When most people are asked what best symbolizes Canada, almost everyone responds with “the maple leaf”. Emblazoned on our national flag, federal government signage and in our collective minds, the maple leaf has the distinction of being our beloved national symbol. The mighty tree from which it comes from is strong and beautiful, but where can we find the oldest maple tree? Is it even in Canada? This question is what lead me to the legend of THE GREAT WISHING TREE.
History books tell us of the many events that took place in the 13th century, from the fierce invasion of China by the Mongols lead by Genghis Khan, to the signing of the Magna Carta, and here in Canada, the exploration of the arctic region by Norse Vikings. It was also at this time in history that a little maple tree began to grow, a tree that would end up being the oldest known sugar maple in the world, a tree that would see countless meetings and events take place beneath its leaves over a span of 700 years…a tree that was right here in our backyard.
The area of West Lake in Prince Edward county is a magical place lined with blazing sand dunes, lapping waters and a vibrant flock of tourists that descend upon it in the summer months. Thousands upon thousands of people drive along West Lake Road each year on their way to Sandbanks Provincial Park, but very few of them probably realize that they are driving over what was once the world’s oldest sugar maple, a tree known to locals as “The Wishing Tree’. Currently, the oldest known maple tree resides in Mark. S. Burnham Provincial Park near Peterborough, Ontario. It is the oldest known living sugar maple in the world, certified by Wasyl Bakowsky, a biologist at the Ministry of Natural Resources in Peterborough, who determined the tree age to be at least 330 years old based on samples he drilled. Another UNconfirmed maple tree in the Comfort Maple Conservation Area in Pellham in the Niagara Region is said to be more than 500 years old.
The legend of our famed tree in Prince Edward County puts its age at over 700 years old. How can this be true? Well let’s take a look…
The tree we are in search of is said to have started its life as a sapling around 1200AD, a maple tree growing in size and reputation at West Lake where it became a special meeting place for the local indigenous tribes. It was under this maple tree that elders and tribe leaders would meet. In its shade, Mohawk and Algonquin tribes would barter goods, becoming a well known meeting place not just in Prince Edward County, but across North America.
The mighty maple would be recognized by native tribes across the continent as a place for feasting, celebration and also of negotiating conflicts. It is said that the Mohawks met under this tree to form their allegiance with the Iroquois League in the 1500s.
The tree got its name “The Wishing Tree” from the fact that young native children would collect fallen bark from its branches, and then toss up the pieces into its web of leaves and branches. If the piece of bark stayed up in the tree, they were then granted a wish. It was thus known as The Wishing Tree.
This magical tree continued growing for hundreds of years and in the 1700s when the first of the United Empire Loyalists began to settle in the area, the simple foot path to the tree was widened to accommodate horseback travelers and a larger volume of visitors who wanted to see this legendary old maple tree.
As more and more people began to populate the County, the footpath, turned horse path, was widened further to accommodate carriages, and the path to the tree expanded to go around the tree. Measured to now be at close to 200 feet in height in the 1800s, people flocked to it for picnics, family gatherings and much relaxing under its cooling shade. Postcards were made featuring the legendary Wishing Tree. Tourists now driving automobiles would make it a destination to have their photo taken with the famous old Wishing Tree.
A lodge was built in 1837 across from the tree which was aptly named “Wishing Tree Lodge” on what is now called West Lake Road. A landmark tree standing strong for centuries would sadly soon see the fame it created for itself contributing to its demise.
With so many cars now passing over its giant network of roots, the weight of traffic compacted them, irreversibly damaging it. The magical maple’s fate would soon be sealed when nature itself decided to end the tree’s existence in 1925. A bolt of lightning struck the tree and it began to decay back into the earth form where it began. In 1941 after years of dying slowly, the grand old Wishing Tree was finally felled, its true age now being revealed by chainsaw.
A cross section of its trunk was cut and the rings could now be counted. Sure enough, it was confirmed that the Wishing Tree was truly the oldest known maple tree in the world at 731 years. The tree that lived through so much history since its life began in 1200AD, was then hauled away with not a single trace of its existence left behind. Lost in time, it vanished.
It was thus my goal to find out where this legendary tree once stood and bring it to the attention of you, the reader, who may have unknowingly driven over the same magical spot that those before us once met, shared knowledge, stories, items and the simple enjoyment of the great Wishing Tree.
So how do we track down where the Wishing Tree once stood? No one seems to know exactly where it was that I talked to, except one person who pulled out the book “A Settler’s Dream”. There is a mention of a Wishing Tree Lodge, an old inn built across from the tree. Opening it up to page 126 there is listed “Wishing Tree Lodge” where the house is described along with the story of the Wishing Tree. The Inn still stands there today, but is now a private residence. A quick check of Google Streetview confirmed the old brick lodge is still there, but where was the mighty tree that once stood outside of it? Was there an old stump?
My parents remembered seeing an old photo in a book they had, and an elderly gentleman who knew of the tree before it was cut down in the 1940s was pictured standing on West Lake Road where the tree once stood. That photo was found, and sure enough the old brick lodge is seen in the background. We could then use that photo to superimpose it over a current photo taken at the same angle to give us the exact location of where the Wishing Tree once stood.
A simple exercise in Photoshop quickly revealed where our legendary landmark once was. A drive to the spot to see it in person was extremely gratifying, as I was now able to stand on the very same spot as the legend told, the place where countless people once met to share in the tree’s magical essence. All around me smaller maple trees were growing, likely the offspring of the now vanished Wishing Tree.
No plaque exists, no marker shows those who pass by what a special place that this once was where the oldest maple tree once made its home. I quickly jumped off the road before a speeding car of beach-goers zoomed by, its driver oblivious to the fact they were roaring over this special spot.
Perhaps someday a plaque will be erected to mark the location of what was once the oldest known sugar maple tree in the world, a place that meant so much to so many people over the course of 700 years of history. Maybe someone in Prince Edward County has a table or other furniture made out of the wood from this special tree. Maple is renowned for its hardiness to make pool cues and guitar necks. As I drove back home I smiled at the thought that somewhere, an aspiring musician is strumming a tune on a piece of the Wishing Tree, hoping their wishes come true. Until those artifacts are found, the legend of the Wishing Tree and the world’s oldest maple quietly lies unknown among the dune dotted landscape of Prince Edward County.
Andrew King, July 2019
The Settler’s Dream, Corporation Of the County Of Prince Edward, 1984.