For more than sixty years, Vancouverites have enjoyed a love affair each spring with the soul-stirring flowering plum and cherry trees that line our streets and grace our parks. In our City’s infant years in the late 1800s–until the 1940s, planting trees on boulevards and in parks often followed the tradition of large shade trees—elm, maple, chestnut and plane—trees that were tall, stately and long-lived. Many of those magnificent trees that were planted on our parks and streets so long ago still survive today.
Even before the middle of the last century, attitudes at the Park Board toward tree planting had begun to change. In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the staff initiated a number of significant cherry tree plantings—provided primarily as gifts to the Park Board. In the early 1930s the mayors of both Kobe and Yokohama presented the Park Board with 500 Japanese cherry trees for planting at the Japanese cenotaph in Stanley Park honouring Japanese Canadians who served in WWI. And so, as the impact of cherry tree plantings began to reshape the city’s landscape, Vancouverites were soon smitten by their fleeting beauty, their clouds of blossoms, as they heralded spring’s arrival each year.
By the mid 20th century other forces were at work that led to a shift in planting practices. The reality that large trees were not always the wisest planting choice led the Park Board to reconsider their tree planting practices. As these trees had grown to their full maturity, the attendant problems became obvious in the number of public complaints about roots invading sewer lines, heaving sidewalks, and canopies that interfered with utility lines.
By the 1950s, many trees on city streets, were being removed and replaced because of problems with roots and canopies, and the move away from the large, long-lived trees of earlier plantings intensified. In 1953 the News Herald reported that “elms, maples and other plain(sic) trees were on the way out as decoration for Vancouver’s streets and parks. The article explained that at the annual meeting of the Northwest Parks Association, Bill Livingstone, the Vancouver Park Board Supervisor at the time, announced that in their place, Park Board gardeners were planting flowering plum, cherry and crab apple trees. He explained that (the smaller ornamental trees) “give better value in colour and decorative effect, but also saved damage to pavements and sewers.” The introduction of ornamental street lighting was also sited by Mr. Livingstone for the move to flowering, smaller trees, because they averaged about 20-25 feet in height.
The Park Board’s 1954 Annual Report stated “…upwards of 80,000 trees on our boulevards throughout the city, many of which were planted fifty years ago by the home owners and which were mainly elms, maples, chestnuts, acacias and other trees which have grown to an enormous size. In this wet climate trees grow fast and we have quite a problem on our hands keeping these old trees within limits.” The Park Board, along with the utility companies began removing trees that were causing problems with utility wires. “As we are endeavouring to get away from the large, fast growing types of tress, we have specialized in plums, hawthorns (and) flowering cherries….”
In 1958 three hundred more cherry trees were donated by the Japanese consul, Muneo Tanabe, reported in the newspaper as “an eternal memory of good friendship between our two nations.” The ornamental cherries were planted along Cambie boulevard, between 49th and 33rd Avenues, in Queen Elizabeth Park and around the Japanese monument in Stanley Park.
In 1961 the Park Board hired its first full time arborist to handle public inquiries and to develop a system for recording the planting, pruning and removal of trees. An extensive tree selection program was initiated with an increased variety of species that were suitable to Vancouver’s climate and growing conditions. These were propagated in the Park Board’s newly acquired tree nursery. Of the 2,500 trees planted that year, most were flowering and smaller species. This trend toward planting ornamental flowering cherries and plums was to continue through the next couple decades.
By the time the Park Board completed its first comprehensive street tree inventory in 1990, nearly 36 percent of the 89,000 trees on city streets were represented by trees of the Prunus genus—the flowering plum and cherry trees. Of the 479 different classifications of trees identified in the inventory, the most common species was Prunus serrulata ‘Kwanzan’, the Kwanzan flowering cherry. (12.6 percent) This was followed by Prunus cerasifera, the Pissard plum. (12.4%)
The inventory and development of an urban forest plan ushered in an era of intensive tree planting, especially on Vancouver’s boulevards. The Park Board’s new plan recommended the introduction of a wider variety of tree species on our streets and parks to increase diversity and thereby ensure the continuation of a healthy urban forest. Many of the crab apples and hawthorns that had been planted in previous decades have had to be removed through the Park Board’s disease tree removal and replacement program because they were unsuitable for our Pacific Northwest climate.
Another factor that affected tree planting practices was the adoption of the ‘Clouds of Change’ report for a sustainable region by the Greater Vancouver Regional District. The report recommended the planting of large trees for their environmental benefits. This resulted in a move back to planting, where appropriate, larger deciduous trees and fewer of the smaller flowering trees. Also, according to arboriculture staff, the Kwanzan cherry has proven to be somewhat problematic for plantings ( canker , aphids , brown rot, cherry bark tortrix, heaved sidewalks). Akebono cherries, which seem to display superior performance in our rainy Pacific Northwest climate, have become been much more prevalent in Park Board planting programs. Plums have been de-emphasized due to root problems, though a significant number continue to be added as replacements.
Through the implementation of the Park Board’s urban forest management plan, the street tree population has increased to over 130,000. And though the Park Board continues to plant the beloved flowering cherry trees in high profile areas around the city and in our parks, the introduction of a broader variety of species will ensure Vancouver has a healthy, vibrant urban forest well into the future.
Vancouver Park Board