A Giant Cottonwood Survives on Middle Gate

Thanks to Darlene Irwin , resident of Armstrong’s Point, for this tree story!

When it comes to chronicling the history of Winnipeg, let’s not forget our heritage trees.

If you look beyond the weeds and the illegal dumping at the bottom of Middle Gate, you will discover one of Armstrong’s Point’s hidden treasures. Meera Margaret Singh did.

Meera Singh is a visual artist based in Toronto and Assistant Professor at the Ontario College of Art. Populus deltoides is the botanical name of the Plains Cottonwood tree. What’s the connection? The answer lies at the bottom of Middle Gate.

Meera was born in Winnipeg with her childhood home on West Gate. After Kelvin, she earned a B.A. in Archaeology and a Master’s degree in Fine Arts (Photography). With this background, it’s a safe bet that one of Meera’s gifts is a certain attention to detail.

On a day in 1995, as a student on an archaeological dig at the riverbank end of Middle Gate, Meera picked up a small fragment  which most would have bypassed as “junk”. This would later prove to be an artifact of Mid Woodland pottery, not so rare or valuable, but significant in its having survived at all, a trace of the ancient peoples who had once been on that very spot. Today, in archaeological circles, the bottom area of Middle Gate is still known as the Singh Site.

There’s more to be discovered, down on this nondescript end of the street. Here stands a massive cottonwood tree, largely unnoticed by the public but well-known to arborists. Christine Common-Singh recalls that until fairly recently it was part of a small grove of companion trees. Now it stands alone, a sole survivor.

The Middle Gate Cottonwood is a vestige of what once were millions of native Plains Cottonwoods. Immense stands of them lined the banks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. Populus deltoides survived seasonal flooding, so it thrived in river bottom zones such as the banks of present-day Armstrong’s Point.

What happened to all the cottonwoods? “The Plains Cottonwood met a nasty fate”, Christine says. Riverbanks were ravaged and cleared of the trees, to provide fuel for steamboats which travelled up and down the Red and the Assiniboine. Sadly, along with them, our last tracts of ancient riverbank forest were lost.

To learn more about our own cottonwood, we talk with Diana Robson, botanist at the Manitoba Museum. She points out that it’s listed on the Manitoba Register of Trees as part of the Heritage Tree Program and with its very impressive girth and height has a high score on the North American Champion Tree scale, an index of super-sized trees.

We aren’t certain of the Middle Gate Cottonwood’s age, though Winnipeg arborist and heritage tree advocate Gerry Engel “guesstimates” it’s between 120 and 150 years. In the end, statistics and scores don’t interest Gerry all that much. ”Does it matter? It’s enough that it predates the City of Winnipeg. Think of all the history that has passed beneath its branches and the stories it has to tell”.

…which brings us back to the bottom of Middle Gate where we began, to the young student and the remnant of pottery, under the historic tree, and finally we see that this wonderful tree’s importance really lies in its rarity as a survivor of the many assaults on the cottonwood, and in all the human events it has witnessed in the place where it stood. So very few of these giants from the Riel era of Manitoba history are left to us. We are fortunate to have one of them here in our neighbourhood.

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