Do all children love trees? Mine certainly do. My oldest daughters were so fond of the ancient apple tree in our backyard that they would leave little love notes in its knots when they were younger. That apple tree is well past its prime, but we’ve been forced to promise that we won’t cut it down unless it becomes a safety hazard. My youngest children are tree climbers, and tree huggers as well. We can’t complete a hike without stopping at least once while they wrap their arms around a sturdy trunk. I can’t say that I blame them—there’s a lot to love about trees!

In this era of greenhouse gas awareness, trees get a lot of press for their ability to sequester carbon. The amount of carbon a tree can sequester depends on its species, where it’s planted, and other factors, but a broadleaf tree can capture in the neighbourhood of one metric tonne over a 100-year lifetime. Altogether, the world’s forests currently store about twice as much carbon dioxide as the atmosphere contains. Preserving our existing forests and planting new ones are clearly important strategies in combating climate change.

But trees are so much more than carbon sinks. The next time you’re in the forest, take a deep breath. That’s freshly produced oxygen you’re inhaling. Through the process of photosynthesis, trees take in carbon dioxide, and release oxygen. In fact, trees are responsible for about half of the oxygen in our atmosphere (phytoplankton in the ocean produce the other half). Now fill your lungs again. It’s not your imagination—the air under that leafy canopy is especially clean. Deciduous trees in particular are excellent air purifiers, absorbing pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxides through the pores in their leaves, and filtering out dust and other particles. And while all that is happening above ground, the trees’ roots may be removing harmful chemicals from the soil in a process known as phytoremediation. The roots are also filtering groundwater. Now take one last deep breath. Doesn’t that cool air feel lovely, especially on a hot summer’s day? Trees don’t just block the sun’s light and heat—they’re nature’s air conditioners. Water vapour escapes the stomata of leaves in a process called transpiration; the evaporation of that vapour is responsible for 80 per cent of the cooling effect of a shade tree.

If you stroll through a forest on Vancouver Island, you’ll almost certainly spy yellow cedars and/or western red cedars. Both species have great spiritual and cultural significance for the First Nations of the coast. The two cedar species provided material for canoes, homes, clothing, food storage, ceremonial masks, tools, rope and even some medicines. “Culturally modified trees” are cedars whose bark has been harvested for traditional purposes in a way that ensures the continued health of the trees. Thousands of these living artifacts can still be found in old growth forests on the coast.

My forest-loving family and I are going to be tree tourists this summer—and we don’t even have to leave Vancouver Island. In a remote region to the southwest of Lake Cowichan, just inside the boundaries of Pacific Rim National Park, stands the Cheewhat Lake Cedar. At 18.34 m in circumference and 59 m in height, it’s the largest known western red cedar in Canada, and second largest in the world after the Quinault Lake Cedar in Washington State. The Cheewhat Lake Cedar may also be one of the world’s oldest trees: it’s estimated to be upwards of 2500 years! We’ll be taking a spare tire or two and some emergency provisions when we go—the road in sounds rough. We also plan to visit Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, home of the Carmanah Giant. At a breathtaking 95 m, it’s the tallest tree in Canada, and the tallest known Sitka spruce in the world. Although the Carmanah Giant is almost twice as tall as the Cheewhat Lake Cedar, it’s a child by comparison at an estimated 500 to 700 years old. Unfortunately the fragility of the immediate environment has made the Carmanah Giant off-limits to visitors. It is possible to visit other impressive Sitka spruces in the area, however.

Port Renfrew’s legendary Red Creek Fir is 74 m tall and 13.3 m in circumference. It was even taller, but its top broke off. It’s reputed to be the largest living Douglas fir in the world. The logging road to the Red Creek Fir is not recommended for low-clearance vehicles. If that’s an issue, you can visit the giant Douglas firs at Cathedral Grove instead. Cathedral Grove’s biggest fir specimens are in the neighbourhood of 800 years old, and are up to 75 m high and 9 m in circumference.

You don’t need to leave the city to see some truly amazing trees. Beacon Hill Park is home to one of my favourites: the non-native Giant Sequoia located just across the road from the petting zoo. This tree was planted only a century ago, but it’s already an impressive size. Just imagine what it will look like in a few more centuries—or in another thousand years! There are many other unique non-native trees in Beacon Hill Park.

But my very favourite trees of all have to be Garry oaks, and my favourite place to visit them is on Newcastle Island, in Nanaimo’s harbour.

We have lots of trees to visit this summer!

For more information and directions to Vancouver Island’s special trees, check out vancouverislandbigtrees.blogspot.ca.

Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at web link.