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Meet the man on a mission to map Toronto's oldest trees

Forestry expert Eric Davies says Toronto's oldest trees have valuable special abilities— they've evolved to thrive here for hundreds of years.

Eric Davies stands next to a red oak he estimates is around 150 years old at Park Drive Ravine in Toronto.

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Eric Davies stands next to a red oak he estimates is around 150 years old at Park Drive Ravine in Toronto.

How old is your most elderly neighbour? 80? 95?

Try 250. Maybe even older – assuming your neighbour is a tree.

Eric Davies, a U of T PhD candidate in forestry, is on a mission to map Toronto’s oldest and largest native trees. And he wants the wider community to appreciate them and help spread their most valuable assets: seeds.

Planting maple keys, acorns and hickory nuts taken from trees that have been here for centuries isn’t just a fun fall activity, Davies said. It’s a way to seed an urban forest that will be able to handle environmental turmoil in the future.

“If these trees are 200 or 150 years old, they’ve withstood hundreds of years – and actually, in their genes, thousands of years – of climatic variation,” Davies said.

In other words, these trees have lived so long because they have great genes. Their ancestors lived in the Toronto area. They've evolved to thrive here.

But most trees for sale in nurseries, even native ones, come from places like Ohio and Texas, Davies said. They don't have that Toronto magic in their DNA.

So this fall he and his colleagues are collecting seeds from the city’s old, stalwart trees, some to plant and some to share with nursery and architecture companies.

They're sprouting the acorns they collect, and come spring, will give away hundreds of young oaks for free to the public.

At opentreemap.org/torontoravines, they've made a map 500 of Toronto’s oldest trees, and are working on making it user-friendly enough to be the basis of a massive, crowd-sourced citizen science project.

For now, “People can go discover them and take pictures or write poems about them, whatever they want to do. And they can collect different (seeds to plant) like Pokémon,” Davies said.

The goal is to locate the largest (and therefore likely oldest) tree belonging to each of 70-plus native species, both in the city overall and in each ward.

Some wards are seriously lacking in trees. Biodiversity in Toronto’s ravines, where some of the oldest trees stand, is being choked by invasive species like Norway Maple, Davies said.  

Seeds aren’t the only reason to protect and love large, old, native trees. They’re ecosystems in their own right, attracting countless insect species and birds and creating a radius of increased biodiversity that extends for kilometres, Davies said.

“They’re big, they’re beautiful, they’re pretty rare and they need our help. They’re kind of like elephants or something; elephants of the forest.”

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