Ontario’s Own Heritage Red Oak

Written by ACER executive board member Elizabeth MacLean, with a tree planting guide by ACER founding president Alice Casselman.

Ontario has its own celebrated oak tree. Known as the Heritage Red Oak, the giant tree stands near the edge of the Humber River, in the yard of a house on Coral Gable Drive.

When the owner recently wanted to sell, the fate of the tree was unclear. Its roots endangered the house foundation and would lower the selling price of the property to a level he found unacceptable. The oak, however, is entitled to protection as a designated Ontario Heritage Tree.

A heritage tree “must be associated with a historic person or event or be growing on historically significant land.” Other factors, including age, beauty, size, and rarity are also considered. This red oak, aged somewhere between 250 and 350 years, is a landmark on the Toronto Carrying-Place Trail, the portage route of the indigenous peoples between the Holland Marsh and Lake Ontario. It may have been used as a “scouting tree.” It survived from the 18th century—if not earlier— in an area gradually cleared for lumber, agriculture, and urban sprawl. It is healthy, huge—spreading 24 metres, with a trunk 5 meters in circumference—and a beauty. And it’s working for the environment. ACER has calculated its carbon dioxide sequestration at 2.5 tons per year. 

Toronto City Council is protecting the tree with a plan to purchase the lot with money from both the city and a campaign for private donations spearheaded by Edith George and Mark Cullen. The oak will become the showpiece of a small parkette and will have a better chance of surviving into the future.

Update 10/15/2021: The City of Toronto is finalizing a deal to purchase the property, with the intention of building a parkette to celebrate and preserve the tree.

Read more about the Heritage Red Oak on the City of Toronto’s website.

To learn more about the Heritage Tree program, including how to nominate a tree, visit Forests Ontario’s website.

Plant Your Own Oak Tree

Now is the time to collect acorns from the white oak, which has leaves with rounded lobes. (Red and black oaks, with pointy-lobed leaves, produce acorns in spring.) Discard acorns with holes or infestation; drop the rest into a basin of water, and discard any that float to the top. Although white oak acorns will germinate in the fall, you can store them in soil over the winter using following “stratification” method. You need a pail with drain holes, sand, topsoil, and water. 

  1. Make a layer of damp sand about 3 cm deep in the bottom of the pail.
  2. Lay acorns on their sides in a circle.
  3. Cover with about 3 cm of topsoil and gently pat down.
  4. Add a 3 cm layer of sand, another circle of acorns, and cover with 3 cm of topsoil. 
  5. Repeat step 4 until all your acorns are covered, and top with a layer of topsoil.
  6. Cover tightly.
  7. Spray top layer with water weekly. 
  8. Store in a cold cellar or attached garage over winter.

9. In spring, when the acorns sprout white roots, plant in sandy, well-drained soil in full- to part-sun, with no more than 2.5 cm of soil covering the roots.

10. Water weekly the first few years, especially in dry season, while trees establish themselves. 

Oaks are low-maintenance trees if they have rich, acidic soil and room to grow. They thrive through cold, wet winters and hot humid summers.

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