By Joanne Chianello
Published in the Ottawa Citizen on: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/local-news/0701-col-chianello
It’s this country’s most recognizable symbol, emblazoned on our flag and on one of our nation’s hockey jerseys. It’s commemorated in song — it’s even mentioned in one of the unsung stanzas of our national anthem — and, perhaps less loftily, it lends its name to a massive Canadian food company.
The point is, the maple leaf is practically synonymous with Canada, as evidenced by the fact that maple trees can be found in abundance from sea to sea.
But are they actually Canadian maples? One charity on a mission to preserve our national arboreal emblem warns that fewer maple trees planted over the past few decades are actually Canadian.
“Get a nursery catalogue and you’ll see that not one of the maples is a truly Canadian native maple,” said Ken Jewett, the founder of Maple Leaves Forever.
Neither are many of the ones being planted throughout Ontario, according to Maple Leaves Forever. In the late 19th century, the provincial government paid landowners to plant maples from their woodlots along roadsides and hedgerows, especially in southern Ontario. As these trees begin to die out, they are being replaced with foreign cultivars mostly from the United States. Many nurseries have red and sugar maple saplings for sale, for example, but they aren’t necessarily certified as coming from Canadian species. The description will often say that the tree is “native to parts of North America.”
While the Canadian maple is not in danger of disappearing, the grammatically correct Maple Leaves Forever is committed to raising the issue, as Canadians have no idea that many of the maples they see — and possibly plant — aren’t from our true and native land.
Last week, the group scored a major if relatively symbolic win when the National Capital Commission’s board of directors committed to planting exclusively one of the 10 Canadian native maple species on its land whenever a maple is called for.
A thrilled Jewett gave full credit for the NCC’s proclamation to the relatively new CEO, Mark Kristmanson, who “was a breath of fresh air. He made it happen.” (Kristmanson is establishing a reputation for getting the NCC to move quickly on practical and smaller-scale issues, instead of pondering every question for years and years.)
“What (the NCC decision) means for us is a leadership role for the rest of Canada,” said Jewett. “The rest of Canada looks to Ottawa, the capital, to set an example.”
Maple Leaves Forever wants the City of Ottawa to make a commitment similar to that of the NCC. The city has told the group — and the Citizen — that its “practice is to prefer a diverse mix of native species,” including native maples. And the city has worked with the charitable group, which puts its money where its mouth is. Through Jewett — who worked first for Abitibi Paper then made his real money founding a frozen food company — the group picks up a third of the cost for any group planting a minimum of 25 certified maple saplings.
Mayor Jim Watson has thanked Maple Leaves Forever for donating more than $30,000 to help the city plant almost 1,300 native maples in recent years.
But the very persistent group — “For a small group, we make a lot of noise,” boasted Jewett — wants a more formal policy statement, and isn’t sure why the city won’t commit to the cause.
“They’ve said it’s because they prefer ‘biodiversity’ — well we’re all in favour of biodiversity!” exclaimed the 84-year-old Jewett. “If you want to plant a birch or an oak, go right ahead. All we’re saying is that if you’re going to plant a maple, make sure it’s a Canadian maple.”
It’s hard to argue with this point of view, especially this week. And Jim Watson’s office confirmed that “This is something the mayor is looking closely at.”
Let’s hope so. Most horticulturists — including those working for the city — agree with the principle of planting native species. As Maple Leaves Forever points out, native trees are relatively resistant to most native pests and many severe weather events. Even the NCC is officially on side!
As we cast about for ways to celebrate the 150th anniversary of confederation, committing ourselves to planting this country’s emblematic tree on our native land seems the least we can do.