Plant Communities

Approximately 19 per cent of the NAI study area is covered by natural vegetation, that is vegetation that has developed naturally without being planted or maintained by people, such as tree plantations, cropland, grazing, mowing. These natural areas include forests and wetlands that have grown in after the original forest was cut down or after agricultural fields were abandoned.

In addition to finding what species of plants and animals are present in natural areas, the NAI field biologists also record and map the types of plant associations, or communities that make up each natural area through Ecological Land Classification. The information helps us to understand the ecology of these areas, because the same groups of species occur together repeatedly in other locations under similar conditions of climate, soils and geology, drainage and with a similar history. Knowing which communities are present in a natural area allows us to make predictions on how a natural area will be affected by various kinds of change and what the natural area may look like in the future. It also allows us to estimate how the natural area is working to do things like clean air and water, sequester carbon, retain soil moisture, build up soil richness and provide habitat that supports biodiversity.

Descriptions of some plant communities found in the NAI study area follow. The next time you go for a walk in a park, along a trail or on your own acreage, see if you can recognize some of these communities.
Coniferous Forest
The coniferous forests are dominated by trees such as white cedar, balsam fir, eastern hemlock or white pine. Coniferous trees are all cone-bearing trees with needle or scale-like leaves that stay green all winter (except for tamarack, which loses its needles in the fall). When conifer needles and twigs fall to the ground and decay, they release acids into the soil that can discourage other plants from growing. The acidic soil and lack of sunlight reaching the ground are reasons why conifer forests typically have sparse ground vegetation.
The three-leaved plant shown here is Jack-In-The-Pulpit. It is a common sight in rich, coniferous forests. The fruit of this plant is very noticeable with large, round, bright-red cluster of berries.
Balsam fir has flat, blunt-tipped needles that distinguish it from spruce which has four-sided needles. Balsam fir can also be identified by the resin, or sap, that blisters underneath the bark.
This is what you would typically see in a cedar forest - a multitude of tree stems with sparse ground and shrub cover. These areas provide shelter to wildlife from harsh winter weather with reduced snow depth and from many predators
The uncommon new york fern is easily recognized by the tapering appearance at both the base and tip of its leaves, otherwise known as fronds. This plant grows in sunlit colonies under gaps in the canopy.
Bogs and Fens
In Southern Ontario, bogs and fens are extremely interesting and very rare vegetation types. These wetlands are formed over thousands of years when moss and other plant material accumulates but does not completely decompose. This incomplete decomposition is due to the wet, acidic and cold growing environment. These environmental conditions form a type of organic soil called peat. Peat is nutrient poor and acidic, so many of the plants that you will find growing in these areas have adapted to harsh conditions.
Bogs and fens are beautiful places during spring, summer and fall. In this picture a variety of interesting plants can be seen such as the flowers of the pitcher-plant, tawny cotton grass, leatherleaf and tamarack.
Sphagnum mosses, like these shown here, comprise the majority of what peat is composed of. These little plants can absorb up to 27 times their dry weight in water. Peat soils form so slowly that it may take up to 1,000 years to form 15 cm of peat.
Pitcher-plants are well adapted to poor nutrient conditions. They supplement their nutrition by attracting, trapping and digesting insects in their vase shaped leaves shown here. The leaves have downward pointing hairs that prevent insects from climbing out. The insects eventually fall into the liquid at the base of the vase-leaf and are digested.
Another insect-eating plant found in bogs and fens is the round-leaved sundew. Uncommon in our region, the sundew catches small insects on its sticky leaves, slowly digesting them while absorbing their nutrients. There is no need to be afraid since this little plant is about the size of a dime.
Bog laurel is a small shrub less than one meter tall and is common to bogs and fens. Although it is small, this plant is highly toxic and has been known to kill livestock when ingested.
Meadow Marsh

Meadow marshes are a truly beautiful sight, especially in the summer and fall. A type of wetland, usually associated with floodplains and the edges of streams or ponds, and lacking trees and shrubs, they are often under-appreciated. Some marshes have cattails, with their recognizable brown tufts at the top, towering over you as you walk through. Others have a sea of grasses, such as the common reed canary grass or Canada blue joint, that move like waves in the wind. Many marshes are dominated by sedges or include rushes. Others are full of flowering plants including asters, goldenrods, spotted touch-me-not, blue vervain, boneset and Joe-pye weed that add splashes of colour to the area.

Water plays an important role in the maintenance of meadow marshes. Flooding is often seasonal in these areas, so the soils can be wet during the spring, and moist to dry by summer. Meadow marshes can be found throughout our NAI study area so keep an eye out for them the next time you are driving down the road or hiking along a trail.

Mixed meadow marshes contain a diversity of colourful plants. If you look closely, you can see the orange-flowered spotted touch-me-not, the white boneset, and the spotted Joe-pye weed. Even 'brown' flowers come in a variety of colours, from the light brown reed canary grass, to the darker brown bulrushes, to the near black cattails.
Many insects can be found visiting the flowers in a meadow marsh. Here, a bumble bee is collecting nectar, a sugary solution, from a spotted Joe-pye weed.
Grass flowers are known as florets, and are very small compared to many other plants. Reed canary grass, pictured here, is a common, easily recognizable plant in many meadow marshes.
Another striking flower often found in marshes is blue vervain. Behind the vervain in this picture, white boneset has distinctive paired leaves that are fused at their bases.
Thicket Swamp
A thicket swamp is a type of wetland where the dominant plants are shrubs, and there is often standing water or seasonal pooling. Examples of thicket swamps include those dominated by speckled alder, red osier dogwood or willows. These are often quite dense, and so can provide protection from predators for birds and other wildlife. These swamps may also contain grasses, such as reed canary grass, sedges and flowering herbaceous plants such as Joe-pye weed, swamp aster and spotted touch-me-not.
Thicket swamps are usually part of a larger wetland system, often having marshes or treed-swamps adjacent to them. A red-osier thicket swamp is in the foreground of this photo, while a cattail dominated marsh is in the background.
Meadowsweet is another type of shrub that can form a thicket swamp community. Scattered trees may be present in these communities, but they are not the main plant form. Instead, sun-loving plants are dominant.
The water table in thicket swamps can be at or just below the soil surface, with some shrubs growing in standing water. Thicket swamps also commonly occur along the margins of streams.
Evidence of beaver can often be found in thicket swamps, as there is an ample supply of wood for them to eat and build dams with. These dams may cause localized flooding, thus impacting the types of plants that can grow there. Speckled alder is a favourite food of beavers, and this picture shows a number of its stems were cut and dragged to a nearby stream.

Bebb's willow

shining willow

Willows are a diverse group of shrubs and trees. Their leaves may be rough and wrinkled like Bebb's willow or glossy with a whip-like tip as in shining willow.

Cedar Swamp
You might be surprised at the diversity of plants that can be found in a cedar swamp. While images of dense white cedar stands blocking all light from reaching the ground often come to mind when thinking of cedar forests or swamps, this is not always the case. Where gaps in the canopy occur, a variety of plants can be found, particularly mosses, grasses, and sedges.

High water tables in swamps usually result in shallow-rooted trees. These are easily blown down, causing pits where the roots were pulled up, and mounds where the tree trunks decomposed.

Other types of trees may be found growing scattered amongst the cedars, including balsam fir, spruces, red maple, yellow birch, poplar and aspen.

Pit and mounds and fallen logs are a great place to find many locally rare or interesting plants. In this picture alone, you can see starflower with leaves in a whorl, wild lily-of-the-valley with heart-shaped leaves, creeping snowberry with small opposite leaves trailing along the ground, and goldthread with three-lobed leaves.
Bulblet fern is an easy fern to identify in the field, as in addition to clusters of spores it can also produce little bulblets or vegetative reproductive structures, which bud off the underside of the frond or leaf. Each of these little bulblets can grow into a new fern.
The showy lady slipper is a beautiful sight to behold when it flowers in late spring. This orchid is generally only found growing in swamps or fens.
Dwarf scouring-rush is another interesting plant found in rich cedar swamps. It is a short plant (2 - 20 cm tall), easily recognizable by its twisting, entwining stems.
Deciduous Forest
When many people think about forests, they often think of common trees such as sugar maples changing colours in the fall. Many types of deciduous, mixed or coniferous forests can be found in the study area. Deciduous forests are composed mainly of tree species that lose all of their leaves each fall. Maples, ashes, American beech, birches, oaks, poplars and walnuts, are examples of deciduous trees.
Fall in Southern Ontario can certainly be a stunning time of the year, with all the leaves turning colour and falling to the ground. Our area is blessed with a diversity of deciduous tree species which means we have many different types of deciduous forests.

The composition of a patch of forest is determined by how wet or dry the area is, the type of soil, the amount of light available for seedlings, and the seed source.
Old-growth forests are no longer common, due to past and present land-use practices, but they can still be found. Signs of an old-growth forest include very large trees, the ground pocked by pits and mounds where old trees have fallen over and decomposed, and the occurrence of dominant tree species in a variety of ages from seedlings to mature individuals. Here, an old-growth red oak dwarfs one of the NAI field assistants.
Trees can be identified not only by their leaves, but also by their bark. Black cherry trees are an easily recognizable at any time of the year because their bark has the appearance of "burnt cornflakes". Older birch trees often have peeling, papery bark while beech trees have very smooth, light grey bark.
Wild leek is a very interesting plant found in rich, deciduous forests. The leaves appear first in early spring, but then they die back before summer begins. After the leaves have disappeared, the flowers come up and the blooms open.
Purple-flowering raspberry is one of several types of raspberry and other shrubs that can be found growing in deciduous forests, particularly in more open areas.

Natural Area - The Cheltenham Badlands

This summer, the Natural Areas Inventory (NAI) project has teamed up with the Caledon Bruce Trail Club to conduct much-needed plant and animal surveys of the Cheltenham Badlands property. This spectacular area along Olde Baseline Rd between Chinguacousy Rd. and Creditview Rd. in Caledon , features a vista of crumbling red shale, streaked with grey bands and extensively eroded into a network of ridges and gullies. It is reminiscent of a small-scale version of the famous badlands of the Red Deer River in Alberta . Badland topography is rare in Ontario and the Cheltenham Badlands is one of the best examples of this type of landform in the province.

The Cheltenham Badlands are an exposure of red Queenston shales, originating from silt deposits in a delta along a coastal plain from about 460-440 million years ago. Queenston shales underlay all of the Niagara Escarpment rocks. The escarpment rises in the forest just across the road from the badlands, as rocks of the Whirlpool Sandstone formation, capped by harder more resistant dolomite. (By the way, it is the buff and brown Whirlpool Sandstones that appear in the Ontario Parliament buildings at Queen's Park, the old Toronto City Hall and in Victoria College at the University of Toronto .)

Queenston shale breaks down easily to red clay on exposure to the atmosphere. Removal of the vegetation covering the shale outcrops for agriculture made the land very sensitive to erosion so it wasn't long before the rains had shaped the badlands. During periods of heavy rain, the creeks draining the badlands run red into the Credit River a few kilometres away. In 2000, the Badlands property was acquired by the Ontario Heritage foundation and placed under the management of the Bruce Trail Association. A Management Plan is currently in the process of being drawn up and the NAI data will contribute to that plan.

Driving by the Badlands on a weekend, it is clear that this is a popular spot for tourists and hikers. But it is also clear that this area is in need of protection from overuse and abuse. Human traffic on the crumbling shale soils exacerbates erosion. A look at the area beyond the bare soils shows that while it is possible for these hills to regenerate vegetation, the plants there still struggle as the soil is not abundant or rich and dries out quickly. The Bruce Trail runs across the western part of the area and the club has done an excellent job of fortifying the trail surface and clearly establishing the route to keep hikers on the path, protecting sensitive species and habitats, and helping to minimize erosion.

NAI project workers have completed surveys of plant communities, breeding birds and plant species and have also gathered incidental sightings of butterflies, dragonflies, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. When these results have been analysed we will have a more complete picture of just how special the Cheltenham Badlands are.

NAI Volunteer Extraordinaire

This summer the NAI project has been the beneficiary of a wonderful gift. South Peel Nautralists’ Club member and Director, Lori Nero, has been volunteering for the NAI since April and has dedicated well over 100 hours to help out with the landowner contact part of the project!

Based on gaps in existing plant and animal inventory data, the NAI project selected natural areas where this summer’s field work was needed. But in order to conduct this field work, the project needed to obtain permission from the landowners to access their properties. Right at the beginning of this huge task, Lori called to say she would like to volunteer in whatever way she could help the NAI project! Knowing from SPNC club meetings how personable Lori is, we knew that she would be perfect for helping with landowner contacts. Lori helped put together and send out three hundred landowner information packages with access request letters. Then, she made hundreds of phone calls obtaining access details from landowners who granted permission and following up with landowners from whom we hadn’t heard, keeping all of this information organized and the files current. And she conducted every single one of those phone calls with her hallmark cheerfulness and positive attitude!

Lori has demonstrated extraordinary determination and dedication to the NAI project. She made certain that all possible landowners were contacted and given a chance to participate in the NAI project and she got great results! Of the landowners that we were able to make contact with (either by mail, e-mail or phone) a whopping 79% gave us permission to inventory their properties, with only 21% declining (for their own good reasons). Based on landowner contact success rates from similar projects in other areas, we had expected about a lower success rate, but Lori’s efforts made all the difference and has set up our field biologists with a full schedule of areas to visit.