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Protecting endangered natural heritage – one plant found only in the County

four-leaved-milkweed-Asclepias-quadrifolia

The only known populations of the endangered four-leaved milkweed in Canada – are in Prince Edward County.

“It’s quite astounding,” said local botanist and County resident Sheila Kuja. “How remarkable is that?”

This and other informative nuggets of information about the County’s natural heritage were shared by Kuja in a recent presentation to the Environmental Advisory Committee speaking to the importance of biodiversity in the County and ways to foster it.

White trout lily

She also addressed the disappearance of white trout lilies; the environmental impacts of rampant clear-cutting especially in Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest (ANSI), as well as the old oak-hickory forests, among several topics close to her heart.

Kuja noted it is “the responsibility of everyone who sets foot on this beautiful island to do their part” to not only learn about the County’s fragile eco-system, but to take care of it. Her challenge was also directed to the municipality to help.

The white trout lily, she said, might be a good way to initiating the process of the municipality acknowledging the importance of biodiversity.

“A small but beautiful little plant, it’s a real speciality of the County, but isn’t well known,” explained Kuja. “It is something that could be publicized as worth coming to see, and for those who have them on their properties, a plant to be proud of and to protect.”

“They could almost be an emblem for the County,” she adds, “one of the special plants to see when you come here in the spring.”

White trout lilies are spring ephemerals taking little more than a month to send up their leaves, produce flowers, fruit and then die back for another year to survive as an underground bulb.

One of the best places to find white trout lily in eastern Ontario is in the County.

“When I moved here, I saw them at Prince Edward Point, at Massassauga Point, and the Lakeview Trail at Sandbanks Provincial Park,” she explains. “I wondered if they were anywhere else in the County and decided to search for them.”

Kuja explains the white trout lily is a Carolinian species occurring further south in the United States, where she notes it is rare or endangered in some states, although it is not yet considered at-risk in Ontario.

“It comes into Canada in southwestern Ontario, and then in eastern Ontario only from the Trent River to Collins Creek in Kingston.”

Kuja said she has found white trout lily populations surviving beside woodlands that contain them, but also under shrubs by the side of County roads, usually when one tree or several trees have been left after the adjacent property has been cleared for farming or building a home.

“They persist wherever conditions allow,” she said.

It was in the spring of 2021 when she noticed the municipality had cleaned up the roadside along a wooded section of Stinson Block Road where white trout lilies grow.

“This clean-up is really unfortunate and allows alien weed species to proliferate, not only along the roadsides, but also into the natural woodlands that the shrubs were acting as a buffer for,” Kuja noted. “Some areas were gouged down to the soil removing the lilies and other wildflowers.”

She said gravel was spread over the areas where the trout lilies grew, covering many plants.

“This year when I returned, many species (like garlic mustard) were colonizing the roadside, replacing many of the white trout lilies and purple cress plants that are unusual native species,” she said. “More and more populations are being lost.”

By the County simply changing its maintenance regime in a few key areas, Kuja says these unusual species could be safeguarded.

For Kuja, the message is about education, and while she doesn’t want to divulge those specific areas where white trout lily (and other rare wildflowers) grow because some folks may have a tendency to dig them up, she would like people to familiarize themselves with the lovely little plant.

Over several springs, Kuja plotted a map of the most vulnerable locations where she and some friends had found the plant growing along roadsides. That map has now been shared with the relevant department of the municipality to help facilitate future maintenance procedures.

“Letting people know about these plants by landowner contact would also be helpful where the plants occur near creeks and in woodlots, also to let them know about the valuable County natural heritage they are protecting.”

She also noted a site along Bethesda Road is now just grass because of the “maintenance” regime used with the removal of the cedars and continued mowing over a number of years.

“A lot of the time these woodland plants need the mycorrhizal associations that are present in a woodland to survive, and it’s unclear whether there is enough of the mycorrhizal association to keep these plants going in areas of clear cut.”

Kuja’s ask is council, through the Environmental Advisory Committee, consider suggesting private groups, such as the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, the Prince Edward County Master Gardeners, the Prince Edward County Horticultural Society and others, adopt a road to take care of roadside maintenance with something like annual trimming of shrubs.

Former oak-hickory woodlot

Clear-cutting of Oak – Hickory woodlands are also of concern.

“It is sad that the few remaining woodlands in our County continue to be lost when they are so important for the amelioration of climate change, water retention and biodiversity,” said Kuja. “We all lose when a woodland is clear-cut.”

Kuja’s specific point concerned the disappearance of forests, and in particular those forests in the candidate Green Point Escarpment Forest ANSI in the northeastern portion of the County.

“I’d like to address an unfortunate clear-cutting of an unusual oak-hickory woodland at the base of the escarpment in the Green Point area,” she said.

She noted it is seen quite clearly now as a bare patch when entering the County from the bridge on County Road 49.

“This is the type of forest that once covered the landscape from Green Point to Ameliasburgh. These forests occurred on Farmington loam soil covering about one-fifth (about 55,000 acres) of the County.”

Kuja explained the decline of these forests was due to early settlers to increase agricultural land and provide lumber for housing.

“It was too difficult to log these hilly areas near the escarpment (near County Road 49), but most of the other logged areas on this soil type have now become dense red cedar,” she explained. “We are so lucky that these escarpment forests still remain more or less intact.”

The Green Point Escarpment Forests ANSI represents a living museum of all the species that were present here prior to settlement, she said.

“These forests harbour many species that are now rare, or gone entirely, from the few remnant areas of forest left in the County on this soil type.”

Remnants of the original oak-hickory woodland now account for less than one per cent (500 acres) of their former extent.

“Some of the existing remnants are dominated by invasive aliens European buckthorn, black swallow-wort and garlic mustard,” expressed Kuja. “This leads to a loss of ecological integrity including decline of species due to disruption of key relationships.”

Of those vulnerable forested areas in Prince Edward County, Kuja is most concerned about the Green Point Escarpment Forests ANSI because it has no protection.

“Since it’s a Natural Core Area, it can have no large-scale development, but it could disappear bit-by-bit, or huge chunk by huge chunk,” she noted.

“The forest needs to have the protection that the province would have given it, if they were still designating provincially-significant ANSIs, so no clear-cutting or development,” she said. “The municipality has to recognize that biodiversity is an important selling point for the County and it’s to their advantage to maintain it.”

Even though this candidate ANSI was recognized as the most significant woodland site in the region (from Trenton to Napanee), Kuja says this candidate ANSI is unlikely to have its status upgraded to provincially-significant as was proposed in 2000.

“We are losing a lot of the woodlots more to farming and residential house building, so the very few that we have left are in rather tenuous circumstances.”

She spoke to the biodiversity value of oak-hickory woodlands and their significant importance, noting they are not widespread and some of the best examples are in the County (there are about 10 sites).

“A variant of the oak-hickory community on Prince Edward’s South Shore is known from only two occurrences in the province and has been assigned a conservation rank of S1 (critically imperilled provincially),” Kuja noted.

The Prince Edward oak-hickory sites contain rare and endangered species, including the New Jersey tea, still existing in some Prince Edward sites, and is the larval food plant for the endangered mottled duskywing butterfly.

“The list of endangered and regionally rare plant species in the County’s oak-hickory woodlands includes at least 38 vascular plants; over a quarter of the native plants of the County can be found in these high-diversity areas.”

Biologically, said Kuja, Prince Edward County is a special, very interesting place where northern and southern elements come together.

“We can find Carolinian or southern species like twinleaf and chinquapin oak, but then also white-throated sparrows and ravens are nesting here, although they are considered northern species, but they are quite at home in our red cedar forests,” she explained.

The chuck-wills-widow can be heard here, as well as its northern cousin, the whip-poor-will.

Biodiversity is worth highlighting even further to the community says Kuja, to tourists and to municipal officials and employees, so it can be safeguarded by all, and the benefits enjoyed by all.

“We have the power to influence what is happening in our own backyard and should use that influence to benefit biodiversity before it’s too late.”

Kuja is a firm believer that everything starts small, but also that everyone can do something to play a part, however small.

“It is happening, little-by-little,” she said.

She noted the garden club is promoting pollinator gardens and planting them on public lands, and Tree the County is planting trees on public lands.

“There is a movement to turn lawns into gardens featuring native plants that are adapted to our restricted summer water conditions.”

Neighbourwoods in Bloomfield continues to document the variety of trees present in a built community; the Prince Edward County Field Naturalists (PECFN) conducts bio-blitzes to document the varied and interesting plants and animals that are present, especially on the South Shore, but also elsewhere within the County.

“Last fall, PECFN had geologist Marc Forget talk to us about Gibson Mountain, also known as the Ameliasburgh Inlier,“ said Kuja. “The most southern example of the Pre-Cambrian shield in all of Canada, it is of geological, historical and botanical importance in the County.”

In closing, Kuja said it is up to the municipality to make sure the County’s very important forests are safeguarded and not fragmented, and the County’s special plants are not lost.

“There should be some mechanism in place, such as a bylaw, that prevents any further clear-cutting from occurring in ANSIs,” she said. “Even small changes can augment and preserve the biodiversity of the County.”

“We recommend the Environmental Advisory Committee and the municipality, and the planning department, put such a bylaw in effect to make sure no further clear-cutting is allowed and these ANSI forests continue their role as a living museum, a climate change remediator, and hot spot for biodiversity.

“We are very fortunate to live where we do and it’s worth taking some time to realize that and embrace what it means,” she notes. “We really do have an amazing number of rare and interesting species around us in this incredible County, but for how long?”

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  1. Mike Barnes says:

    I believe there were volunteer groups set up to take care of the Millennium trail shoulders … but as soon as the wild parsnip showed up council ordered in the glyphosate. As far as each person doing a small part: pretty easy, stop mowing your lawn to 1.25″ until it turns yellow, dies, and becomes a fire hazard … our obsession with lawn mowing and weeding dandelions is a sure sign that people are stuck in their ways.

  2. helen fearman says:

    This is a wonderfully passionate plea to all of us and to all our visitors to protect and preserve the fragile beauty of our island. The County needs a Biodiversity Officer to implement a framework to ensure this protection, while we still have something to protect. Protecting biodiversity also happens to have the side-benefit of being the number one way to fight climate change.

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