Biodiversity Gardening Miscellany

Tulips and Weasels

Greetings fellow plant lovers, this crazy-busy time of year continues so it may be another week or so before I can resume my regular science-based posts. In the meantime, allow me to share some observations about spring in Ottawa.

Ottawa Tulip Festival

This past Wednesday morning, I joined a group from the Ottawa Horticultural Society for an exclusive tour of the tulip beds at Dow’s Lake. Our tour guide was none other than Tina Liu, Landscape Architect for the National Capital Commission and the artistic genius behind the gorgeous tulip bed designs that have made Ottawa’s Tulip Festival a must-see event.

Tina Liu showing members of OHS around at the Queen Julianna tulip bed, Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, Ottawa. Photo by R. Last.

We met at the Queen Julianna bed, one of the “drive-by” flower beds that entice passing motorists to slow down and maybe even stop to smell the flowers. Tina explained that this bed features the earliest tulips and is also where the bulbs gifted annually by the Dutch government are planted. Contrary to popular belief, tulips in all the other beds at Commissionaire’s Park, Dow’s Lake, are purchased by the National Capital Commission (NCC). Ensuring there are enough tulips, flowering at regular intervals during the festival period, on a relatively modest budget makes the design exercise both a logistical and accounting challenge as well as an artistic one!

Stately Elizabeth Arden tulips are supposed to be a later variety. However, the combination of rain and warmer temperatures saw them blooming early this year, underlining the challenge of ensuring continuous blooms. Photo by R. Last.

Tina is a font of knowledge about the history of the tulip festival. During WWII, members of the Dutch royal family sought refuge in Ottawa. Princess Julianna was born in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, which is located just west of Commissionaire’s Park. Members of the Dutch royalty must be born on Dutch soil to have a claim on the throne. Accordingly, the Government of Canada declared the maternity wing where Julianna was born to be temporarily designated as Dutch sovereign territory.

As a thank you for Canada’s hospitality, after the war ended, the Dutch government began a tradition of gifting tulips to Canada. The Federal District Commission (predecessor of the NCC) initially wanted to plant the tulips on Parliament Hill but Prime Minister Mackenzie King thought the site too solemn to host such colourful blooms. However, while Mackenzie King was away on business, the FDC snuck up to the Hill and planted the tulip bulbs anyway. Since they were underneath the turf, no one knew they were there until the next spring. It seems Mackenzie King wasn’t too upset about this guerilla planting because the NCC archives include a photo of him smiling in front of the tulips.

This exuberantly coloured bed of double tulips was inspired by Tina’s father, whose favorite video game is Candy Crush.

Least Weasel

Thursday afternoon, I worked with a couple of my MG colleagues to offer advice to gardeners visiting Beetbox Farm in Ottawa’s west end. It was a lovely sunny day and a wonderful way to spend a few hours outdoors in a bucolic setting.

Master Gardeners in Training Kathleen Atkinson (L) and Adrian Barber (R) at the MGOC advice clinic at Beetbox Farm. The heavy chain in the foreground helped to hold all our papers in place, as there was a pleasant breeze.

For me the most notable event to occur during this advice clinic was that we spotted a least weasel, which was living in the mound visible at the extreme left of the photo above. The least weasel (Mustela nivalis) is the smallest weasel and one of the smallest carnivores in North America. Although their size varies and there are several sub-species, the little fellow we saw was about the size of a chipmunk but sleeker and perhaps slightly longer in the body. Apparently they are classified as least concern by the IUCN, due to their wide distribution and large population. Yet, this was the first time I had ever seen one.

Alaskan least weasel (Mustela nivalis eskimo). Photo by Cecil Sanders.

As a fan of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, I grew up thinking of stoats and weasels as the bad guys. Indeed, the least weasel is apparently a fearsome predator and has been known to take down prey several times its size and weight. Relative to its body size, the weasel has a stronger bite force than a lion, tiger, hyena, or even a bear. To the Toad, Mole and Ratty, heroes of Wind in the Willows, this would make them formidable foes. But I find it hard to square the awe I felt at seeing this tiny, cute creature with the band of cutthroats portrayed in Grahame’s classic.

From Reading Kingdom, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, is one of the Reading Kingdom’s recommended books for children.

We are privileged to live in a world with so many other wonderful creatures. Seeing this little least weasel was a reminder to me of how precious they all are, and of our responsibility to steward these creatures and protect their habitats to others can also enjoy them.


Busy, Busy!

My apologies for the long delay since my last post back on May 1. This time of year is like Christmas for gardeners – busy, busy! I was out of town up north for the last weekend of April and was astonished at how green things had gotten in Ottawa over just the two days I was away. Suddenly, all the branches had taken on the colour that signals the start of leaves budding out.

My little oak tree (R) is just starting to show colour from leaves budding out and the blossoms on the serviceberry (L) are already starting to open. Photo by R. Last.

Wildlife is busy, too. A couple of robins are building a nest over the light at the front door. From my observation, robins are casual about parenthood, so they may not settle on this spot for raising their brood. The chickadees who have moved into a birdhouse behind my pond are likely to be more constant in raising their chicks. Did you know, it can take 6,000 to 10,000 soft-sided insects like aphids and caterpillars to raise one baby bird? I hope these bird parents find enough bugs in our ‘hood.

Robin’s nest above the front door light. Clever birds have a built-in incubator! Photo by R. Last.

So, while Mother Nature is accelerating the rush into summer, we gardeners are madly hardening off seedlings, digging up surplus plants to donate to plant sales and, of course, finishing our garden clean up. As a Master Gardener, I have to set aside time to help out at our seasonal advice clinics, which are also now up and running. This year, we’ve invested in a new look for our advice tables. Here’s what to watch for…

Master Gardeners advice table at Parkdale Market. Photo by Barbara Long.

Friends of the Farm Annual Plant Sale

Next Sunday, May 14, is the annual sale hosted by Friends of the Central Experimental Farm. If you’re in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, this is a great opportunity to buy plants. Many of the vendors are local horticultural societies so you will find well-established plants, hardy to our area, and often at very reasonable prices. As a bonus, your purchase helps to support local garden clubs. Master Gardeners of Ottawa-Carleton will also be there, both selling plants and offering to answer your gardening questions.

Hardening Off

Every spring, all my houseplants and seedlings come outside to be hardened off. Hardening off is the process of acclimatizing plants that have been grown indoors so they can thrive outside. Just like us, plants can get sunburned. Where we turn pink (or red, like me), plants that have been sunburned develop whitish patches on their foliage. While rarely fatal, these white patches reduce the ability of leaves to photosynthesize. Exposure to bright sunlight and the cooler temperatures we still get at night can set back the growth of seedlings and kill tender ornamentals we have nurtured as houseplants.

Inside the gazebo “greenhouse”. Photo by R. Last.

So, every spring, my husband and I do the “great plant migration”. Every plant and seedling from inside the house gets moved outside and into our gazebo. Then I wrap the gazebo in tarps to protect them all. They will live in this cozy environment for the next week to ten days until they are better acclimated to the outdoors. Then it will be time to distribute them around the garden for their outdoor summer vacations.

And now the garden is calling… Here are a few more shots of my garden in spring.

A little PJM rhododendron was weighted down by snow over the winter. As a result, it’s buds were protected from harsh winds and squirrel predation so it’s putting on a spectacular show this spring! And those plastic jugs on the left? Those hold my efforts at winter sowing. I got a great crop of sunflower seedlings, and the purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seeds sprouted beautifully. The lupin seeds were less successful, but I still got a couple of baby plants.
A couple of several varieties of species tulips I planted last fall. I love the contrast of the yellow tulips with the shy purple violets. The deeply lobed leaves in between belong to Canada anemone, which will be blooming by the end of May.
Gardening Miscellany

A Taste of Spring

The last few posts have been a bit intense, so I thought we’d take a break today and just enjoy some pretty pictures.

It was a glorious late winter day in Ottawa today, but the days are getting longer, there’s some actual warmth in the sun, despite the cold temperatures. You can tell – spring in coming!

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum spp.) are a wonderful indoor treat in mid-winter.

Soon the first crocus will make an appearance.

Next, the lovely native bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) will make an appearance. I like to pair these snow-white flowers with the intense red colour of the species tulip praestans ‘Unicum’.

Two classic non-native harbingers of spring are the annual forget-me-not (Myosotis arvensis) and lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis). Both are now considered invasive species but they do look pretty in a posey.

Biodiversity Climate Change Conservation Gardening Pollinators, Molluscs and Other Invertebrates Sustainable Living

2023 February Conservation Update

In this post, a fascinating DNA sampling technique; conflicting news about human impact on animal populations; and a cute story about newt rescues in California. We also look at how rising temperatures due to climate change may damage animals; and a study that shows protected areas aren’t designed to protect invertebrates. It turns out we’ve been putting those anti-bird-strike decals on the wrong side of the window; and we look at where your plants come from.

Postcard-sized poo sample collection cards offer an affordable alternative to more cumbersome methods of collecting and storing the genetic information in dung. The cards do not need to be refrigerated and maintain viable DNA for months after collection. Credit: Fred Zwicky

Streamlined DNA for wildlife conservation

A team from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has come up with a new way of sampling DNA that allows scientists to capture genetic information from wildlife without disturbing the animals or putting their own safety in jeopardy. The protocol, tested on elephant dung, yielded enough DNA to sequence whole genomes not only of the elephants but also of the associated microbes, plants, parasites and other organisms—at a fraction of the cost of current approaches. The researchers report their findings in the journal Frontiers in Genetics.

A family of urban raccoons. Photo by Jon Last.

Can urban neighborhoods be both dense and green?

The British Ecological Society reports on a new study from The Nature Conservancy (TNC) that explores how we can make our cities work better for people and wildlife.  By analyzing existing approaches, as well as highlighting cities already creating the right balance of people and wildlife, the study pioneers an alternative method of city design that allows for the accommodation of both denser populations as well as wildlife. “This needn’t be a zero-sum game,” explains senior author and TNC lead scientist for nature-based solutions, Rob Mcdonald. “Having denser cities doesn’t automatically mean less space for nature.”

But, while animals may be able to co-exist happily with humans in urban areas, another study highlights how human incursions into natural areas can disturb wildlife.

Researchers placed camera traps along hiking trails in Glacier National Park during and after a COVID-19 closure. They found that 16 out of 22 mammal species changed the way they accessed areas when humans were present. Credit: Mammal Spatial Ecology and Conservation Lab, Washington State University

Human recreation changes wildlife behavior

Even without hunting rifles, humans appear to have a strong negative influence on the movement of wildlife. A study of Glacier National Park hiking trails during and after a COVID-19 closure adds evidence to the theory that humans can create a “landscape of fear” like other apex predators, changing how species use an area simply with their presence. Researchers found that when human hikers were present, 16 out of 22 mammal species, including predators and prey alike, changed where and when they accessed areas. Some completely abandoned places they previously used, others used them less frequently, and some shifted to more nocturnal activities to avoid humans. The study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. The researchers had also expected to find an effect known as “human shielding,” when human presence causes large predators to avoid an area, providing opportunity for smaller predators and perhaps some prey species to use an area more frequently. In this case, they found this potential effect for only one species, red fox. The foxes were more present on and near trails when the park was open–perhaps because their competitors, coyotes, avoided those areas when humans were around. While the influence of low-impact recreation is concerning, the researchers emphasized that more research is needed to determine if it has negative effects on the species’ survival.

Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public Domain

Animals at risk from heat waves

More than 40% of all land vertebrates may be subjected to extreme heat events by 2099 under current maximum estimates of future global temperatures, according to a study published in Nature. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures could be dangerous for the future of many species across the globe. Extreme thermal events, a period in which the temperature greatly exceeds a historical threshold, have increased in frequency compared to historical records, exacerbated by climate change caused by human activity. Recurring periods of extreme heat affect wildlife and are associated with increased psychological stress, reduced reproductive output and decreased population sizes, meaning that the continuation of these temperature spikes would pose a substantial threat to future biodiversity.

A ‘Big Night’ for Newts

The New York Times has a heart-warming story about the heroic work of the northern California Chileno Valley Newt Brigade in rescuing amphibians that might otherwise become roadkill as they cross a road from their breeding grounds and their burrows. But newt rescue is just a short-term solution. The group is also fundraising for road modifications that will allow the newts to pass safely underneath.

Black swallowtail on thistle at New Life Retreat. Photo by Carol English.

Protected areas fail insect species

Insects play crucial roles in almost every ecosystem—they pollinate more than 80% of plants and are a major source of food for thousands of vertebrate species—but insect populations are collapsing around the globe, and they continue to be overlooked by conservation efforts. Protected areas can safeguard threatened species but only if these threatened species actually live within the areas we protect. A new study in the journal One Earth found that 76% of insect species are not adequately covered by protected areas.

Northern cardinal. Photo by Jon Last.

What we know about bird window strikes is inside-out

New research from William & Mary published in PeerJ reveals that decals intended to reduce incidents of bird window strikes—one of the largest human-made causes of bird mortality—are only effective if decals are placed on the outside of the window. Researchers found that the patterns on the films and decals placed on the internal surface of windows do not reduce collision because they may not be sufficiently visible to birds.

A fynbos bouquet from South Africa. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/Fauna & Flora

Where do your plants come from?

Tim Knight of Fauna and Flora International asks if we ever ask ourselves where all our garden plants come from? The local garden center or superstore isn’t the answer. Take bulbs, for instance. There’s a common understanding that most bulbs come from The Netherlands. In fact, most wild tulips hail from the mountainous regions of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan—countries not widely recognized as havens of biodiversity—harbor the lion’s share of species. Turkey is also one of the richest areas in the world for bulbs, including familiar garden favorites such as snowdrops, crocuses, cyclamens and, yes, tulips too. It’s easy to forget that these wild relatives are the original source of the endless varieties and hybrid forms that grace our gardens and fill our flower vases. And that they face a variety of threats, from overharvesting and habitat loss to climate change.

Houseplants come from all over, including the popular Monstera, which is an epiphyte, growing on trees in its native South America. With one notable exception, bromeliads are found only in Central and South America. A single species—endangered and known only from Guinea—occurs in West Africa. Most bromeliads are also epiphytes, but the one that we’re most familiar with—though you may not think of it as a bromeliad—grows on the ground and produces one of our most popular tropical fruits, the pineapple.

White Christmas cactus. Photo by R. Last.

Cacti may be famous for their tolerance of extreme heat and drought—and plummeting temperatures at night—but they’re not confined to hotspots like the American Midwest and Mexico. Of the roughly 2,500 species of cactus in the world, quite a few thrive in rainforests or cooler climes. The Christmas cactus is native to damp forest in the coastal mountains of Brazil.

The article goes on to detail the origins of orchids (pretty much from every continent, except Antarctica); where cut flowers come from; and what makes the fynbos in South Africa so special. Mr. Knight concludes by urging gardeners to pay attention to the origins of plants they purchase and avoid those that come from unsustainable sources.

Climate Change Gardening

2023 Climate Change Round-up

Photo credit: Markus Spiske on Pexels.

It’s hard to stay on top of all the news about climate change and hard to stay optimistic when so much of it seems to be doom and gloom. I take hope from the ongoing work of so many scientists and activists, and from the success of previous international treaties. For example, earlier this month, the UN reported that the Ozone layer may be restored in decades. The Montreal Protocol, signed in 1987, had countries agree to phase out production and use of ozone-depleting substances. If we could agree globally to save the ozone layer, I think we have a shot at a global agreement to save the entire planet from climate change. Here are a few more reports and news snippets of interest to gardeners.

From the NASA website on global climate change. Photo credits: left – Mellimage/, center – Montree Hanlue/, right – NASA.

The New Yorker reviews Three Climate Reports: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The good: the Biden Administration released an 83-page “blueprint” for decarbonizing the nation’s transportation systems, which are that country’s largest source of carbon emissions. The bad: the Rhodium Group, an independent research firm, estimated that US greenhouse-gas emissions grew by 1.3% in 2022, largely due to an increase in emissions from the transportation sector. This increase, according to the report, “was driven mainly by the demand for jet fuel,” as air travel rebounded from COVID. On the positive side, renewables now produce more electricity than coal in the U.S., and total emissions are still slightly lower than pre-pandemic levels in 2019. However, the US is falling ever further behind on its commitments. Last summer’s passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, which authorizes some $400B in spending on clean energy, was a “turning point,” and could produce emissions cuts “as early as this year if the government can fast-track implementation.” Still, the group admonished, the U.S. “needs to significantly increase its efforts.” The ugly is the third report, from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which notes that 2022 was the fifth-warmest year on record globally, and last summer in Europe “was the warmest on record by a clear margin.” In fact, , all of the past eight years have been among the eight hottest. 

A rainbow above the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Photographer: Samuel Corum/Bloomberg

Bloomberg offers a rosier perspective behind their paywall in an article by Leslie Kaufman and Laura Millan Lombrana called Six Climate Breakthroughs That Made 2022 a Step Toward Net Zero. They begin by acknowledging the almost incomprehensible damage wrought by climate change, and distressing policy decisions, such as rebounds in coal consumption. But they also note the following signs of hope:

  • The Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, which is the country’s most aggressive piece of climate legislation ever. Its provisions ensure that for decades to come billions of dollars will roll toward the energy transition, making it easier to deploy renewable energy, build out green technologies and subsidize consumer adoption of sustainable technologies.
  • The European Union started to make good on its pledge to cut emissions by introducing additional costs imposed on imported goods from countries without the EU’s restrictions on planet-warming pollution.
  • Agreement at COP15 helps to protect biodiversity.
  • The big breakthrough at the 2022 climate negotiations (COP27 in Egypt) sees developed countries agreeing to fund loss, damage and energy transition for developing nations.
  • Voters in Brazil ousted Bolsonaro and reinstated Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who won the presidency in part by promising to stop deforestation of the Amazon. Pro-climate parties also won big in Australia’s elections.
  • Following the recognition at COP26 in Glasgow of the dangers of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, 150 countries have pledged to act to reduce methane emissions.
Prosopis laevigata mesquite near the Chichimeco dam, in Jesús María, Aguascalientes, Mexico. Photo by Luis Alvaz, from Wikipedia.

Climate Change May Favor Nitrogen-Fixing Plants

In Death Valley National Park, which straddles the California-Nevada border, mesquite plants (genus Prosopis) thrive in extreme aridity. While most vegetation types must extract most of their nutrients from fertile soil, mesquites and similar plants receive additional nitrogen from symbiotic bacteria, which enzymatically fix atmospheric nitrogen into an easily absorbed form in exchange for sugars produced during photosynthesis. To determine how arid conditions affect the biodiversity of these types of nitrogen-fixing plants, University of Florida PhD student Josh Doby compared public data on soil, species counts, and aridity from 47 terrestrial sites in the US. Doby and his colleagues initially hypothesized that nitrogen-deficient soils would prompt an increase in nitrogen-fixing plant diversity. The results, however, showed “that aridity is actually the primary driver” of phylogenetic diversity, Doby says. As conditions became drier, the ratio of nitrogen-fixing to non-fixing plant species increased even as overall plant diversity declined. Because these plants have access to atmospheric nitrogen from their symbiotic bacteria, their leaves contain more nitrogen than other plants, and this buffers them against aridity by helping them retain water, says Mark Adams, an ecologist at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia who was not involved in this research. When plants open their stomata to take in carbon dioxide, water escapes, but nitrogen stimulates the production of enzymes that improve the efficiency of carbon uptake, shortening how long plants need to hold their stomata open, Adams explains. “And that’s the secret [of] nitrogen-fixing plants.” Doby’s research is published in the journal Global Ecology and Biogeography.

A dust storm. Photograph: Jason Davies/Severe Weather Australia

‘It was like an apocalyptic movie’: 20 climate photographs that changed the world: The Guardian UK offers recent  images that change how we see our world and how we understand climate change. From the iconic 1968 “Earthrise” photo that is credited with kick-starting the environmental movement to pictures of golfers “playing through” a forest fire in Oregon; a man pushing kids on a satellite dish through floods in Pakistan; and deforestation in the Amazon, these photos bring home the reality of climate change. Note, images of giraffes that died of thirst in Kenya and a starving polar bear are particularly upsetting.

Leaf them be. Photo by R. Last.

After those sobering images from The Guardian, it’s time for some more positive news. A recent Danish studies found that By leaving garden waste alone, Danes could store 600,000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. This is wonderful news for those of us who already practice ecological gardening because there are so many other advantages to leaving garden waste where it lies. For example, fall leaf litter protects a multitude of over-wintering invertebrates. And of course, leaving the yard waste in place is much less work for us gardeners. Talk about a win-win-win!

Rhodo in Rebecca’s back yard. Photo by R. Last.

Climate crisis prompts RHS to plan for sending rhododendrons north

In an example of assisted plant migration, the Guardian reports that the climate crisis has prompted the Royal Horticultural Society to plan a move of its important collection of rhododendrons from its flagship Wisley garden in Surrey to Harlow Carr in North Yorkshire.

Visual abstract. Effect of climate change–impact menu labels on fast food ordering choices. Credit: JAMA Network Open (2022). DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.48320

In the category of things we can do, pushing for climate labelling just might be a good avenue to explore. A recent Study shows climate impact labels on food sold in fast food restaurants can change buying habits. A team of researchers affiliated with multiple institutions in the U.S. has found that placing labels on foods sold at fast food restaurants informing consumers of the negative impact of the production of such foods on the planet can alter consumer buying habits. In their paper published on JAMA Network Open, the group describes conducting an online survey using a fictional restaurant to learn more about consumer food buying choices.

From The Guardian, a wind farm in Texas. Photograph: Delcia Lopez/AP

Finally, in a lengthy piece in The Guardian, Rebecca Solnit writes that “Every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis.” Her article about how to tell the story of climate change (‘If you win the popular imagination, you change the game’: why we need new stories on climate) offers hope for new story-telling and useful tips on how to talk about climate change with your friends.

Gardening Miscellany

Secret Gardens: A Three-Part Course with Dr. Jennie Hirsh

Image sourced from ContextLearning website

Starting Thursday, January 12, 2023 at 1:00 PM EST, enjoy virtual tours of three premier outdoor sculpture gardens on the United States’ east coast.

Together we will explore the history as well as individual works of Storm King (Mountainville, New York), Grounds for Sculpture (Hamilton Township, New Jersey), and Glenstone (Potomac, Maryland).

This course explores three outstanding contemporary art collections, focusing on their sculptural holdings and institutional histories. Each week, we will look at not only how each of these three collections was established but also at specific works by artists including Alice Aycock, Andy Goldsworthy, Michael Heizer, Jeff Koons, Maya Lin, Louise Nevelson, Charles Ray, George Segal, Richard Serra, Kiki Smith, and more.

Led by an expert on modern and contemporary art and architecture, Dr. Jennie Hirsh, this course presents a solid foundation about the evolution of each collection as well as close readings of specific works by some of the most impactful artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Designed to inform curiosity as well as future travels, participants will come away with an increased appetite for future visits to these three unique collections in the United States.

Each lecture is 90 minutes long with time for Q&A, and there is a cost of $105USD for all three lectures. If you are unable to attend one of the lectures, you will receive a link to view it afterwards.

Thanks to reader Dabble for sharing this resource.