by Stefan Weber for Carolinian Canada, and the Greenbelt Foundation
More than ever, we are looking to native plants to heal the landscape, but ecologically appropriate plants can be difficult to produce at the scale restoration projects demand and called for by the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. What can we do in southern Ontario where native plants have been removed from over 80% of the landscape?
With efforts underway to protect the flora of southern Ontario, Carolinian Canada is facilitating a process to inform and guide seed collection, propagation, and restoration of native plants. Known as the SOSS (Southern Ontario Seed Strategy), central to its mission of revitalizing healthy native plant populations is a commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Building partnerships and holding ethical space means that together we can heal the land and foster respectful relationships, support climate resilience, and grow habitat for biodiversity.
Southern Ontario is the most biodiverse region of Canada, with the most fragmented, and heavily colonized ecosystems. To restore diverse native plant communities, we start by acknowledging that Indigenous communities have stewarded this land since time immemorial. Therefore, Indigenous knowledge and leadership are essential for stewardship and restoration. A native plant and seed conservation strategy must uphold Indigenous land and seed sovereignty, and support Indigenous-led rematriation of native plants and seeds.
We acknowledge that habitats comprised of native plants have been, and continue to be, destroyed through colonial attitudes and practices. Plants are our partners in life. To restore them, we must restore our relationship with them, by giving them back their inherent and autonomous regenerative potential. Seeds should be collected ethically and handled with care and respect. A single seed can turn itself into a million more in one season. By removing the barriers to native plant abundance and creating space for natural processes, we can safeguard existing habitat and decolonize the landscape through the regenerative power of seeds.
The SOSS will bring together networks for native plant growers, farmers, gardeners, scientists, industry and Indigenous rights-holders to support native plant populations strategically, and ethically, to increase the capacity for growing healthy, diverse and resilient landscapes. The goal is to improve habitat, and respect the autonomy and dignity of the plants, while upholding Indigenous land and seed-sovereignty. Through horticulture and agriculture, we can work with plants to help them flourish. These networks inform seed-based stewardship efforts for rare plants and wildlife, culturally significant species and keystone species needed for large-scale landscape restoration, living seed banks and climate adaptation.
Partnering with plants is not a new idea, people have partnered with plants for millennia. People bring ingenuity, rapid mobility and opposable thumbs to this relationship while plants bring over 300 million years of knowledge of nurturing seeds. Each species is fine-tuned to make as many seeds as possible with the fewest resources possible.
Strategic ecosystem recovery relies on reciprocal partnerships between native plants and people. Seeds are both exceptionally powerful, and precariously fragile; by protecting them, we can safeguard existing habitats and ensure that stewardship efforts do not generate further exploitative relationships with these plants and our shared environment.
Growing Carolinian Seed Conservation Orchards In the Zone:Partnerships aimed at restoring the flow of native plants seeds
By Stefan Weber for Carolinian Canada and the Southern Ontario Seed Strategy
Restoring healthy habitats in Southern Ontario is difficult, because so much of the land has been devastated through colonial practices and continues to suffer from unethical and unsustainable land use. Small, fragmentary populations of native plants struggle to reproduce on the landscape and meet their intrinsic regenerative potential because of these barriers placed upon them. We can’t expect struggling, remnant habitats alone to regenerate the surrounding landscapes, so, in this International Decade on Ecosystem Restoration-- where do the native plants and seeds needed for restoration come from, exactly?
One way that we can help is to purposefully cultivate native plants in order to help them produce as many high-quality seeds as possible, and to help them disperse those seeds to the right place at the right time. This seed-strategy-in-action can help native plants meet their true potential, simply by forming a horticultural relationship with them. Many native plants can be grown from seed, and seasoned gardeners or farmers might even tell you- it’s pretty easy! In fact, growing plants for their seed is something people excel at; this activity supports most of our agriculture worldwide. Human intervention is especially necessary to conserve and restore rare plants, and the species that are not adapted to disperse by birds, wind, or water.
Hamilton-Halton Seed Strategy Orchard
As part of a collaborative effort to support native plants through the Southern Ontario Seed Strategy, Carolinian Canada has spent the past year connecting with native plant champions on the ground. In 2022, in partnership with Conservation Halton and the Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance, we planted a seed conservation orchard with over 2000 wildflowers grown from local seeds, collected ethically from remnant populations in the region. In the case of some species, like Canada Milkvetch, this planting nearly doubled the size of the regional population. Even for common species like Pink Beardtongue, this orchard planting provides a site where local conservation groups can harvest seeds for restoration projects, without having to deplete remnant populations year after year. Hosted on a former agricultural site, this seed orchard also serves as a community hub for local partners to network and learn about seeds, all while tending to the beautiful plants. Big thanks to Erin Mallon, Carolyn Zachetta and the Conservation Halton volunteers for their dedication and hard work.
Conserving rare plants on the Long Point sand plain
Carolinian Canada has also partnered with native plant experts in the Long Point region to restore uncommon, specialist, sand-plain flora. With the help of Ontario Plant Restoration Alliance and local naturalists, we’ve been monitoring populations, and propagating a small number of seedlings to aid with population enhancement- species like Carolina Wood Vetch and Green Comet Milkweed. Small, isolated populations can suffer from compounding barriers, rendering them functionally extinct. Small population size and low genetic diversity lead to low seed production; fragmentation limits their dispersal. Without intervention, these populations may vanish, like to so many others. At best they will remain isolated, as diminished versions of once healthy populations, so called ecological ghosts, that represent a community and level of connectivity no longer present.
Some of the sand-plain seedlings are being grown, where they can be well cared for, in conservation orchards planted by local biologist Adam Timpf at his farm, Prairie Song Nursery. Adam is tending to over 200 Whorled Milkweed seedlings, scaled up over two (plant) generations from the last population in the region. Adam also grows other rare grassland plants from local seed for restoration- species like Biennial Bee Blossom, Long Leaved Bluets, and Dwarf Blazing Star. According to Adam, growing and caring for seedlings is the least difficult part of the job. Many people don’t realize how much time and effort it takes to monitor and care for wild seed sources, let alone collect seed ethically from fragmented populations. Seed collection can be very time consuming, and wild seed crops can vary by year. That’s why Adam and others feel that more attention, and support are needed specifically for the conservation of native plant seeds. By stewarding and establishing native seed orchards, and productive gardens, Adam and others are investing in living seed libraries for future generations.
Growing seeds for communities now, and into the future
Carolinian Canada also supports their network of Landowner Leaders in planting native plants, and some do it for the pride and joy of sharing seeds with the community and expanding habitat for the birds and bees. One such seed champion, Ron Mitchel, has been restoring a prairie from local seed since 2016. He says he enjoys the challenge of restoration, learning where and how each plant prefers to establish from seed. His maturing prairie now supports bluebirds, and a turtle pond lined with Gold-Fruited Sedges. Last year we helped Ron plant a dozen ‘founder plots’ of native wildflowers absent from the site in hope that these smaller orchards would expand locally on their own, and even further with the help of Ron and other folks growing habitat In the Zone. These restoration ‘stepping stones’ will help diversify the prairie that he stewards, and can serve as future seed collection sites for educational workshops.
Seeds from large, genetically diverse sources are better able to cope with climate change. While it’s ok to share seed from one or two plants in your garden, the seed needed for habitat restoration should come from large populations, thriving in the wild or in orchards. As more and more people become interested in growing and sharing native plant seeds, it’s important to be able to track the origin of those seeds, and maintain a chain of custody, starting with the maternal wild population. Stay tuned for updates from Carolinian Canada as we get set to launch a Native Seed Conservation Orchard module through In the Zone.