Black walnuts: 'Killer trees' or vital part of the city?

A North York resident who requested permission to chop down her black walnut tree may get a second chance, because of a request for possible exemptions to the city's tree bylaw.

Black walnut trees spark call for changes to the tree bylaw

Maria Krajewska's black walnut tree, stripped of its leaves and nuts at this time of year. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC News)

Maria Krajewska can't stand the black walnut tree in her backyard.

"Unfortunately, I have to call it a killer tree," she said.

She gives two main reasons for the strong reaction: the potential danger of the nuts hurtling to the ground, and the root system that releases toxins into the soil, making it hard to grow much else.

Maria Krajewska with her daughter and granddaughter in front of the tree she calls her "killer tree" every year at the end of summer. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC News)

Report due in February

Every year, residents show up at community council meetings with similar complaints, and request permission to chop down their trees. Each time, they're denied under the city's tree bylaw. But that could change.

One city councillor has asked Forestry staff to look into what impact exemptions for black walnut trees would have on the city's tree canopy. That report is due in February.

The possible danger of being hit by large, hard walnuts as they fall are what worry some residents. The City of Toronto has no record of people being hit by the nuts. (Wikimedia Commons)

Krajewska is hopeful. 

In October, the Toronto and East York Community Council denied her application to have her tree cut down and replaced with several other mature trees. She even included a petition, signed by about 40 of her neighbours.

Every year, the falling nuts actually drive her nuts. Come late summer and early fall, they crash to the ground, from higher and higher heights as the tree has grown.

Maria Krajewska's neighbours say their ripped patio umbrella is thanks to a walnut falling from her tree (Courtesy of: Maria Krajewska)

She worries for the safety of her two young grandchildren and her neighbours' three children.

"Now the tree is like a five-storey tree," she said. "So whenever the nuts are falling... they have great strengths and may damage someone who is passing by."

Then there's the ongoing battle of attempting to garden in the same yard as a walnut tree.

Maria Krajewska's neighbours also say their patio table suffered damage from falling black walnuts (Courtesy of: Maria Krajewska)

"Whatever I've planted during these last 15 years has died out and it was replaced. Every second year, every third year, I'm replacing most of whatever is living here. "

She says it's also affecting her neighbours, who paid a professional landscaper. Still, almost everything died.

Coun. Christin Carmichael Greb feels the rights of trees are winning over homeowners' private property rights. (CBC News)

Coun. Christin Carmichael Greb, Krajewska's local councillor, is annoyed, too. This isn't the first complaint she's received about a black walnut tree.

"It is frustrating when you're trying to help people, your own residents, then it goes to council and the rights of a tree trump the private property rights of an individual," she said.

But if the city does decide to allow for some trees to be cut without approval from the entire city council, it will be thanks to a request from an unlikely source: Coun. Sarah Doucette, who represents High Park and was previously council's tree advocate.

'It does go against every grain in my body'

Her official request asks for information on the impact of exempting black walnut trees from the city's ban on cutting down healthy trees.

"It does go against every grain in my body," she said.

But she wanted an expert opinion from city staff after an increase in resident complaints. As well as the fear that children could be hit, some also report damage to cars and picnic tables, plus annoyance with stains caused by a dark resin the tree releases.

Doucette said she would only understand an exemption in certain circumstances: "For small properties where residents have absolutely no choice and if they want to use their (backyard) at all, they have to be under this tree."

'Keep the children out of the area'

The possibility that some of these old trees could be chopped down appalls some tree advocates and arborists.

Long-time tree advocate Edith George doesn't buy the argument about danger to residents, saying the same reason could then apply to cutting down an apple tree or any other nut tree.

"Common sense: you keep the children out of the area until (the end of) the harvest and the nuts fall to the ground," she said.

Stephen Smith, a forester and arborist, feels people need to consider whether there's actual danger from falling walnuts.

"I've never heard of anyone being harmed," he said. "A lot of things to do with trees are based on fear, not on fact."

The City of Toronto's Forestry Department confirms it has no record of anyone ever being hurt by a falling walnut.

Smith says the trees are important because, as a native tree to the region, they grow well, support wildlife and rarely have diseases.

The holes in this corrugated metal sandbox cover are yet more evidence of damage caused by falling walnuts, according to Maria Krajewska's neighbours. (Courtesy: Maria Krajewska)