Posted by: Anita Lahey
It narrowly escaped destruction during an early 90s development project. Volunteers replanted it; annual spring flooding along the Rideau River flattened it; and now its neighbours—who live in the beaver lodge down the bank—happily feast on it.
Each of its five, massive trunks—which snake in all directions from its core—sends up enough sinewy limbs to seem as if this one tree is growing an entire forest, all on its own. One of those limbs is arched like a secret doorway. Several have large chunks chewed out of them. Others, toppled and hanging on by strips, still sprout viable branches rippling with leaves.
It is the arresting Brewer Pond willow – most probably a hybrid crack willow – that could easily have inspired the fictional whomping willow which lords over the grounds of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.
“It’s a great survivor, I’ll tell you,” says John Bond, who’s known this willow since it moved to Brewer as part of a community tree-planting initiative thirty years ago. “It’s hung on by its fingernails.”
In September 1992, truckloads of rescued trees were delivered to Brewer Pond, where a hundred local volunteers, including many neighbourhood children, planted them around the pond and along the nearby dyke. The trees had been rescued from a development site in Ottawa’s west end by Capital City Releaf (now defunct) and gratefully accepted by OSCA’s environment committee, ECOS—the precursor to today’s EnviroCrew—which had been founded by John Bond and Fran Mowbray.
At that time, the pond was not the teeming wetland we know today. It was a polluted, abandoned swimming hole with sandy banks and no trees. “I convinced the city,” recalls Bond, “that Brewer Pond, rather than being mowed extensively, for a pond that hadn’t been used for swimming for 20 years, would be a good spot for tree planting and naturalization.” Bond’s argument worked, in part because he pointed out the cost of cutting the grass: a $100,000 budget item a wetland wouldn’t require.
This marked the start of a decade-long, grassroots, tree-planting spree around and near Brewer Pond, creating the woodsy habitat, teeming with wildlife, that locals now explore with their children and their dogs. That first spring, only about 25 percent of the trees survived the annual floods, the willow among them – but it went from upright to cracked and sprawled. “It was really just a flat, unprotected plain,” says Bond. “The waters tore in, brought all the debris from the river, and ripped the trees out. As more trees became established, it got easier for them to survive. They formed little clumps.”
Willow species are ancient sources of medicines; flexible twigs and branches for basketry; and even – ask any Hogwarts-trained wizard – wonderfully pliable magic wands. They’re fast-growing and difficult to identify, even for tree experts. This one, with its long, narrow leaves; its craggy, multi-trunked base; its deeply grooved older bark; its brittle limbs; and its enthusiastic sprouting, shares features of both the crack willow and the white willow. This makes it a likely “hybrid crack” candidate, a European cross between the two that’s widely established in North America.
Crack willows, which get their name from the noise made by a branch when it snaps off, provide habitat for many species in the cavities left behind by broken-off branches. Their roots protect against shoreline erosion, their leaves feed caterpillars and their early spring catkins provide nutrients for bees.
Brewer’s leggy old willow may not live to be ancient, though some pollarded (heavily cropped) crack willow specimens have been said to reach a thousand years. But its offspring will likely find new homes along the shore for decades to come. Willows don’t propagate via seeds, but by severed branches that literally put down roots in whatever hospitable – that is, moist – soil in which they come to rest. Beavers help out by discarding branches after having their fill of the tasty, nutritious inner bark.
Meanwhile, this survivor, frequented by chatty grackles and redwing blackbirds (and by equally raucous climbing children), will continue to play a crucial role in its wetland ecosystem. With luck, it will also continue to astound, as it did one winter day, about a quarter of a century ago, when Bond spotted a snowy owl sitting on one of its branches. “That was pretty special,” he says.
Featured in the July-August 2021 OSCAR.
Anita Lahey is a writer, editor, and member of the Tree Team, part of OOS’s Enviro Crew. If there’s a neighbourhood tree you’d love to see featured in a Tree Tales column, please contact envirocrewOOS@gmail.com.