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.
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: