A Natural View: New Plants, New Experiences

Terry Sprague

Ostrich fern, tasty when added to salads, or when boiled.
Photo by Terry Sprague.
[This article ran in the June/July 2015 issue of The SCOOP.]

One of the reasons I gave up smoking over 25 years ago was due to the embarrassment of asking school kids on a hike to pull me up the last 20 metres on Macaulay Mountain. Today and approaching 71, I can almost jog all the way up the 75-metre trail on Macaulay Mountain.

I recall the days when two lookouts up there in this Picton conservation area provided incredible views of Picton Bay and the picnic area and pond below. Today, those memorable panoramas have surrendered to ageing trees and bushes and it’s more difficult to capture those scenes, although they are still present if you look hard enough.

It is a far different environment up there, certainly drier than the often-muddy trails on the lowland below. Trees are different, wildflowers are different, and often the make-up of wildlife. We can still hear the resonating voices of ovenbirds below and the fluted songs of wood thrushes. Now and again, we hear the penetrating screeches of a great crested flycatcher or the hurried phrases of a rose-breasted grosbeak. And at this time of year, the interrogations of red-eyed vireos are not far away. But they are all below us, along the escarpment in a thick corridor of mixed deciduous trees – beeches, maples and a curious hummock of hemlocks where barred owls are often found.

On the summit, however, there are field sparrows, most of them distant, as this almost bare plateau of Prince Edward County limestone and the scattered cedars and scrub bushes are more to their liking. But the most noticeable differences are the trees. There aren’t many shagbark hickory on the face of the escarpment – they are all up here, their grey, shaggy wafers of bark hanging loosely from the trunks. Most are quite small as conditions up here are tough and the sparse soil contains few nutrients, preventing them from becoming the giants we often see in richer woods. Ironwoods are here too, this year a few of them producing the hop-like cones of seed that gives them their formal name, hop hornbeam. Most of us are content to call them ironwoods, but if you wander some distance from eastern Ontario, “ironwood” means something else. In the Maritimes, blue beech is called ironwood. There is blue beech on Macaulay Mountain too, but it is a separate species. And it’s not really a beech – it’s a birch family member. Tree identity can get very complex at times.

However, up here, it’s the wildflowers that interest me the most. Here, you can find yarrow fighting for existence in places where other plants would not dare to survive, and brave patches of early saxifrage. There is even Asclipias quadrifolia – four-leaf milkweed, a rare species that grows in only one other location in Prince Edward County, and reputably, the only two locations where this milkweed species grows anywhere in Ontario.

I owe my interest in plants to my late father. He was not particularly interested in plants himself though, and he viewed any new species he saw with suspicion, as they were potential threats on our farm. However, aware of my developing interest in plants, even before I paid much attention to birds, he left the task of identification up to me. When I was 17, there weren’t many references to consult. I wasn’t aware of any wildflower guides, and there was certainly no Internet. A 115-page Department of Agriculture publication called Ontario Weeds became my only reference. It is still in my library, sub-titled Publication 505.

Everything on the farm back then, if it wasn’t a cultivated crop, was considered a “weed”. Wildflowers grew only in the woods and in cultivated places. That bothered me, as I felt there should be no dividing line in nature between wildflowers and weeds. Someone cautioned that a weed was only a plant growing out of place. Another more forward-thinking person some years later said a weed was simply a plant that we hadn’t yet found a use for. I soon convinced myself that all plants are wildflowers. They all had purpose.

Wormwood grew in one field on our farm but was erroneously identified by a
Department of Agriculture specialist as “tansy”. I set him straight.
As a budding naturalist, I was curious beyond a species’ name. Why was it there? How did it fit in with the natural scheme of things?  I remember arguing once with the weed inspector that the plant growing in our pasture field which he erroneously identified as tansy was, in fact, wormwood. It turned out I was correct. Because I was only 17 or 18 years old, my identification was dismissed by a government employee who had degrees, and curtly reminded me of this. But I always knew. In the end, my father chose to believe me instead, for I had become the authority, not from a climate-controlled office, but from experience in the field.

I was learning. I started adding grasses to my growing list of plants. My first exposure to bottle-brush grass was on Main Duck Island in Lake Ontario some years later. Until then, I hadn’t paid much attention to grasses of any kind, but this one with its distinctive inflorescence appearance stood out, and I researched it thoroughly. I discovered that it grows in almost all wooded habitats, sometimes in dense mats, other times in isolated sprigs. As a native species, it has its fans – the caterpillars of northern pearly eye butterflies enjoy its presence, as do the leaf-miner moth caterpillars.

All plants, I soon found, had uses. There are birds that feed on the seeds of plants as well as exploiting the plant for spent material for nest building – seed fluff, dead leaves, even root fibres. Monarch butterfly larvae feed on the milkweeds. Indeed, the majority of plants are fed upon by something.

Insect galls are no strangers to any plant, and there probably isn’t a plant on this earth that doesn’t play host to some species of unique insect gall. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. We see them on oak trees, poplars, even spindle galls on silver maples. Goldenrod galls have become legendary for their fascinating story of insect survival.

Some plants have medicinal properties, and others, I find, are just plain good to eat. I am not a forager by any stretch of the imagination, but I have experimented with a few, like cattails, rock tripe, may-apple (when ripe), ostrich fern (fiddleheads) and wild leeks. One of my favourites is ox-eye daisy leaves, which taste like fresh radishes.

I am glad that my father insisted that I pursue the life histories of ox-eye daisy, yellow hawkweed, and others that he referred to unapologetically as “weeds”. They broadened my interest in nature and provided me with a career in nature interpretation for well over 50 years. And I’m not done learning yet!