by Alan Li
At this time every year, little pink cucumbers start falling to the ground under a peculiar tree at Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG). These aren’t, of course, the cucumbers we all love in our salads, but rather, they are the ripened fruit of the cucumber tree (Magnolia acuminata). Cucumber trees get their name from the appearance of the unripened fruit which resembles a garden cucumber, although much smaller.
This particular cucumber tree sits atop the Wilket Creek Ravine beside a busy trail where hundreds of people pass by it each week - it’s likely that most folks don’t realize what a special tree it is. Cucumber trees are unique because they are the only magnolia native to Canada and they’re only found in Southern Ontario. Historically, these trees were widespread until vast tracts of forest were cut down following the arrival of European settlers. These days, cucumber trees are protected by law and efforts to restore suitable habitat and repopulate the species have been underway for more than a decade. At least a dozen protected stands can be found in areas of the Niagara region and Norfolk County.
Getting back to the cucumber tree at Toronto Botanical Garden, it’s a beauty and worth stopping to admire (and sketch). If you’re visiting the garden, look for it at the top of the trail that leads down into the ravine. There are no labels pointing to this cucumber tree - keep your eyes open for stubby pink cucumbers littering the ground or for those still attached to the tree. Also, directly opposite is a small garden bed covered over with black plastic.
Besides the Mount Pleasant Cemetery Arboretum, you’re not likely to come across this tree in any Toronto neighbourhood. Cucumber trees thrive under specific soil conditions, and to be self-sustaining, a stand of at least ten trees is necessary because their flowers require cross-pollination with their neighbours to produce fruit with viable seeds. Single trees, like this one at TBG, will grow old and produce lots of fruit each year, but since the tree is alone, it self-pollinates, and the resulting seeds won’t lead to any new trees.
To learn more about Toronto’s wondrous network of ravines, check out the upcoming Urban Ravine Symposium at Toronto Botanical Garden on Thursday October 10th: