Butternut Bridges Over the Don

Lady Simcoe 1794 Winchester Street bridge over Don (Playter's bridge)

Watercolour by Lady Simcoe, 1796. Retrieved from:

Winchester Street, bridge over Don R. (Playter’s bridge)

In the diary that describes her travels through Upper Canada between 1792-6, Lady Simcoe provides the first settler account of a bridge over the Don River. What, in 1796, she calls Playter’s “picturesque” bridge is actually a modified, fallen butternut tree. Rooted and alive, the branches – which still grew the distinctive long, compound leaves – were spry enough to support the installation of a pole to be used as a handle (as depicted in Lady Simcoe’s watercolour).

 

The bridge – located at the foot of what is now Winchester Street – would not have been far from the green pedestrian bridge that currently links east and west Riverdale Park and also serves as an access point to the Lower Don Trail. In 2013 the City of Toronto commissioned a master plan for this area, which includes scheduled changes in its environmental protection. We believe that environmental protection should mean incorporating ecological integrity as a target. Scientific research into the ecological integrity of our ravine system – like our proposed surveys – is greatly aided by descriptions that we find in texts like Lady Simcoe’s diary.
Though a highly suitable habitat, you are unlikely to find butternut (Juglans cinerea) growing in Toronto’s ravines today. Butternut is a species exemplifying many of the challenges that exist for the ecological integrity of our ravine system. Though a member of the walnut family, butternut is a relatively short lived tree that is under duress from butternut canker and the introduction of non-native walnut species, with which it easily hybridizes. Butternut canker (Ophiognomonia clavigignenti-juglandacearum) is a usually fatal fungal infection that appeared in North America during the last century and has contributed to the butternut’s listing as a species at risk in Ontario.

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