It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Saturday in late October. It’s cold, it’s pouring rain, and he’s been on the road since 4 a.m., but Neil Weller looks content. Earlier that morning, the 65-year-old and seven other employees of Weller Tree Service—including Neil’s 41-year-old son, Rob Weller, and teenage grandson, Daniel Boothby—drove in four trucks from Keswick, Ont., with a six-storey-tall white spruce in tow. As the men get the tree ready for a crane truck to slowly lift it from the wet concrete floor of Nathan Phillips Square, Weller can’t help but boast: “We look for these all the time, and they have to be perfect.” This one, he says, is “perfect right from the top to the ground.”
It took the company a day and a half and two cranes to cut the tree down in the forests near Maynooth, Ont., and strap it to the back of a flatbed truck—and that was only after tracking down the landowners and convincing them to give up the spruce. (Finding the perfect tree is sometimes the easy part.) It’ll be at least four hours before the City Hall tree is finished being installed, another three and a half weeks before it’s completely decorated, and a few days after that before all its lights are switched on at the same time for this year’s Cavalcade of Lights.
“They ask for a nice tree, 50-foot plus, and I always try to get 60,” Weller says. This one clocks in right at 60 feet. “The thing of it is, in Ontario, spruces grow 60, 70, sometimes up to 90 feet. But at 90 feet, they have no limb structure. They’re terrible. To have one that’s full and looks like a tree that you’d put in your house, this is about as big as you can get.”
At 65 years old, this year’s white spruce hasn’t been around much longer than Weller Tree Service’s contract with the City of Toronto. They’ve provided the city’s Christmas tree since the early 1960s, when there wasn’t even a Nathan Phillips Square; instead, the tree was displayed in front of what’s now Old City Hall.
Though no one knew it yet, Saturday’s rain was a sign of bad things to come. Two days later, at 1:30 a.m., wind from whatever was left of Hurricane Sandy blew the tree over, snapping off the top of its crown, as well as some branches. Two days after that, Weller Tree Service came back to right the prostrate spruce and re-attach its top, which left the tree two inches shorter. For the moment, though, the morning rain’s somewhat welcome—the moisture helps make the branches more malleable. “It’s better for the tree,” Rob Weller says. “It’s horrible for us, but better for the tree.”
0: Litres of water it takes to keep the City Hall tree alive. There’s enough sap and moisture trapped in such a large, healthy spruce that the needles won’t fall off for months.
128 feet: Height of Ontario’s tallest recorded white spruce, discovered in 1991 in McClure, a township that’s since been incorporated into the municipality of Hastings Highlands—where this year’s City Hall tree came from.
The average number of residents per square kilometre of land in Hastings Highlands.
The average number of residents per square kilometre of land in Toronto.
The 2012 Cavalcade of Lights starts at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17. Nathan Phillips Square, 100 Queen St. W. Free.