Sep 28, 2010

Mount Royal Cemetery: fall foliage at its best at this "bowl of magic" says expert

Fall is finally here - and the colours in Montreal will soon be drop-dead gorgeous, as you can see in these photos I took last year at.... a cemetery! Yep: this is one of the city's top places for leaf peeping! Founded in 1852, the Mount Royal Cemetery is one of the oldest rural cemeteries in North America. The cemetery's 165 acres cover a good part of the north flank of Mount Royal. It's simply beautiful: walkways, wooded trails, 145 species of birds and century-old trees.


But don't take my word for it: Montreal's top tree and plant expert, Bronwyn Chester, calls it a "bowl of magic"! Recently, Chester (who writes about the topic in The Gazette newspaper) dedicated a column to the Mount Royal Cemetery, and graciously allowed me to reproduce the text below:

"Forgive me for taking you back to the Mount Royal Cemetery. Normally, I like to vary the innumerable locations on Island Montreal where trees abound. But, just as certain trees are exceptional, so are certain tree sites. Located on the north face of Mount Royal, spanning the bottom and two sides of the land between the Mount Royal and the Outremont summits, the cemetery is a bowl of magic. Insulated from the hum of the city and, indeed, from most evidence of the 21st and 20th centuries, it’s possible to feel suspended in time and space, and with that feeling, to feel nowhere except in the presence of an extraordinary landscape.


The vistas, old river beds, forest remnants, the strange and often wonderful gravestones whisper mystery. Yet, one never feels alone. The birds, squirrels, groundhogs and fox chatter and rustle their reminders to us all that they are the permanent residents – at least, among the living – of this sacred place.




And then there’s the mammoth, yet furtive, presence of trees. Look at one of the 200-year-old oaks, maples, hickories or pine from one angle and you might see little else. Walk up or down the slope a few metres and suddenly there’s a katsura, dawn redwood or hawthorn to be seen. The vision for the cemetery, you see, from its opening in 1851, has been to marry the grand old trees of the original forest, with the new, generally smaller, trees planted to accompany the dead.

One of the earliest of the planted trees is a sprawling mountain ash, the girth of which I have never seen elsewhere. Measuring almost eight feet (2.4 metres) around, the smooth, metallic grey bark seems stretched to the limit. It grows beside the tombstone of H. Brodie, a Montreal notary who died in 1899. Brodie was of Scottish lineage and I’m guessing the tree was planted close to the time of his burial. This mountain ash is the European Sorbus aucuparia, known to the Scots as witchwood because the tree was believed to keep away witches.



This particular tree was planted under the protection of what today is an old tamarack, or eastern larch, a coniferous member of the original forest, which was left uncut. Age has sculpted both trees into asymmetry and low lying branches, making it easy to see their fruit and leaf. You will find both in the B4 section of the cemetery. The tamarack is 93 in the cemetery’s index of tree species, making it easy to find the mountain ash.



How did rowan, witchwood, quickbeam – or any other of the Old World names for Sorbus aucuparia – become mountain ash? While the tree is not an ash, almost all species of mountain ash do have a compound leaf just like all ashes. However, the similarity stops there. All sorbus species, just like all its fellow members of the rose family, have alternate leaves, while the ashes leaves are opposite. The namer of our two native species, however, did get the mountain part right. Both mountain ash, Sorbus americana, and showy mountain ash, Sorbus decora, prefer rocky, upland sites though never far from a waterway.



While the robin values the fruit of the mountain ash, we humans do little with the tree aside from enjoying its beauty. A few people, however, still knowledgeable in the skills of the tree age, make a sweetened sauce with the vitamin C-rich berries (best to do after a first frost). Others, like Montreal wood-turner, Luc Fournier, make bowls from the red and cream hues of mountain ash wood."
For more info or to book a guided tree walk, contact Chester via this link.

And here, a link to an excellent interactive map showing nearby restaurants, on the Tourisme Montreal website.





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