Save the trees

Written accounts by Red River settlers tell of a stark prairie landscape only interrupted by the occasional scraggly tree. And, an early photograph from the banks of the Red River looking west provides a visual example of what Winnipeg would look like without trees.

What transformed Winnipeg into a forest of green was that local people cared for and nurtured  trees. Civic pride was shown by planting trees along boulevards and streets and on private properties. 

Through the simple act of planting trees, Mary Ann Kirton earned her place in local history as “The Tree Lady.” Born in 1841, it is related by William Healy in Women of Red River that Mary was bringing in sheep one day when she spotted a maple sapling in a drainage ditch — in an area without trees that would have been a rare find. After making sure the sheep arrived home safely, she returned and dug up the sapling and transplanted it near her house.

At 18, Mary married Joseph Good who also shared her love of trees. Over the years, Mary continued to plant trees, especially elms in the Wolseley area. Through Mary’s efforts, the elm became the favoured tree used to line the city’s boulevards and streets. And, decades of caring resulted in Winnipeg becoming home to tens of thousands of trees.

While many still share Mary’s love for Winnipeg’s trees, years of neglect and poor practices, as well as the spread of Dutch elm disease and insect pests such as cankerworms, have taken their toll. Broadway, Winnipeg’s most famous elm-lined boulevard, is an example of the plight of the city’s elms, which the Coalition to Save the Elms is now bringing to local attention.

The coalition this week said that without intervention the elms “are doomed to disappear forever, taking with them the unique character of Broadway and part of our heritage.”

To forestall their demise, the coalition, with the support of the city’s forestry department, has started Broadway Adopt-a-Tree: A Tree Rescue Project. The plan is for local businesses and residents to contribute $1,000 each year for five years for each of the boulevard’s 160 elm trees.

The Broadway elms are among the most abused trees in Winnipeg. They are vandalized, posted with flyers, damaged by road salt and air pollution, hit by vehicles and snow removal equipment, and every construction season their roots are pierced or lopped off. It’s no wonder three trees had to be removed last year from Broadway and another six are projected  to be removed this year by the city’s forestry department.

The $160,000 raised by the coalition will be used to “clean, prune, water, vertical mulch, fertilize, band, remove dead trees, replant those that have fallen and provide ongoing inspection and assessment. 

“Over the next five years, we hope to rehabilitate many of the trees and literally bring new life back to Broadway,” said the coalition in a brochure produced to launch the campaign.

Each sponsor of an elm tree will have their contribution recognized with an identification bracelet on the tree and “official” adoption papers.

“It is our hope that the Broadway program will stimulate awareness of the importance of our urban forest among politicians, other decision makers and residents to make trees a priority,” the coalition said.

The coalition has chosen a good time to draw attention to the plight of the Broadway elms — the launch of Bears on Broadway which has been selected by WHERE magazine as one of the top-10 attractions to visit this summer in Canada. Sixty-two polar bear statues are scattered among the boulevard’s elms as a fund-raiser for CancerCare Manitoba. Decoration of the two-metre high statues was sponsored by local businesses.

The editors of the magazine said it is only fitting that the “artistic polar bears are roaming outdoors on Broadway’s tree-lined boulevard in downtown Winnipeg.”

The attraction of the bears is amplified by their setting on a “tree-lined boulevard.” Without the trees, the bears would be “roaming” on a stark concrete and asphalt landscape. Paved surfaces intensify summer’s heat and solar radiation is reflected and multiplied. Without trees to act as barriers, winter’s chilling winds would blow more freely across the cityspace.

In the real estate industry, curb appeal is often cited as a major selling feature for a home, and curb appeal comes from a well-groomed, well-treed property. The value of trees to the environment and private and public property is actually self-evident. It’s also something that Mary 150 years ago recognized when she started her tree-planting campaign.

(To contribute to the Adopt-A-Tree campaign, call the Coalition to Save the Elms at 832-7188, or 

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