by Christine Hanrahan
The growing popularity of wildflower gardening has led to an increased interest in seeing these plants in the wild. Here at the Fletcher Wildlife Garden (FWG), we provide a little bit of that “wild” where you can see a diverse mix of native and non-native wildflowers growing in profusion. It is worth visiting our site several times during the year as each season brings its own delights. To make your visit more enjoyable, tuck a wildflower field guide and a small hand-lens into your pocket and pick up a copy of our trail guide with its map of the garden.
Spring is brief in our part of the world, and the earliest flowers are just as short-lived. Most “spring ephemerals” grow in woodlands, appearing just before the trees leaf out, shortly after the last snow has melted. One of the earliest in our woods is Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) whose single large deeply-lobed leaf embraces the stalk of the pure white flower. As spring warms up, watch for trilliums, violets, Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Trout-lily (Erythronium americanum), and Bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora). You might also see Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), whose tiny yellow flowers are actually encased in the green, purplestriped tube or spathe (the pulpit) and, therefore, are seldom seen.
Many woodland plants have relatively big leaves, allowing them to intercept more of the meagre sunlight filtering through the forest canopy for photosynthesis. Most North American woodland flowers are native, as many introduced species cannot survive in such shady conditions.
Bloodroot flowers; photo Christine Hanrahan
Primrose Moth on Evening Primrose its larval plant; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson
Common Milkweed; photo Christine Hanrahan
Summer is the season of greatest diversity and colour. It is also the time when many (non-native) “naturalized” species dominate. You may notice many of these along the service road and other disturbed areas. These species are very adaptable and can take advantage of the poor soil conditions in such places, unlike many native plants with their more specific habitat needs. You’ll see big swathes of showy Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) and White Sweet Clover (Melilotus alba) and large clumps of Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and Comfrey (Symphytum officinale), which are attractive to many species of bees and butterflies and good spots to watch for other interesting insects.
Many native species also thrive in the summer. Look for Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis) and Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), a larval plant for Monarch butterflies.
On hot summer days, the woods are a cool retreat. Watch for native White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima), a tall plant with clusters of tiny white flowers, and in sunnier openings with damper soils look for the orange Jewel-weed or Touch-me-not (Impatiens capensis).
Wetland plants are particularly interesting. Our big pond supports a diverse flora. Look for Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and the aptly named Bur-reed (Sparganium americanum).
Summer’s end is signalled by the appearance of the first goldenrods. Soon the garden is ablaze with the golden hues of this beautiful native flower. We have at least five species growing here, including the abundant Canada Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis). Contrary to popular belief, goldenrod is not responsible for the hay-fever that afflicts many people at this time of year. The culprit is the rather nondescript Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) which often grows around goldenrod. You may notice round swellings on the stems of goldenrods. These are galls, home to the goldenrod gall fly larvae. Despite appearances, the plants are rarely harmed by this activity.
Cooler days and longer nights tell us that the first frost is not far off. Signs of autumn are everywhere in the plant world. Asters replace many of the earlier wildflowers and are synonymous with the season. We have at least three species of aster in the garden, the most common being the New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with spectacular deep purple flowers and yellow centres.
Giant Goldenrod; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson
New England Asters; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson
Why would you go flower spotting in winter? Trust us, there are still some interesting things to see, particularly in the open areas. The dead stalks and seed heads rising above the snow are not only beautiful, but provide an interesting challenge to your observation skills.
You will certainly see birds feeding on the seeds of many plants. Finches and sparrows particularly relish the tiny seeds of Evening Primrose, Ragweed, goldenrods, and asters. Non-native Common Burdock (Arctium minus) also attracts seed-eaters, although this can be fatal, as birds sometimes become entangled in the burs. You can add to the beauty of your own winter garden and help out the birds as well by not cutting back your flowers until spring.
After a winter walk around the garden, you may find a variety of seeds have hitched a ride on your clothes. Congratulations! You’ve just had a quick lesson in seed dispersal. Some plants have developed an interesting way to send forth their seeds to multiply. Encased in velcro-like seed pods which attach themselves to any passing creature, these seeds are readily transported some distance from their parent plant to new ground. Can you think of other ways in which seeds are dispersed?
As winter settles in, it sometimes seems that spring will never come again. But, take heart, beneath the snow many wildflowers are alive and well, awaiting only the longer days and warmer temperatures to burst into renewed growth.
Photo Christine Hanrahan
Tansy flowers; photo D. Gordon E. Robertson
Species list (as of 30 September 2012)
In 1992, a quick inventory recorded 68 species on our 6.5-hectare site. Now, we have over 180 species. Although many have appeared on their own (seeds dispersed by wind, by birds or other animals, brought in with leaf litter and mulch, etc.), others have been planted. The list below includes only species that have survived and spread for more than five years. It does not include plants in the Backyard Garden, or trees, shrubs, ferns and grasses, which are treated separately.
Our list is by no means complete, and because plants come and go as conditions change and we are always planting native species, you may see something not listed here. If so, please contact us: (Fletcher Wildlife Garden).
NOTE: This plant list has been revised using the most recently ascribed scientific names. Previously used names are in parentheses. Many older field guides employ the old names, but guides published in the last few years use the most up-to-date names. In this list, where the genus remains the same but the species has changed, I have abbreviated the old name in parentheses; for example, Dryopteris carthusiana (D. spinulosa). When the genus changes, I have added the old name in full; for example, Elymus repens (Agropyron repens).
We thank Irving Dardick for allowing us to link to his collection of Wildflowers and other flora of Eastern Ontario and the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Other photos are by Christine Hanrahan
Asterisks (*) mark the non-native species.
If you’d like more information about wildflowers in general, here are a couple of suggestions for further reading:
- Michael Runtz. Beauty and the Beasts: The Hidden World of Wildflowers. Stoddart, 1994.
- Brenda Chambers, et al. Forest Plants of Central Ontario. Lone Pine Publishing, 1996.
- Dickinson, T.; Metsger, D.; Bull, J.; & Dickinson, R. The ROM Field Guide to Wildflowers of Ontario, 2004.