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Archive for ‘April, 2017’

“Ditch Weeds”
The often-overlooked importance of roadside habitat and why we should stop spending money trying to keep them trimmed and mowed.

Staff contribution by Kristen Sandvall

image of yellow ladys slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum)

Cypripedium parviflorum (yellow lady’s slipper) along and unmowed wet roadside edge in Halton Region, ON

We drive by them everyday and so they seem of little importance as we rush to work and then rush back home after work.  Often there is a disconnect in our brains about the plants which have managed to find a home in our manmade roadside constructs. Some places it has become a place for invasive plants to take hold and spread, but in other cases it has become the only place some native plants have a place left to call home.

Roadside Edges Have Become An Increased Habitat For Plants, Insects, and other Wildlife

We often forget or sometimes don’t know what an area once looked like before development.  Whether it be for agriculture, subdivisions, malls, or parks. What was land once rich with slopes and hills, forests and grasslands, streams and wetlands is now cleared, flattened and drained. What we are left with is relatively flat land with a set of interconnecting ditches that lead “somewhere”.  This has drastically reduced habitat for many plants, insects, and other wildlife.  We often think of the patches of forests we leave dotted in the landscape as sufficient habitat for all species but really this is only appropriate habitat for a select number of species.  This also leaves no room for species to travel from one place to another.  On this rapidly increasing disturbed landscape we have created across southern Ontario, this often leaves one place for all other species to fend for themselves. Roadside edges.

image of indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum

A visitor stopping for some nectar at an Apocynum cannabinum (Indian Hemp) in a moist unmowed roadside edge in Halton Region, ON

Ditches and the sloped grades of Highways and roadsides can provide a space for some of the native flora and fauna, not encompassed in forested areas, to live. It may not be ideal, but in some cases, it is the only place in an area species can find a suitable place to live.  So that seems great, we have some semi-suitable habitat for these displaced species, right? Well unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. We don’t let these spaces remain as places for native flora and fauna to grow. We trim them, mow them, dig them out, plant them with non-native lawn grasses to keep them ‘neat and tidy’.  We make it tough for these species to remain and reproduce and the conditions we provide favour non-native and invasive species if any.  We create spaces devoid of life for the sake of this ‘neat and tidy’ aesthetic which we try and maintain not even usually for ourselves, but more often for the fact of “What would the neighbours think?”. I see it and I hear it quite frequently.  It is tough to be the first one to break the norm but usually soon after this norm is broken most tend to follow suit either thinking the same thing all along or soon convinced it’s the right thing to do.

image of Michigan Lily (Lilium michiganense)

Lilium michiganense (Michigan Lily) in a moist roadside edge Norfolk country, ON. the Monarch (Danaus plexippus), Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele), Spicebush Swallowtail (Papilio troilus), hummingbirds, and some bee species can be seen visiting the flowers for nectar. This species is becoming increasingly uncommon due to loss of habitat and population fragmentation.

We Must Take Action To Preserve Habitat Along Roadside Edges

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop with the homeowners’ efforts to provide and preserve habitat along roadside edges of their own property.  In the last number of years’ counties and municipalities have been mowing, trimming, and digging roadsides more frequently.  There is the understanding that this is just what municipalities need to do to maintain roadsides, but much of this work can be counter productive. Many of the woody plants being trimmed are frequently trimmed improperly leading to potential for disease and a rapid regrowth of weakly attached stems which extend closer to the road and become more likely to break and fall off. For shrubby material, being completely cut off removes slower growing flowering type growth and encourages stronger quicker vegetative growth typically extending closer to the road then it did before.

For many of the invasive plants which now dominate our ditches and road edges, trimming typically only encourages their spread while unfortunately for many of their native counterparts this action of repeated cutting prevents the plant from reproducing. In many cases this gives invasive plants the opportunity to replace native species in these spaces. Proper invasive species control involves complete removal or chemical control of a species, anything less and growth is only encouraged.

image of Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Phlox divaricata (Wild Blue Phlox) found along a shaded roadside edge Norfolk County, ON. Spring nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies.

We have recognized in recent years that many pollinator populations are on the decline.  Keeping roadways trimmed eliminates the much need food supply pit stop to get pollinators from one location to the next. For pollinators who live permanently in an area trimming can suddenly eliminate most of their local food supply where they have decided to call home and it can be difficult or sometimes impossible for them to pick up and relocate.

If the goal is to protect the roadways, we are seemingly spending more taxpayer dollars doing extra repeated work trying to maintain road edges as clean tidy places at the same time doing more damage to our local flora and fauna.  Municipalities perform the functions they feel their patrons need and want. It is up to the people to let their municipalities know their views on these topics if we want things to change.

image of smooth serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)

Amelanchier laevis (Smooth Serviceberry) a species primarily found along woodland and roadside edges. These are important places for species such as this which flower and fruit best here, and so best reproduce here. Serviceberries are also an early spring nectar source for bees

Increase Roadside Habitat Through Improved Practices

We have made it tough for our native flora and fauna in our developed world.  Hopefully one day we can increase habitat along roadsides by cutting less, removing more invasives, and planting back native species for the sake of the plants, we ourselves and wildlife rely on.  Imagine our extensive roadsides covered with native wildflowers buzzing with bees and butterflies.  No matter the conditions there is probably a native plant that will grow there. If roadsides were covered with our native flora and fauna maybe that trip to and from work may even become slightly less rushed. One day I hope we can change our perception of ditches and roadside places to be that of a place where native species can grow and provide habitat, living alongside us in peace.

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Image of pussy willow salix discolorNothing says Spring is just around the corner than spotting Pussy Willow (Salix discolor) on your travels in the woods.  It seems it is a time honoured tradition to prune off a few branches and bring them home to add a little Spring in the house.

If you love Pussy Willow as much as we do, we encourage you to plant them in your landscape.  These small trees will not only be your annual Spring reminder; a properly maintained Pussy Willow allows you to showcase this great native species with maximum impact on your landscape.

The Details

Salix discolor thrives in full sun and moist soils, but tolerates somewhat drier soils better than most other willows.  This tree can grow 6-15 feet high and can spread anywhere from 4-12 feet.  It is a wonderful food source for game and song birds, larval host for a large variety of butterflies and moths, provides pollen for native bees, and provides cover and nesting sites for a wide variety of birds.

Garden Uses

Pussy Willow makes and excellent hedge or can be used when naturalizing an area.  Prune as needed in the late winter to early spring.  It would be ideal to plant this in moist soils along streams, ponds, or in low spots in the landscape where other shrubs or small trees may struggle.

image of pussy willow salix discolor infographicIf you are looking for more of a controlled shape or hedge, Pussy Willow should be pruned annually.  Plants may be cut to the ground every 3-5 years to maintain a smaller shrub shape.

If you plan to grow this plant as an ornamental, we advise that you purchase a male plant, which is known to produce attractive silky pearl gray catkins in the late winter.  These catkins resemble the pads on a cat’s paw, hence the common name.

Medicinal Uses

Pussy Willow has long been used as a remedy for the treatment of fevers, arthritis, muscular aches, inflammation, and other conditions.  Before the invention of pharmaceutical drugs, willow’s use as a medicine was relatively common.  First Nation’s peoples in North America have used various willow species for the purpose of healing.  In fact, the use of Willows for medicinal use has been seen as far back as the ancient Sumer and Egyptian civilizations.

Pussy Willow contains salicylates or salicylic acid; this was used to create Aspirin in the 1900s.

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Butterflies love native plants, and some rely on native plants, sometimes one or two species, in order to complete their life cycle. Monarch butterflies arrive to southern Ontario in late summer, just as the Milkweeds are blooming. The adults feed on other plants too, throughout the fall, but in their caterpillar stage they eat milkweed leaves exclusively.

Monarch butterflyMonarch butterfly populations are shrinking and at risk of extinction. In Canada, they are now listed as an Endangered Species. One contributing factor may be the loss of high quality native meadow habitats which provide diverse, late blooming wildflowers for adults to nectar from, as well as milkweed host plants.

Situated just north of Long Point Provincial Park, a designated Monarch Reserve, St. Williams Nursery & Ecology Centre (SWNEC) is increasingly involved in restoring Monarch habitat in the region, and across the province. SWNEC presently grows six different species of milkweed, so that nearly every habitat type can become a nursery for Monarch caterpillars:

Native PlantsSome, like the Whorled  and Sullivant’s Milkweed, are specialists and will only thrive in very specific conditions. Be sure you match the appropriate species to your project’s site conditions.

All of our native plants are ethically sourced from wild remnant populations in Ontario, and accessioned according to biogeographic region. Each and every milkweed seedling is grown from local seed, collected by hand, and with great excitement!

Carried by their parachutes in the wind Milkweed seeds disperse in the fall and colonize newly disturbed ground. Just before the seed pods ripen, our seed collectors harvest whole pods from fields and from crop rows at the SWNEC farm. The pods are dried on tarps, and the fluff inside is processed to separate the parachute or pappus from the live seed.

Direct-Sown Habitat CreationThis can be done several different ways. For a medium sized batch, you can use a shop-vac and screen to clean milkweed seeds. The vacuum separates the light material from the heavy seed. Because we harvest large amounts of seed, we use a much larger machine called a de-bearder, which is basically a large dry blender, turned on its side, which gently, but firmly, knocks the seed loose from the pappus.

Some seeds are destined for direct-sown habitat creation projects that SWNEC is involve with. Some seed is destined for specialty packs to be given as wedding favors. Some seeds are destined for the greenhouse where we will grow them into seedling plugs and potted plants for wetland restorations, home gardens, and public parks.

Some years, the Monarchs lay thousands of eggs on milkweed seedlings inside of our open-roof greenhouse. They seem to be attracted to the dense concentration of young, tender milkweed shoots, combined with a dense collection of flowering.


Blog contribution by Stefan Weber – SWNEC Ecologist

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