In my trove of old photos were several dozen prints taken on September 17, 2001 at FWR Dickson Conservation Area near Paris, Ontario. FWR Dickson has a nice assortment of plant communities in a relatively small area: sandy hills with open oak woods. mesic woodlands with maple beech forest, swamps, open kettle lakes, and old fields. Hiking through there one fall day, I was struck by the diversity and sheer amount of wild fruit, all crying out to migrating birds ” Eat me, eat me.” I started snapping photos. This was before I had a digital camera, so a few dozen exposures was extravagant. Today I would probably take several hundred pictures, and a few might actually be good photos. I have pics of wild grapes, and nanny berries, and the bright red clusters of highbush cranberry viburnum. I tried to capture the porcelain blue of silky dogwood fruit, not successfully.
The alternate-leaved dogwoods growing in full sun at the edge of the kettle lake were heavy with dark blue-black fruits. Alternate-leaved dogwood also grows in the valleys and ravines of Toronto. It reproduces well in city conditions so there is still quite a lot of it around. In the city, the dogwood’s fruit are stripped as soon as they start to ripen in mid-August. The ravines in Toronto are major migratory flyways. There is simply not nearly enough food for the birds. There is not enough food because the native understorey has been so largely replaced with invasives, such as European buckthorn, whose bitter, cathartic fruits the birds cannot use, and because of the stingy, Eurasian plant based landscaping of the homes along the ravines. The fruitful abundance of southern Ontario autumn, which evolved with the native birds and upon which they depend, is just not there in urban and suburban spaces.
That day at FWR Dickson I was also struck by the number of fruiting plants which were not shrubs: some low subshrubs and an enormous and wonderful array of herbaceous perennials.
We don’t seem to use or value fruiting perennials in our gardens and I wondered why? By their nature, they don’t hold fruit into the winter, the way some shrubs do, but the colourful autumn displays are no more fleeting than many favorite flowers’ blooms, and are often preceded by lovely flowers. Canadian gardening ideas are often still inappropriately constrained by European traditions, so I wondered if that was in play here. Riffling through Phillip and Rix’s Perennials volume 2: Late Perennials seemed to confirm this hunch. For autumn fruit display, Ruscus was about it. Perhaps because bird migration routes are generally shorter and less arduous, it seems there is a whole class of potential garden plants scantily represented in the European flora, missing from the European gardening tradition, and thus, it seems, not well represented in eastern Canadian gardens, even though we have many extraordinary and garden-worthy native representatives.
The answer to the hungry Toronto birds might be lie in using these wonderful fruit-bearing perennials more in our gardens. Small city gardens cannot often accommodate another dogwood or chokeberry but there is almost no garden that cannot find room for a clump of false Solomon’s seal or a carpet of running euonymus under an existing shrub.