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The Ring - CCxA

Resilient Plants of Ontario

A short list of hearty heroes

Text by Matthew Lundstrom

For millennia, the plant kingdom has been critical to human survival, offering us the gifts of shelter, food, and medicine. Beyond sustaining human beings, plants play a fundamental role in developing and maintaining complex ecosystems to support life. Today, the Grand Forest and the Carolinian Forest have been modified by colonization to suit the needs of modern life, and many of the native plants, rooted there for centuries, have been displaced. Native plants have been acclimatizing to a changing climate for centuries and continue to support our livelihoods. First Peoples (then and now) and settlers have relied on our native plants to sustain our ecosystems, feed us, grow our communities, and contribute to economic productivity. Let us not forget some of the plants that shape our daily lives, and let us continue to ensure their success across our landscapes.

Big bluestem on a misty morning. IMAGE/ Philip Brewer, flickr.com/photos/bradipo/, Creative Commons Licence 

Moss (Sphagnum)
The genus of moss, has an incredible diversity of species found across the world with many species native to Ontario. Moss is a foundational element for all plant life, and it has been around for millions of years. Surely, we can learn something from an organism this experienced on Earth. Moss works to store water, moderate air temperature, and colonize mineral surfaces, inviting emergent plant life. Canada has an abundance of moss and a rich history of different utilizations—from medicine to pillowcases. Today, moss is an important resource for peat production and climate mitigation. A humid and shady environment is a perfect invitation to cultivate moss on limestone, and other hardscaped surfaces. Moss can make a project looked lived in, cool hot temperatures, and feels great on bare feet. 

Moss. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Jennifer Wan

A mushroom growing out of moss. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Jennifer Wan

Local fauna, wiggling through the moss. IMAGE/ Courtesy of Jennifer Wan

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii)
Also known as muckode’kanes by the Anishinaabe, this is a tall grass native to Southern Ontario’s landscape. The handsome, upright, blue-green bunch in the summer turns into a rich bronze as fall temperatures creep in. Big bluestem can grow between four and eight feet tall, and its root system can dig down to three meters in depth, storing carbon and improving the soil network. Due to urbanization and agriculture, the tall grass prairie is a fraction of what used to be. Landscape architects can incorporate this tall native grass into planting plans as a drought-tolerant species, with its bronze colour creating winter interest. The grass is also a habitat for many Lepidoptera species (butterflies and moths), and can make a great placement in a pollinator garden. The success of this native grass depends on its continued spread. Think of big bluestem before you plant silvergrass (Miscanthus).

Andropogon Gerardii II. IMAGE/ dogtooth77, https://flic.kr/p/2jyduSd, Some Rights Reserved

Andropogon Gerardii. IMAGE/ Matt Lavin, https://flic.kr/p/y9Mpjr, Some Rights Reserved

Manoomin (Zizania palustris)
Also known as wild rice, this is a native grain-producing grass in Canada’s Great Lakes region that has survived colonization and urbanization. Manoomin is an annual that requires quiet, shallow water to breach the surface and develop its seed head. This seed head, traditionally harvested by canoe, is a local food source and a spiritual plant of the Anishinaabe peoples. Manoomin has many challenges to continued success, as hydroelectric dams and motorized boats threaten the plants lifecycle. Despite these challenges, Indigenous peoples, namely the Anishinaabe, and settler allies are rallying for the protection of the native grain throughout the Great Lakes watershed. The continued spread of Manoomin will provide more food security and habitat for endemic and migratory species throughout the Great Lakes region. 

Wild rice. IMAGE/ Courtesy of James Dieme

Wild Rice. IMAGE/ Courtesy of James Dieme

Wild Rice. IMAGE/ Courtesy of James Diemer

Eastern White Cedar (Thuja Occidentalis)
This is also known as Arborvitae, the “tree of life.” White cedar is a softwood coniferous tree that grows mainly in rocky and wet areas, slowly reaching as tall as 50 feet. These slow-growing natives have also been discovered along the Niagara Escarpment—some as old as 500 years. Cedars are an important forage for wildlife and have high value as lumber. The trees have been cut down for generations and used as building materials due to their lightweight and antimicrobial nature. Due to their slow growth, maintaining cedar populations is a worthy investment to develop wood lots in Southern Ontario. Given the topography, the Canadian Shield provides a unique environment for white cedar to thrive. While the tree has ecological value, the economic value of cedar trees can create financial resilience in our communities. 

Cedar tree. IMAGE/ Matthew Lundstrom

Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum)
This is a deciduous tree native to Canada’s eastern hardwood forests. Average heights can reach 100 feet tall, with exceptions growing as high as 150 feet. Sugar maples strengthen plant communities by bringing water from lower soil layers and dissipating it to the upper, dryer layers. This process, known as hydraulic lift, hydrates the tree and the surrounding vegetation. As water scarcity and drought continue to be ecological threats, sugar maples can be a solution to improve hydrology and encourage stronger plant networks. The largest challenge facing sugar maples is their non-native competitor, the Norway maple. Tolerating disturbed soils and producing heavy seed loads makes the prospect of planting a Norway maple a good one. However, this trend threatens the resilience of a culturally significant species.

Sugar maple. IMAGE/ Matthew Lundstrom

Sugar maple. IMAGE/ Matthew Lundstrom

Sugar maple. IMAGE/ Matthew Lundstrom

BIO/ Matthew Lundstrom is an MLA student at the University of Guelph, and Ground editorial board member./