What makes a heritage plant? And who decides it’s a heritage plant in the first place?
Before I answer that, allow me to tell a few stories.
In the early 1920s, Walter Holowash fell in love with Vienna’s chestnut trees. He was in the Austrian city studying violin. Walter then smuggled at least one seed in his luggage when he returned home to Edmonton. His father, Sam, planted it in their backyard.
While the Holowash family home is now long gone, Walter’s chestnut seedling stands 40 feet tall and wide, in an alley just off of Jasper Avenue and 106 Street. Its chestnuts are not edible. Still, the Holowash chestnut is an uncommon sight in Edmonton — especially placed between downtown office towers.
East of the Holowash chestnut, at the funicular, you can see another tree that came from elsewhere: wild goji berries. These trees cover the north slopes of the valley. Edmonton’s wild goji berries are
believed to be the holdouts of at least one of 15 Chinese market gardens that dotted the river valley in the early twentieth century. Goji, a Chinese culinary plant, whose berries and leaves often end up in soups, were brought to Edmonton by early Chinese immigrants wanting to grow familiar fruit and vegetables.
The plants now cover large portions of the core — the funicular, Hotel MacDonald, the Shaw Conference Centre, Louise McKinney Park and Riverdale all have goji patches.
But while Holowash’s chestnut is a recognized heritage tree, there is there little recognition of the historical and cultural value of the city’s wild goji.
So back to the question: what makes one a heritage plant and the other not?
From what I can tell, four things give a plant heritage status and protection in Edmonton. Novelty. Historical reference. Time. And, as cliché as it sounds, love.
Most importantly, somebody needs to care enough about a plant to advocate on its behalf. Somebody needs to say, “I think this is worth acknowledging, preserving, and knowing about.”
The Holowash chestnut had that. To quote Heritage Trees of Alberta, a 2008 book published by the Heritage Tree Foundation of Canada: “A developer proposed to clear all the trees for a parking lot, but agreed to save the chestnut when Earl Andrusiak, a bank official, authorized a purchase loan contingent on the tree’s survival.”
Andrusiak cared. Developers, city planners, citizens — and in this case, bankers — won’t preserve what they don’t care about. But why care at all? Are plants that important to downtown Edmonton?
I think they are.
According to estimates by OpenTreeMaps.org, each year, Edmonton’s downtown trees save half a million kilowatt-hours of energy needed for heating and cooling. They suck up 1.7 million gallons of water, remove 12,000 pounds of air pollution, and remove half a million pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. Trees moderate temperature extremes, calm the wind and make urban streets welcoming for humans.
Trees are living monuments whose lives span human generations. Heritage trees, offer a simultaneous connection to our past and future. Heritage plants nod to the people and cultures that planted them.
Twenty feet down from a goji patch, sandwiched between the Shaw and the Courtyard Hotel, stands a mature native balsam poplar tree, dated 1932. While it is old by Edmonton standards and undeniably beautiful, I know nothing of its backstory. Other than that someone cared about it.
I recently contacted the City’s Historic Resource department who primarily deal with the built environment. While they confirmed that heritage trees are in the City’s heritage inventory there doesn’t presently exist a clear path forward for nominating new plants.
I would love to see this change. And I would like to work with the community to identify tomorrow’s heritage plants. So, if you love a tree and think that it’s worth acknowledging and preserving, be in touch.
Dustin Bajer is passionate about integrating nature into cities. He is an educator, beekeeper and urban tree farmer. Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org