by Patsy Cotterill on March 25th, 2016


Every year when I go to pull weeds in “my” prairies or my “eco-island” in Wagner Natural Area I ask myself whether what I am doing isn’t a total waste of time. The progress I make is a bit like that of classical Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who spun her cloth by day only to undo it all again at night. (Cherry Dodd hit the biological nail on the head when she said that the way to tell the weeds from the natives is that the weeds are the plants growing the fastest!) 

Nevertheless, I refuse to give up, as do many of us, encouraged perhaps by the fact that, as a result of humanity’s gradual realization of the devastation its activities have wrought upon natural communities, reclamation and restoration have become something of buzzwords. Governments, from regional to international, now sanction restoration, even if expertise lags woefully behind intention. It is therefore something of a shock when you find that there is already a pushback against these struggling infant sciences, hardly out of their diapers; that there are people with a vested interest in abandoning if not killing them.

Some of the opposition of course is passive rather than aggressive; it comes from people who don’t know the difference between a native plant and an alien: who call anything that isn’t deliberately cultivated as a horticultural species either a weed or, more generously, a wildflower. But at least one North American group with a blog condemns all restoration efforts and attempts to recruit others to its way of thinking. This is the Milliontrees group, which formed to oppose the cutting down of a forest of Eucalyptus trees in the San Francisco Bay area by conservation authorities to make way for the recreation of an original oak-savanna community. Milliontrees have since expanded their campaign to oppose the cutting down of all trees (one argument for this of course is that trees store carbon), to “send up” weeds as contributing to biodiversity and to protest the use of herbicides in controlling them. They argue against all forms of restoration, and discredit native plant advocates whom they call derogatively “nativists.” To do this, they comb the scientific literature systematically for statements and research that support their arguments. Some of what they say is indeed valid, but because they are ideologically driven it is biased. (Of course, they accuse the nativists of being similarly ideological.) They do not deny that human action has caused the loss of native communities but they counter that current man-altered ecosystems are the new normal for nature, that the natives and exotics have adapted or will adapt to each other, and that in any case man is part of nature! Whether this advocacy group is unique, or whether there are others like it showing weedy growth, I know not, but I am concerned that they will too easily win a gullible public to their essentially anthropocentric viewpoint. (They say that nativists are “misanthropic.”)

Given these assaults on the rationality and effectiveness of what we in the Edmonton Native Plant Group do, it is reassuring to learn that what some professional botanists say seems to support our efforts, however minuscule these might be in the grand scheme of things. Stephen Blackmore and David Paterson, horticulturalists at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, believe “gardening” with natives (or, as they call it, “gardening the Earth” can make an important contribution to conservation of biodiversity. They recognize that “the continued survival of healthy populations of species in their natural environment is universally regarded as the ideal outcome of conservation” but note that “except (for) the relatively scarce tracts of wilderness, careful intervention is at least necessary and often essential.” Botanic gardens can help guide restoration efforts by acting as living collections and a source of DNA, providing practical experience in growing techniques, and indicating what species will grow where, now and in the future. The authors note also the importance of maintaining biodiversity in urban and agricultural landscapes as more people migrate to the cities. Plant conservation done outside of natural, protected areas is known as ex situ conservation, and they believe that botanic gardens contribute to several targets of the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation, an initiative of the Convention on Biological Diversity (2002). One target aims to preserve “60% of threatened plant species in accessible ex situ collections, preferably in the country of origin, and 10% of them included in recovery and restoration programmes.” This viewpoint feeds into an even larger target, that of achieving a sustainable planet. What we do in ENPG has nothing like the scientific robustness of a botanic garden project, of course – though perhaps that’s something we need to strive for – but maybe, contrary to what Milliontrees think, we pursue the better course.

Reference: 
Blackmore, S. & D.S. Patterson. “Gardening the Earth: the contribution of botanic gardens to plant conservation and habitat restoration. Ch.18 in Taxonomy and Plant Conservation. 2006. Edst. Etelka Leadlay & Stephen Jury. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press. Pp. 266-273.

Posted on March 11th, 2012

The Xerces Society, 2011. North Adams, MA. Storey Publishing

By Patsy Cotterill

Did you know that there are 4,000 species of bees in North America, varying from 2 to 25 mm in size, and variously coloured, of which about 90 percent lead solitary rather than social lives? That 30 percent of these solitary bees nest in tunnels in trees and shrubs, and the other 70% in tunnels in well-drained soil? Did you know that bees are the most important of the pollinating insects because they alone collect pollen to feed their young and so are mostly likely to come in contact with the pollen-bearing anthers of the plant? Did you know that bumble bees (Bombus species) can “buzz-pollinate”? They use their flight muscles not to fly in this instance but to vibrate their bodies, which causes the release of pollen. (I have definitely heard such intensive “buzzing” coming from my wild roses!) Did you know that an estimated 75 percent of flowering plants in the world rely on pollinators to set fruit and seed? These are some of the fascinating facts to be found in this excellent book, one of the best natural history cum practical guide books I have come across in years.

I bought this book on a whim, using a gift card that someone had kindly donated to ENG, after just a quick glance at its well-organized text and excellent colour photographs, and because I was slightly familiar with the credentials of The Xerces Society. It was only later, when I had a chance to examine it carefully, did I realize what a good choice I had inadvertently made, for this book is very well done. Its four authors belong to The Xerces Society, a U.S.-based non-profit organization, founded in 1971, that is dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of life through the conservation of invertebrates. The conservation of habitat for native pollinators is a large part of its focus, and this book is a resource to this end.
The book is divided into four sections. Part I, entitled “Pollinators and Pollination” includes a chapter on pollination and the pollinators themselves (bees, wasps, flies, butterflies and moths, and beetles). There is also a chapter on the threats that exist to pollinators, including habitat loss and fragmentation, alien species, climate change, pesticides, and GMO crops. I guarantee the light bulb will go on many times during a read of this section!

Part 2 contains information and practical advice on creating and managing pollinator habitat in various situations such as in home and community gardens, natural areas and urban green spaces and on farms. The chapter on providing foraging habitat will be of particular interest to ENG members, and the one on nesting and egg-laying sites for pollinators, providing practical information on how to create artificial nesting sites, could be of immediate practical interest for some of our ENG activities as we approach the coming flower season.

Part 3 provides profiles of 33 genera of bees falling into five major and common bee families. (There are seven bee families worldwide.) A page is devoted to each genus (a little more to bumble bees and honey bees) and includes a colour photo of the insect, a silhouette indicating the bee’s size, and even a phonetic spelling of the genus name for correct pronunciation. The information given on distribution doesn’t indicate whether the genus occurs in Canada, but in fact most common Canadian genera are included here.

Similarly, a chapter on plants recommended to attract pollinators, including butterfly host plants (i.e., as food for their larvae), is largely geared towards American species. However, this is a less important omission, as we have many of the same genera (e.g., sunflower, fireweed, goldenrod) and so can assume that our different species (within the same genus) will fulfill the same functions.

The pages on host plants for butterflies can likewise be supplemented with more local information on food plants for butterfly larvae from the excellent and readily available reference work Alberta Butterflies ( C.D. Bird, et al., 1995. Provincial Museum of Alberta).

All of us should take a look at the pages on sample gardens, in Part 4, entitled “Creating a pollinator-friendly landscape,” before embarking on design of a new native plant bed, for example at the Muttart Conservatory. We should consider including one or more artificial nesting sites for pollinators along with the species chosen to attract them.

Reading this book has renewed my enthusiasm for ENG’s work! It makes you want to rush out and plant flowers everywhere! At the same time it forces you think more carefully in site-specific ways about the effects we are having on our landscapes and the various pros and cons of our activities in interfering with it. Oh, what a complicated web humanity weaves in its interactions with other forms of life!

Postscript: The Xerces Society is named after the Xerces blue butterfly (Glaucopsyche xerces), now extinct. The silvery blue butterfly, G. lygdamus, is common in Alberta.

by C. Dodd on January 31st, 2012

Stratification is a method of getting seeds to germinate by providing them with a few weeks of damp, cold conditions.  A lot of native seeds need to be stratified before they will germinate. An easy way to do this is let nature do the work by planting your seeds in pots in February or early March, and then just leaving the pots outside under the snow until spring thaw. The snow will insulate the seeds and will protect them from extreme temperature fluctuations.  

The Method
Plant your seeds in pots using a good potting soil. It's best to plant the separate species in separate pots. It makes them easier to identify once they come up. After the seeds are planted water the pots from the bottom until the soil is nice and damp, and then take them outside and carefully bury the pots in the snow on the north side of the house. Be sure to mark the spot with a flag on a stick so that the pots don't accidentally get shovelled aside. The alternate freezing and thawing cycles do the work of breaking down the tough seed coat, so that after the snow melts in the spring,  the seeds will begin to germinate.
(Bruce Bashforth of Bedrock Seedbank likes to cover his pots in plastic, and bury them in an enclosed container to keep the moisture in. I prefer to put my pots in a shallow tray with no cover. Both methods work well, but it is important to bury the pots in the shadiest spot - the one where the snow melts last in your yard.)

Once the snow has gone, you can bring your pots inside and put them in a sunny windowsill or under lights. Your plants will geminate faster using this method, but they will need more care indoors. An alternative method is to leave  the pots outside in a semi-shaded spot to germinate naturally. Leave your pots uncovered and stand them in a shallow tray so they don't dry out too quickly. This makes it easy to water them from the bottom. However, make sure when it rains that you drain the tray so that the pots are not standing in water. The soil should be damp but not waterlogged for a long a period. Be sure to check every day for moisture levels and signs of germination. The only species that likes drier soil once it has germinated is Prairie Crocus. If you are growing Prairie Crocuses let them dry out between waterings.

Different species germinate at different times. Some will be up in April; most will emerge some time in May, and a few stragglers won't show until June, just when you have given up on them! I find that some species won't germinate until after the first good spring rain. Some species, such as Blue-eyed Grass, will be stubborn and won't germinate at all, but if you bury the pots up to the rim in a sheltered spot in the garden, those plants might pop up the following year. Remember to mark them well and water them occasionally during dry weather.

Planting Details
Large pots, 12 to 15 cm (5 or 6 inches) in diameter are best. This size gives the seedlings enough room. You can use cell pacs instead of pots if you prefer. Cell pacs are useful because you don't have to go through the hassle of separating the tiny seedlings during transplanting, but they do dry out faster.
You will also need a good quality commercial seed starting mix. These are soil-less mixes that contain peat moss. I usually get mine at Apache Seeds, but any garden centre will have it. Make sure the mix is damp before you start. I use the mix because it contains very few weed seeds, and the tiny native seedlings will be easier to recognize when they emerge. This is also the reason that I use a separate pot for each species - it's easier to tell if the emerging seedlings really are the ones you planted if they all look alike.

Fill the pot to about half an inch from the top and gently press the mixture down flat. Sprinkle the seeds over the surface and try your best to space them evenly. This is not an easy thing to do. Remember that a little goes a long way, so don't crowd those seeds! The seedlings will be a lot easier to transplant if they are not packed together in a big clump. If you are worried about poor germination, just plant two pots instead of one. Seeds should be covered
very lightly because a lot of species need light to germinate. Fine seeds, such as harebells, that looks like dust should not be covered at all.

For large seeds, such as Alpine Hedysarum, the general rule is to cover the seed with soil to twice the diameter of the seed. When you are finished, label the pot with 2 labels (it's amazing how many labels go missing), water it from the bottom and let it sit for a while until the surface is nice and wet. Try to use melted snow water, or tap water that has been standing for a day or two so that the chlorine has had a chance to evaporate. Your pots are now ready to go outside.

Bruce Bashforth of Bedrock Seed Bank taught me this method. Thank you Bruce!

Species That Don't Need to be Stratified 
These seeds can be planted in April or May:

Most grass species except for Blue Grama Grass
Alpine Hedysarum (Hedysarum alpinum). Soak the seeds of this species in hot water for 12 hours before planting.
Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata)    
Giant Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
Meadow Blazingstar (Liatris ligulistylis)   
Smooth Fleabane (Erigeron glabellus) 
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)  
Wild Blue Flax (Linum lewisii)
Common Tall Sunflower (Helianthus nuttallii)

by Judith Golub on December 3rd, 2011

Through sheer neglect I discovered this fall that native wildflowers make great dried flower bouquets. It happened this way: On August 11, the City of Edmonton held its annual Communities in Bloom awards night at City Hall. The ENG table was the only one with real live flowers freshly picked from the OMC Nursery, and its riot of colour attracted a lot of interest!
I had deliveries to make to Cherry the next day and she had these gorgeous flowers sitting in buckets of water. As she wanted rid of them, did I want them? You bet! I like cut flowers in the house.
I duly carted them home, arranged them rather haphazardly (not with my usual care and attention...) in a couple of jugs of water and placed them where I could admire them. Well, being rather preoccupied with other things, I never did change the water or check water levels - I think I did top them up once or twice - and they just sat there looking beautiful.
One day I realized the blazingstar and asters were turning into puffballs - going to seed. I checked for water and there was none in either jug. Ooh, this is going to make a mess later I thought, with dropped seeds and chaff all over, and they’ll get all ugly and brown. Never happened.
The dried purple prairie clover flowers retained their vibrant magenta hue, the meadow blazingstar kept remnants of its deep pink flowers on the outer edge of the puffballs, and the giant hyssop flowers dried to a very nice shade of blue. The goldenrods lost some colour; they’re now more of an ochre or mustard. One of the aster species kept the dried bluey-purple petals around the bottom of the seedhead; the other lost all its petals but has an overall pinkish tinge. The grasses held on to their seeds and still look great.
I took the photos November 24, three months after I first placed the flowers in their jugs.
I’m not usually fond of dried flower bouquets, but I quite like these as they bring summer into the house and warm my heart!

by Cherry Dodd on October 13th, 2011

Preparing a natural yard for winter involves a lot of doing nothing.
For instance, leave the seed heads and top growth on your perennials. The seed heads will feed the neighbourhood birds and the top growth will trap snow and also protect the tender new growth from frost.
For this reason don't rake up the leaves from your flowerbeds either. Fallen leaves trap moisture in the soil and act as mulch. Next season they will break down into valuable free organic fertilizer. I always add leaves in the fall to any bare spots that don't already have a thin layer. 
Also, make sure there are piles of leaves under any hedges, raspberry canes or shrubs. It's a great way to provide these plants with free fertilizer and, more importantly, provide a habitat for ladybugs who use these leaves to hibernate over winter. Ladybugs are so useful in getting rid of aphids and other invasive bugs that I try my best to give them good living conditions.

Other fall preparations
Give the whole garden a good soaking if we haven't had at least a couple of solid rainfalls by the end of the month. Plants can't go dormant properly when it is this dry.
If you have plants that haven't been planted yet, just bury the pots in the ground up to the rim, water them well and they will survive until spring.
If you have pots or flats where the seeds haven't yet germinated, don't give up on them yet. Bury them in the ground and see what happens next spring.
Now is a good time to collect seeds. If the stem of the seed head is a bit brown and dry the seeds are ready to be picked. Once they are gathered let them dry in paper bags for a month before you store them.


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