Thanksgiving Sunday morning, Jacques Cayouette, a senior botanist for Agriculture Canada – Biodiversity division, and some of his colleagues, came to Beaux Arbres on a quest for rare ferns. They were interested in our farm’s infertile and abandoned pastures as likely sites for Botrychium (now called Sceptridium) ferns.
The pastures on the farm were abandoned more than sixty years ago. Sumacs and raspberries are creeping in, followed by black cherry and white pine, at the edges nearest to remnant woods, but most of the pastures remain open. The sandy soil is so dry and infertile that lichens dominate and the old field plants – common milkweed and goldenrod, black-eyed Susans and tower mustard – struggle.
I had invited a few botanically minded friends from the Pontiac, and we joined Jacques’ group as they spread out over the nearest old pasture. They soon found two species: Grape Fern (Sceptridium dissectum) and Leathery Grape Fern (S. multifidum). They are small ferns, a few inches high, with one green frond and one upright fertile frond each. These are the two commoner species. We were able to find quite a number of each, which allowed us to get a good feel for the considerable variation found within each species.
Feeling chuffed, the professional botanists kept their keen eyes focussed for grape fern. The prize was St. Lawrence Grape Fern (S. rugulosum), a genuine rarity that only grows in open sites on fine sands in the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence area. Eureka! The botanists found some specimens they were quite sure were the rare St. Lawrence Grape Fern. Jacques bagged a specimen to take back to the lab for confirmation.
Given the variation within the species, especially within S. dissectum, and the rather subtle differences between the species, I am not at all sure I have a good feel for what marks a plant as St. Lawrence Grape Fern. It is more rugulose than the other two. Okay. I think I have it. I will have opportunities to revisit our fern site – hey, its just beyond our farm pond – this fall. The grape ferns have an unusual growth cycle. The fronds emerge in late summer – St. Lawrence Grape Fern emerges later than the other two – and last into the winter.
I am very grateful to Jacques for showing me the ferns I would otherwise have overlooked. I used to think the old pastures were not that botanically interesting as they seemed highly disturbed and dominated by common early succession species. I thought the lovely lichens in the lichen crusts were the most interesting thing about them. Now I know that what might well be the rarest species we have on the farm is there in the old sandy pastures.
We visited Knox Landing, a beautiful bay on the Ottawa River south of Norway Bay, in August, 2014. Botanically speaking, it was the most exciting place I have yet been to in western Quebec: wave-scoured shoreline alvar and wetland communities.
The boat landing and road allowance at Knox Landing has been used as a garbage tip for decades and it was distressing to see the contempt for the site’s landscape beauty and natural diversity. We talked to a few local people – passivity and defeatism. Michael had the good idea of contacting the Ottawa Riverkeeper. She put us in touch with the Norway Bay River Watchers. September happened to be Shoreline Cleanup Month and the River Watchers jumped at our suggestion. Before we knew it, they had a Garbage Clean-up organized for the following Saturday. Two local papers sent reporters and we had a solid morning of garbage picking before heavy rain set in.
I hauled garbage but I also took some time to photograph some of the wonderful plants that grow at Knox Landing.
The backbone of my pond naturalization project will be little bluestem. One of the most widely distributed native grasses in North America, it is tough and adaptable, handsome, and companionable to all the showy flowers anyone could want in a meadow or eastern prairie. It is not nearly as tall as big bluestem, so you can look out over an expanse of little bluestem. It is not as fussy about soil fungi as lovely Indian grass, so you can start with little bluestem and let it create the soil into which you can plant fussier plants in subsequent years.
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is a neat bluish-green clump for most of the summer.
It starts to elongate its flowering stalks in late summer, getting about mid-thigh high in most soils. It really comes into its own in late September and October when the leaves turn red and the seed awns are fluffy and white and catch the slanting autumn light. It is great winter fodder for herbivores. Bison like little bluestem hay, and so do domestic rabbits.*
Little bluestem thrives in dry and sandy soils, which is what we have got. I won’t put it in the damp soil next to the pond – that is the future home of blue flag iris, swamp milkweed, and cardinal flower. The dry, sandy surround of the pond – remember this is an old farm pond, not a naturally occurring wetland – will be planted in a flowery butterfly-attracting meadow of, yes, little bluestem. Continue reading Pond Project: Planning for pollinators – plant grass