First the $20, now the penny: Experts say one-cent coin doesn’t show maple leaf

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew
Canada's government on Thursday announced its intention to withdraw the penny from circulation, saying it costs more to produce than its face value. (AFP Photo/Michel Viatteau)

Hard on the heels of last week's flap over whether that's a true Canadian maple leaf on the new plastic $20, a tree expert now says our penny doesn't depict a maple leaf at all.

Bruce Livingstone, a college-trained arborist in the Vancouver suburb of White Rock, writes in a Vancouver Sun op-ed piece that he was challenged to examine the sprig of leaves shown on the one-cent to determine if it was from a maple.

"To my shock and disbelief it is not," a stunned Livingstone writes. "All maples are defined as having 'opposite' leaves and buds. This means each leaf or bud will have a 'twin' leaf or bud directly across the stem from each other. The leaves or buds arise in pairs from the same point on the stem as direct opposites.

"The branch with its leaves and buds on the penny is clearly 'alternate' which means the leaves or buds do not connect to the stem opposite each other."

[ Related: Canada's new $20 bill at centre of maple leaf flap ]

Got that?

Livingstone says the leaves on the penny come from a London plane tree, also known as a sycamore, a hybrid derived from European and Asian species. It's used in parks and to line streets and boulevards because it's pollution tolerant.

(Personal aside: We had London planes in the postage-stamp front yards of our townhouse complex. The roots tore up sidewalks, driveways and drain pipes. The leaves were permanently afflicted with a fungus that curled them brown by summer and deposited sinus-clogging spores on the ground. The developer likely planted them because they grow fairly fast but an arborist friend said they can reach 150 feet high and should never be used like that. We replaced them with more appropriate trees.)

Livingstone says the London plane is often mistaken for a maple and part of its Latin name, Platanus acerifolia, means maple-like.

"The Canadian Mint is not alone in making this mistake," he writes. "I have seen the leaves of this tree used several times to represent a maple leaf in television advertisements, to brand maple leaf products, for Olympic promotions, and to stand for all things 'Canadian.' "

Livingston's taxonomy lesson probably won't come as a shock to the national psyche (we reserve that for the revelation Canadians didn't invent hockey). The penny, after all, was consigned to currency oblivion last year by the government.

But it comes so soon after claims the leaf on the new polymer $20 bill is not really from a Canadian maple but its Norwegian cousin, according to a Globe and Maple report.

The Bank of Canada defended itself by invoking artistic licence.

[ Related: How the penny's disappearance will change Canadian lives ]

“We created an image for the bank note that represents a stylized Canadian maple leaf, if you will, so that it wouldn’t represent any specific species, specifically not the Norway maple,” spokeswoman Julie Girard told the Globe.

The Globe story also noted the bogus maple leaf on the penny.

I have to wonder if my faith in the keepers of our national symbols is misplaced.

I mean, is that really a beaver on the Canadian nickel or is it a South American capybara? And that sailing ship on the dime; is it the Bluenose or B.C. billionaire Jimmy Pattison's yacht?

Think I'll take a closer look at that picture of the Queen on the $20. I believe I've seen that face on an episode of Eastenders.