Iconic tree fights ‘losing game’; hope sprouts beneath

Special to Western NewsThe iconic purple beech/copper beech in front of University College was just a sapling in this photo, shot in the 1930s.

It’s not the oldest tree on campus – not by a long shot – but it may be one of Western’s most recognizable. For years, its broad branches stretched out an invitation to those looking for shade. Graduates have posed with their degrees beneath its canopy.

But, wracked by disease and marred by several emergency amputations, the European beech that stands atop University College Hill is nearing its end – with an understudy already growing in the wings.

The tree’s impending demise is both a cautionary tale about non-native species and an object lesson in landscape stewardship.

“It’s quite an iconic tree,” said Biology professor Greg Thorn, Director of the W. Sherwood Fox Arboretum that includes all 4,500-plus trees on campus.

He noted a 1930s photo of UC Hill shows the purple beech as a sapling. (It’s also known as a copper beech because its leaves change from yellow to purple between spring and fall.) As a mature tree, it had a healthy broad canopy above its gnarled trunk.

Now about 80 years old, it is fragile and dying by degrees.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Its decline during the past five years has been steady, said Mike Lunau, Manager (Landscape Services). A decision will have to be made in the spring about whether it will have to go.

“We’re just about there,” he said.

His team has carefully pruned ailing limbs, but the wounds have also introduced fungi that are eating the tree alive.

“Literally, the heart of the tree has rotted from the core,” Thorn said. “Eventually, it’s going to be a losing game.”

The tree can live for centuries in its native Europe. Just not here.

“That seems to be a common thing – when we bring species out of their natural range, they don’t have the same lifespan,” Thorn said. “This purple beech has probably lived its normal lifespan for Canada and probably lived half or one-quarter of the lifespan of a European beech in Europe.”

In the wild, a tree like this would simply fall down and become food for other life.

But when it’s this tree’s time to go, Lunau’s staff have other plans for the wood.

Just as a 340-year-old oak felled beside the tennis bubble was cut into slabs for re-purposing in some future building renovation, the wood from this tree will be saved for other uses, perhaps in wood-turning or bowls.

Lunau said there’s also a succession plan – one of three Vimy Oaks has been planted nearby to take its place.

Campus became home to 150 newly planted trees this past summer, he said.

Some are unusual for the region – these are usually planted in areas such as courtyards or other micro-climates that offer more protection from the elements – but for the most part Lunau’s team is eschewing exotic species in favour of a more robust ecosystem of trees native to this area’s Carolinian zone.

“The theme of landscape stewardship is what we’re promoting,” he said.

Meanwhile, Thorn is a realist and an optimist about the old beech.

“It’ll have to come down and a nice new tree will replace it, he said. “In 20 to 30 years that will become someone else’s favourite tree.”