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Wildflowers: the gems of Ontario’s woodlots

By Jenny McCune, University of Guelph

Woodlots are treasure troves of wildflowers. Over the past two summers, I’ve had the pleasure of doing plant surveys in over 100 private woodlots in southern Ontario. Many woodlot owners are surprised to find out about the number of different species growing in their woodlot. In a one-hectare (2.5-acre) area, my assistants and I have recorded anywhere between 27 and 160 different species of plants, including trees, shrubs and herbs.


The reason I’ve been doing all these surveys is to look for some of the rare forest wildflowers of Ontario. There are about 200 rare plants that grow in woodlots in southern Ontario. Not all of these are endangered, but all of them grow in 80 or fewer known locations in the entire province. However, it could be that some of them are doing better than we think, because they’re growing happily in private woodlots that haven’t been visited by botanists.

I have been using a computer program to predict potential locations of rare forest plants, based on soil type, elevation and climate, and then visiting some of those places to see if the plant is there. In the process, I want to get the word out to landowners. If you have a woodlot, you may have some of Ontario’s plant gems. Here are just a few of our common and not-so-common forest species:

Dolls eyes JMcCune web

Doll’s-eyes or white baneberry (Actaea pachypoda) is a common plant in our deciduous forests. It is easy to recognize in the late summer and fall due to its bright white berries. Don’t eat them though! They are poisonous.

Rue anemone JMcCune web

Rue-anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) has a bright white flower and blooms in the early spring. It is not listed as endangered or threatened, but there are fewer than 80 places in the far south of Ontario where it is known to grow.

Herb robert JMcCune web

Some people call this wildflower “stinkweed” because it has a strong smell when crushed. It is actually a type of geranium, with the scientific name Geranium robertianum. This little plant is tolerant of trampling and disturbance, growing along trails, in rock crevices and even as a weed in flower beds.

Harts tongue fern JMcCune web

If you have a woodlot along the Niagara escarpment, with lots of exposed rock, you may have the hart’s-tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium). In some forests along the escarpment in Grey County it is quite common, and landowners there find it hard to believe it is considered rare! But Ontario has 94% of all the hart’s-tongue ferns in the world, so if we don’t protect it here, it will be in big trouble.

Helleborine orchid1 JMcCune web

The helleborine orchid (Epipactis helleborine) is a species from Europe that has been doing extremely well here in Canada. It never takes over like garlic mustard can, but you can almost always find a few of these little orchids growing in any shady forest in southern Ontario. It was first recorded in North America in New York State in 1879.

Rams head ladys slipper JMcCune web

The tiny ram’s head lady’s slipper (Cypripedium arietinum) is a rare native orchid. If you have a sparse cedar forest on shallow soil over limestone, or perhaps a deciduous forest over sandy dunes near Lake Huron or Georgian Bay, you may have ram’s head. It can also grow in forested swamps.

Fringed loosestrife JMcCune web

Fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata) likes it a bit wet, and grows near streams or at the edges of swamps. The plant has five yellow petals that are pointed at the tips and tend to nod slightly.

green dragon JMcCune web

The green dragon (Arisaema dracontium) is a cousin of the jack-in-the-pulpit. Both have bright red berries, but the green dragon has five to seven or more leaflets, while the jack-in-the-pulpit has only three. Like the fringed loosestrife, green dragon likes to grow in moist floodplain forests along rivers and streams.

partridgeberry JMcCune web

Partridge berry (Mitchella repens) is a common plant in deciduous forests. It grows on sandy soils, but also on hummocks in swampy areas. The bright red berries and small shiny leaves make it easy to recognize.

spotted wintergreen JMcCune web

I think spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata) should be called striped wintergreen, because it has evergreen leaves with white stripes. It is only found in a few open forests on sandy soils in Norfolk County – although it used to be found at one site near Wasaga Beach. It likes shade, but not too much. I have found it in open pine forests, often growing with bracken fern nearby. It is often under five inches tall, so it is very easy to miss!

Jenny McCune is a plant ecologist at the University of Guelph. She grew up playing in the woodlot on her family’s farm in Dufferin County. For more information contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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