toop joined together with city staffers Kevin Veenstra, Jacquelin von Platen, John Younie and Erin Gluck to form the St. Albert heritage tree project.
“John Beedle knows the different trees and the characteristics of the trees. We wanted a complete seasonal record that showed them in the winter, in the spring, when they are flowering, with leaves in the summer and of course in the fall. And Dr. Peter Murphy, who is an expert in forestry, can help with his knowledge and with botanical classification,” said retired mayor Richard Plain, who with Beedle, began the St. Albert Botanic Park in the early 1990s.
The goal of the heritage tree project is to identify and record the locations and characteristics of the city's notable trees and complete a botanical and historical reference that everyone can use.
“The trees are part of St. Albert's history. We have a history of the buildings and this record would be a connection to the ecological history,” said community recreation co-ordinator Erin Gluck.
Though the project is officially only six months old, much of the work was already done because Beedle has a mental list of St. Albert’s significant trees and some time ago he began compiling a photographic record of them. His carefully catalogued entries show many of the trees during the different seasons.
Once the project is finished, there could easily be enough information for a book that’s similar to the Heritage Trees of Alberta book, which the Heritage Tree Foundation of Canada published in 2008. Peter Murphy contributed information for that book about St. Albert’s white spruce forest as well as trees on Mission Hill and in the botanic park, but it’s a provincial survey and not extensive enough to outline all of this city’s trees.
“What needs to be done is an inventory and when John mused about the idea as a matter of interest I agreed,” said Murphy, a retired forestry professor. “There’s so much neat botanical stuff in St. Albert. St. Albert has a fortuitous history of trees.”
People and trees
St. Albert’s oldest planted trees are the two white spruce planted on the old homestead grounds that are now located in the botanic park. Murphy took a core sample of one of the trees and determined it was likely planted in 1916, perhaps during the middle of the First World War.
In 1917 the land was purchased by Tom Atkinson. In the early 1990s when Beedle began drawing up plans for the botanic park, the two spruce trees still sheltered an old building that remained on the property and Beedle surmised that the original house was shaded by those trees.
“I think the spruce trees were dug up in the bush and transplanted beside the house,” he said.
The planting of trees and the people that did the work are an integral part of this St. Albert survey because so many important historical events are commemorated by planting trees, Murphy said.
The planted trees with the biggest girth are likely the poplar trees on Founders’ Walk, located on Mission Hill.
“There was a whole avenue of poplars at one time on Founders’ Walk. Now there are three left. They were planted in 1928 in honour of the First World War veterans and now they are so big – 50 feet tall at least – and you can barely put your arms around them,” Beedle said.
He added that he hasn’t restricted his cataloguing efforts to beautiful trees because often it’s a tree’s location that makes it significant.
“The white spruce tree in front of the Art Gallery of St. Albert isn’t particularly handsome, but it was there in 1962 when I started working for the town. It looked just the same then as it does now,” he said.
Not all the surveyed trees are on public land but all may be viewed from public parks or roads. Unusual species include a 40-year-old black walnut, a Douglas fir and an Ohio buckeye.
Beedle believes there were 22,254 green ash trees planted on St. Albert boulevards. Though the trees are beautiful – drive along Forest Drive to see some – Beedle now thinks the ash species was not the best choice for boulevard trees given the effects of climate change.
“Ash trees get their leaves one week after other trees and they lose them one week earlier in the fall. But at the time they were planted I thought they were best because they weren’t affected by disease or bugs. Now 30 years later there are probably three or four bugs that attack them,” he said.
Poplars were planted on many boulevards, including Boudreau Road, but in retrospect the native species was not a good choice.
“The city or the developers wanted fast growing willows or poplars. They wanted instant noise buffers. To stop the noise and dust, they wanted something you just add water to and stir. But as those trees aged the roots got into people’s backyards and the concrete in every garage and sidewalk started cracking,” Beedle said.
The trees also suffered because they were planted in the divide between road lanes and they couldn't get enough water.
An experimental planting pattern was tried on many boulevards in Mission and Braeside, where as many as four different species were planted on one block.
“It created problems because one variety might get bugs on them and the tree had to be removed or it died so every fourth tree on the street was missing. The trees all needed to be sprayed or pruned at different times so the staff had to go back four times in one year. The trees had different habits and didn’t look neat,” Beedle said.
Early in his career Beedle rejected the urban planting policy used by other communities, such as Sherwood Park, where the sidewalks were placed adjacent to curbs, without room for boulevards or trees.
“I didn't approve of that monolithic look with no boulevards. In St. Albert the boulevards were added to the park space,” he said.
When it comes to the heritage tree project, the final format of the record hasn’t been determined. So far it’s tabulated in a file box, according to neighbourhood. It’s hoped that once all the photos have been taken for all the seasons, the information can be put into a usable format, perhaps as a coffee table book, but more likely as a handout.
The result could be useful to anyone interested in knowing what trees will grow in St. Albert. Walkers or hiking groups could also use it and equate the city’s history with its trees.
"The trees have stories and what needs to be determined is how that information will be provided,” said parks planner John Younie.
“But there is a legacy here of all the windbreaks, the shelter breaks and all the trees. It's also a legacy of the people who planted them, and John Beedle literally had a hand in planting nearly every tree in St. Albert.”