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Wild Plants

Wild Plants

by Anna Holloway - Master Gardener

It is said that a weed is just a wild plant growing in what is considered to be the wrong place.  Now wild flowers and plants growing where they will are in their right place: in a place where they are entirely comfortable and thriving.   Many times the margin between wild plants and weeds is very narrow.  All in the eye of the beholder!  Who does not love Queen Anne’s lace but abhor the lowly dandelion?  Wild plants  have not needed human intervention for them to grow there naturally.  For them the soil will have the right Ph and the right amount of water (or lack of it) from either rainfall or nearby standing water.  A native wild plant will itself have chosen its growing Zone (although occasionally wild plants will survive out of their Zone in one of nature’s micro-climates) and to be considered native they must have adapted to their regional climate and soils.

Of course not all wild plants are living where they will.  We also have native wild plants that have either migrated naturally or been put by us in our gardens.  Again those lines are blurred.  Wild plants very happily have found homes in our flower beds.  For instance, I have the common blue violet that has invaded one of my flower beds.  Beautiful harbinger of Spring but oh! so invasive and now not very welcome. However, we get away with a lot here in the country where we welcome whatever will grow and flower, often in difficult terrain; wild or domestic.  But in the city wild plants are often not welcome at all.  Few city dwellers will tolerate a lawn full of those pesky dandelions, whilst we sigh and mow them.  And just in passing, a “perfect lawn is not one with just grass, it needs at the very least clover to keep the soil sweet and add nitrogen to that soil”. Brave is the gardener who fills his or her city front yard with wild plants.  Many of the neighbours will be very unhappy and the  gardener will be accused of growing weeds – it has even been known that the local council will get involved and an order to remove is issued.  But city dwellers are slowly coming  around: It is not as bad as it used to be.  Until a few years ago, very few nurseries used to keep any wild plants at all, now most will keep at least a few natives and it is becoming better all the time.  I was pleased to see that the new Canadian Tire has a small “native” section in their Garden Centre.

But where is the divide?  Is bee balm a native wild plant that has become naturalised or was it always a plant of the flower bed that grew in a certain soil, under certain climatic conditions?  Lorraine Johnson in her book “The new Ontario Naturalised Garden”, which claims to be “the complete guide to using native plants” says that “monarda didyma (bee balm) is one of the most striking red flowers you’ll see in a woodland garden”.   And she claims it is rare in the wild but often found in gardens.  To me, woodland says “wild” whilst “garden” says cultivated.   So which is it?  Very puzzling.

Here in Canada we have a plethora of marvellous wild plants that we call native.  But are they?  Are they imports from other lands?   Yes, many were brought by the pioneer settlers from Europe, and some are now coming in from lands in Asia.  Take the Giant Hogweed which originated in southwestern Asia.  It was originally brought to North America as an ornamental plant.  Now it is in the wild:  a very invasive plant, whose sap can burn the skin and blind  the eyes.   Two other unwanteds are the “dog-strangling vines” which, strangely enough, may have been accidently introduced into Ontario from, the Experimental Farm in Ottawa where their fluffy seeds were being tested as a possible filler for life jackets!   It seems every plant has a story to tell.  One has to remember that apart from the hybrids, every plant is a native plant of some place on this planet.  That bears some thought, too.  I nurture a bougainvillea in my living room through our Canadian winter, whilst it used to grow prolifically in my tropical garden with no intervention from me at all. 

 Here in the central north east of Ontario,  one pamphlet worth a look is the Kawartha Native Plant Sourcebook, produced by Peterborough Green-up, which not only lists plants native and indigenous to this region, but also a list of suppliers.  The list includes trees, shrubs, vines, wildflowers, grasses and sedges and ferns.  And I would add another of Lorraine Johnson’s books “Grow Wild”, which also deals with native plants growing in Canada.  She is a director of the North American Native Plant Society and of Wild Ones and is involved in the community gardening movement in Toronto, as well as a contributor to magazines.

Because wild plants,  as opposed to native plants which may be in our gardens, are living in the “wild”, does this mean that they are free for us to take?  The answer generally is “No”.  The beauty of our wild plants are what makes the Canadian wilderness so envied by other nations.  The Ontario Spring  woodlands filled with the trillium grandiflorum  – surely to take a few would not matter!  But it would.  To pick as trillium injures the plant for many years to come and if we all either picked or dug up wild plants, the countryside would soon look very different.  It is hard enough for a trillium to reproduce, as their seeds have to be spread by ants.  Because of easy damage to the trillium, some States in the United States have banned the picking or digging of the trillium altogether.  However, contrary to popular belief digging up our woodland trilliums in Ontario is not banned, except in Provincial Parks and on land owned by conservation authorities.  What is banned in the taking of the rare trillium flexipes (the drooping trillium).  But the trillium is only one of our beautiful wild plants, what of our trees?

      From the southernmost part of Canada to the north where the treeline gives way to ice and snow, we are blessed with a profusion of  great trees; some evergreen, some deciduous.    One would think that with this great variety of native trees we would not need to import others. However, many people now think that the Norway maple is one of our native maples. It is sold in garden centres and is a comparatively fast growing shade tree.  But it is not a native.  It is an unwelcome invasive tree which in places is crowding out our native trees.  You just never know.  Because it has become popular, will it soon be thought of as native? Is it now thought of as such?

     We all have to nurture our wild plants and guard them against invaders, both human and foreign species.  In our global village it is hard to know what is truly ours and what is foreign to our landscape.  We have the beauty of nature all around us here in Ontario.  It is our mandate to protect what we have so that the generations coming after us can enjoy them too.


Anna Holloway

April 2012