For the Green Sward Magazine, 2018
Restoration biologists aim to return ecological function to degraded landscapes, by using plants to recreate healthy ecosystems. Landscapes that have been actively disturbed are restored, through planting of trees, meadows, wetlands and gardens. There is increasing interest to reshape the spaces we have disturbed into healthy and productive ecosystems, with a focus on the use of regionally appropriate native species.
Though we have gone to great lengths to shape the land, plants are the original ecosystem engineers.
Plants are the foundation of every terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Their primary productivity provides animals with food, and materials to make shelter. Plants clean the air, while providing us all with oxygen. Plants cool us with shade, and buffer us from floods.
Similarly, native plants are the foundation of regional ecosystems they are native to. Though often overlooked as the green backdrop upon which life’s drama unfolds, the specific identity of the plant communities that surround us is important.
Native are species which occur in a region naturally. They have evolved over generations to exploit resources and cope with challenges found within their home region. Because they have evolved in the same ecosystem, native animals often prefer and sometimes depend on native plants. Restoring native plants is a critical first step for conserving ecosystems. Avoiding the use the non-native plants, especially well documented invasives, in our landscapes will also help to prevent further ecological damage.
The greatest threat to native plant diversity is loss of habitat from development, and the associated spread of exotic plants species. Some of the most invasive plant species in Ontario were introduced with the best of intentions to provide forage for our domestic animals, and to make our neighborhoods more beautiful. The cost of these invasions is more than space; we are paying for these mistakes with the loss of distinct and diverse communities of native plants and their associated fauna.
Restoring native species to our landscapes increases the quality of forage and habitat for wildlife, but it also helps us plan for and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Since native plants are adapted to the local environment, they can tolerate regional variations in moisture and temperature better than many traditional, introduced, cultivars. While also being more attractive and rewarding to insects, native wildflowers, for example, are more drought tolerant and cold hardy than their cultivar counterparts, or non-native analogues.
We can use this to our advantage, and plan landscapes of native plants they require fewer inputs and in the end lower costs to create and manage. There are even native plants adapted to harsh environments that mirror our disturbed urban and suburban environments, such as roadsides and other infrastructure corridors, rooftops, construction footprints, and old fields-- native plants that thrive on river bluffs, alvars, sand dunes and fire-prone prairies.
Though they are hardy, wild populations of native plants are increasingly fragmented by development. This makes migration extremely difficult for many plant species in Ontario. Without the ability to migrate, these plants may not be able to cope with a changing climate, and without reconnecting populations through assisted migration, they may fail to adapt to the change. Land stewards who are interested in restoring native plant ecosystems can help by enhancing native plant population sizes and creating gene flow between populations by establishing new patches.
Whether you appreciate nature in the water, casting off the side of your canoe, or you appreciate it in the air, through the lens of your binoculars, conservation begins in the ground with the seeds and roots of native plants.
Native Plant Demand Survey Results Sept 1st, 2020
Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance & Hamilton Naturalists Club
• 115 Responses
• 62% Personal Use/Hobbyist
• 30% NAMPS Members
• 40% Use over 75% native species in their projects
• 75% Are not specifically required to use native plants
• Organizations Represented:
Trent University, Alderville Black Oak Savanna, Land of the Dancing Deer Six Nations
UBC Botanical Garden, Toronto Forestry Dept., York University, City of Toronto
ReLeaf Chatham-Kent, Blooming Boulevards, Ontario Ministry of Transportation (southwest region), Conservation Halton, Credit Valley, Fanshawe College, LiteRoof Ontario, NANPS, Long Point Region Conservation Authority, Pollination Guelph
In the past year , respondents collectively created
✓ 68 acres of wetland with native plants
✓ 492 acres of forest with native plants
✓ 404 acres of grasslands with native plants
✓ 121 acres of urban parks with native plants
✓ 17 acres of home gardens with native plants
✓ 13 acres of infrastructure corridor with native plants
• The most common issues with stock quality reported were
✓ Small Size
✓ Poor Root System
✓ Stock Handling (Damage)
• Plants specifically requested or reported being hard to Plants specifically requested or reported being hard to find:
Hackberry Hop Hornbeam
Birds Foot Violet
Be a Mastodon today, grow Kentucky Coffee Trees for tomorrow: A homeowner’s guide to germinating Kentucky Coffee tree seeds
by Kristen Sandvall
Kentucky Coffee Tree (Gymnocladus dioicus) is a Species At Risk in Ontario, with only a handful of natural populations left across its natural range. There are various theories as to why this tree is so rare today. Despite its rarity Kentucky coffee tree, has gained popularity in urban landscape due to its tolerance to insects, disease and drought.
One of the most common theories is that the Kentucky coffee tree needed megafauna, large extinct mammals, to eat and disperse the seeds. By ingesting the seeds, megafauna such as mastodons and giant ground sloths, broke down the hard seed coat with their stomach acid, allowing them to absorb water and germinate after being dispersed through the megafauna droppings! With human intervention we can mimic the seed-dispersal abilities of megafauna and help these seeds grow!
These trees belong to the Legume family and are actually related to Cover, Beans and Peas! Their seeds are contained within a large, brown pod, resembling a stout, wavy bean, 4-8 inches long, containing 1-5 large round seeds, about 1 inch in diameter. **Do not confuse these pods with the small, more twisted bods of Black Locust or Honey Locust (seeds less than half an inch in diameter), or Catalpa (pods are longer than 8 inches, and perfectly straight and not flattened).**
Coffee Tree pods hold onto female trees typically throughout the winter months and begin to drop to the ground in the early spring. You may find these pods under trees planted along boulevards, in municipal parks, or even in your neighbor’s yard (make sure to ask for permission to collect seed!)
Extracting the seeds from the pods can be a bit sticky, so gloves are recommended. Once you have your seeds, you will need to scarify them. This just means removing some of the hard seed coat to allow water inside. Nurseries that scarify thousands of seeds at a time use a concentrated acid soak (up to 24 hours in 98% sulphuric acid!), as this mimics digestion by a large mammal.
For propagation at home, there are other, less hazardous methods of scarification. One of the quickest ways is by carefully filing or sanding off a patch of the seed coat. If you have a small rotary tool for sanding, these work well! If you don’t have access to such a tool, try regular hand file, or some sandpaper (with a little extra elbow grease). Whichever method you choose it’s very important to do this carefully as to prevent injury to your hands. For added safety if when using mechanical methods, you can hold the seed with vise-grips while grinding the seed coat down. You only need to file down a small patch of the seed coat enough to let water in.
After scarifying your seeds, soak them for 24 hours in water (pseudo-stratification). At the end of the soak your seeds should have expanded to 2-3 times their size. The seed coat should be much softer now and you will see some of the outer, clear seed-coat peeling off. If your seeds are still very hard and did not expand you can repeat the filing step a bit more and repeat the soak process. Once you have nice plump, expanded seeds plant them in your favourite potting soil about 1 inch below the surface. Seeds will germinate in full sun within 2 weeks. With continued care, you can accomplish the work of a mastodon, and grow a rare, Carolinian shade tree for your yard!
Biodiversity is a sound investment, and I don’t just mean that metaphorically.
Every species on earth represents a unique way of coping with the world around us, and each has evolved a unique set of tools, or adaptations to help it do so. Some tools to help find food, mates, tools that help resist pests, and tools that increase a species’ ability or cope with unpredictable change; some species are better able to cope than others.
Environmental change can comes in many forms, and at every scale. From the draining of a wetland, to the crash of an asteroid. But no matter what the cosmos have thrown at it, life always seems to find a way, seem to overcome these disturbances, but how?
When conditions change, plants and animals have three options. They can vamoose, decamp. They can migrate, and disperse to a more favorable region. If there’s enough time, species can evolve new traits and strategies to cope with their new conditions: they can adapt. But if a species is not able to either migrate or adapt, they may face local extinction.
The ability to adapt is crucial for life on earth to cope with changing climates and land uses. The greater the variety of adaptive solutions, the more likely that one will be successful at thriving under new conditions. Since every species has a different approach to coping with change, the existence of each increase the likelihood that a solution, effective at coping with climate change for example, will arise.
Similarly, for species to persist through change, they must have the capacity to adapt. There must be adequate genetic variation within the gene pool from which natural selection can draw upon to select for newly adapted traits. Fragmented populations are less resilient to change, in part because they are not receiving a flow of new genes from surrounding populations for new adaptations to be derived. So when we talk about biodiversity, we mean the variety of species, but also genetic diversity present within a species, essential for the maintenance of future viable populations.
UN Decade on Biodiversity
So important is this biological diversity to the resilience of our plant to future change, that the United Nations has declared 2010-2020 the international Decade of biodiversity. It sounds fantastic, but what does that actually mean for you and me and the rest of the biosphere?
The most powerful part of this declaration is its call to action. The official website reads:
“Each day counts. The actions taken by individuals, stakeholders and governments are important steps, one building on the other, towards protecting the life support systems that not only ensure human well-being, but support the rich variety of life on this planet.” Basically, governments and individuals now not only have an obligation to protect and enhance biodiversity, but are officially mandated to do so under international law. Make no mistake, this is some serious business.
Specific targets have been outlined in their Strategic Plan for Biodiversity, but they boil down to five main goals: