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.

Climate Change Conservation Water

2023 March World Water Day

In honour of World Water Day, which is today, I thought we’d review some recent articles about that most essential element for gardeners.

Major water-related events in 2022. Credit: Global Water Monitor 2022 Summary Report

Global water & climate change

A new report shows alarming changes in the entire global water cycle. Behind the changes expected under climate modelling scenarios, are troubling signs the entire global water cycle is changing. A research team led by Albert Van Dijk from Australian National University, analyses observations from more than 40, merged with data from thousands of weather and water monitoring stations on the ground. Drawing on those many terabytes of data, they paint a full picture of the water cycle over a year for the entire globe, as well as for individual countries. The findings are contained in a recently released report. The key conclusion? Earth’s water cycle is clearly changing. Globally, the air is getting hotter and drier, which means droughts and risky fire conditions are developing faster and more frequently.

A satellite image of Siberia Lena delta that flows in the Arctic Ocean. Credit: NASA

Why rivers matter for the global carbon cycle

Writing from École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, Rebecca Mosimann notes that, until recently, our understanding of the global carbon cycle was largely limited to the world’s oceans and terrestrial ecosystems. Tom Battin, who heads EPFL’s River Ecosystems Laboratory (RIVER), has now shed new light on the key role that river networks play in our changing world. These findings are outlined in a review article commissioned by and published in Nature. Writing with a dozen experts and using the most recent data, this work demonstrates the critical importance of river ecosystems for global carbon fluxes—integrating land, atmosphere and the oceans.

Image courtesy of Farooq Khan on Pexels.

Pollution & Water Treatment

When I was running the Canadian Environment Industry Association* in the late 1990s, one persistent problem with water treatment was removing pharmaceutical residues from drinking water. This has remained an issue for some classes of drugs but he last couple of decades have seen impressive advances. Prof. Dr. Juergen Kolb, an expert in environmental technologies at the Leibniz Institute for Plasma Science and Technology (INP), explains the current state of research. “We combine classical physical processes for wastewater purification with new technologies such as ultrasound, pulsed electric fields and plasma technology. This allows us to break down chemical compounds such as drug residues but also other man-made contaminants and convert them into harmless substances.” These methods have already proven their potential in various INP research projects. Currently, the approaches are being transferred to practice-relevant environments. “Our approach is currently mobile plants that can be used in hospitals, for example, where water contamination with pharmaceutical residues is particularly high. Particularly in view of the increasing number of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, we see an acute need for action here,” Kolb adds. The technologies are also suitable for municipal sewage treatment plants as a fourth purification stage. The full article is titled: Innovative technologies to remove pharmaceutical residues from wastewater.

(CEIA no longer exists, but its Ontario provincial counterpart does. See Ontario Environment Industry Association.)

Image of a stormwater pond from the website of Kanata-South councillor Allan Hubley.

Living alongside the Ottawa River, stormwater management is a neighbourhood issue. Following flooding events in 2017 and 2019, the National Capital Commission has been busy rebuilding the retaining wall between us and the river. Sadly “green infrastructure” is not part of their engineering solution, which started instead with clear-cutting almost every tree along the river side of the wall.

Trees felled by NCC for “flood control” along the Ottawa River. Photo courtesy of Andrew Scott.

Green stormwater infrastructure

Writing in Phys.Org, Leslie Lee of Texas A&M University discusses green stormwater solutions to the stormwater runoff issues caused by growing populations, more hard surfaces from expanding cities, and climate change-driven extreme weather events. To help cities grow their stormwater management strategy portfolios, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and AgriLife Extension staff at the center in Dallas are working on many stormwater-related projects. The idea behind green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) is to take downstream effects of water management into consideration and to promote more rainwater to infiltrate the soil and replenish aquifers, rather than simply running off into the nearest body of surface water.

Although many U.S. cities have been slow to adopt, a research review published in WIREs Water proposes strategies for municipalities and decision-makers to overcome barriers and use green stormwater infrastructure for long-term benefits.

Image from New Phytologist, Volume: 238, Issue: 1, Pages: 33-54, First published: 23 January 2023, DOI: (10.1111/nph.18762).

How plants are inspiring new ways to extract value from wastewater

Scientists from The Australian National University (ANU) are drawing inspiration from plants to develop new techniques to separate and extract valuable minerals, metals and nutrients from resource-rich wastewater. The ANU researchers are adapting plant ‘membrane separation mechanisms’ so they can be embedded in new wastewater recycling technologies. This approach offers a sustainable solution to help manage the resources required for the world’s food, energy and water security by providing a way to harvest, recycle and reuse valuable metal, mineral and nutrient resources from liquid wastes. The research is published in New Phytologist.

Rain barrel at the side of Rebecca’s home. Photo by Jon Last.

Potential Contaminants in Residential Rain Barrel Water

In a new paper on ResearchGate, Linda Chalker Scott notes residential gardeners often use rain barrels to collect rainwater from roofs as a supplement to summer irrigation. Rainwater is a natural and unchlorinated water source for aquatic plants and animals. However, rooftop runoff can be contaminated by chemical and biological pollutants from atmospheric deposition, bird droppings, and the roofing material itself. This publication examines the state of knowledge on residential rain barrel water safety in North America over the last 20 years. Among the simple, research-based practices gardeners can use to take advantage of collected rainwater, while also reducing the risks of contamination exposure are:

  • Knowing your local pollution issues
  • Avoid collecting rainwater: when air quality is low (smoggy, temperature inversions, low wind speeds); if you have recently used a moss removal product on the roof; or if pesticides have been recently applied nearby.
  • Use good garden hygiene, including: keeping your barrels well sealed, and using mosquito netting on the top of them; not drinking rainwater or touching your wet hands to your mouth or eyes; washing your hands after handling rainwater; and cleaning the barrels regularly.
  • Wash garden produce before eating it.
  • Install a diverter for the first flush of rain to capture the worst of the contaminants.

Closer to Home

Photo from Ontario Parks website.

Ontario wetlands under threat

Angelica Marie Sanchez from University of Waterloo, quotes Dr. Rebecca Rooney, a wetland ecologist and professor in the Department of Biology. “Wetlands are a portfolio of ecosystem services: including flood prevention, breaking down pesticides, storing large amounts of carbon, and provide habitat for more than 32% of Ontario species at risk who rely on these wetlands to mitigate climate change.” Canada is home to 25% of the world’s wetlands. But according to Rooney, Canada has lost more than 60% of its wetlands over the years. In agricultural areas, wetlands have been drained to make space for farming. While in urban and suburban areas, Canada has lost the majority of its wetlands due to them being drained for housing development. Stormwater ponds are engineered solutions created to effectively replace wetlands across Ontario. However, these ponds only address some of the problems including flood prevention, but they need to provide the full portfolio of ecosystem services that wetlands provide.

While the More Homes Built Faster Act, formerly known as Bill 23, aims to address the housing crisis in Ontario, it will be devastating for the province’s wetlands. The proposals posted to the Environmental Registry of Ontario included changes to the Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, which is the instrument the provinces uses to determine whether a wetland gets classified as provincially significant. “… Unfortunately, the changes that are being proposed to the Ontario wetland evaluation system will dramatically undermine its efficacy and endanger wetlands across Ontario,” says Rooney. “There is a huge amount of scientific evidence that connects these pockets of wetlands into a whole integrated network,” says Rooney. “If you start chipping away at the wetlands and you destroy one piece of it, the whole network is going to suffer under the current proposals.”

Rooney encourages people to act by learning more about the act and its impact on Canada’s wetlands.

Aerial view of the Dezadeash River, Yukon, meandering through vegetated permafrost. (Photo credit: Alessandro Ielpi). Image from Stanford Earth Matters magazine.

Arctic river channels changing

A team of international researchers monitoring the impact of climate change on large rivers in Arctic Canada and Alaska determined that, as the region is sharply warming up, its rivers are not moving as scientists have expected. Dr. Alessandro Ielpi, an Assistant Professor with UBC Okanagan’s Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science, is a landscape scientist and lead author of a paper published in Nature Climate Change. Dr. Ielpi says the assumption of faster river channel migration owing to climate change has dominated the scientific community for decades. “But the assumption had never been verified against field observations,” he adds. To test this assumption, Dr. Ielpi and his team analyzed a collection of time-lapsed satellite images—stretching back more than 50 years. They compared more than a thousand kilometers of riverbanks from 10 Arctic rivers. “We found that large sinuous rivers with various degrees of permafrost distribution in their floodplains and catchments, display instead a peculiar range in migration rates,” says Dr. Ielpi. “Surprisingly, these rivers migrate at slower rates under warming temperatures.” One reason why is that warmer temperatures mean more vegetation, which helps to stabilize river banks.

Good News Stories

In 2004, frontyard lawns were prohibited for new subdivisions in the Las Vegas area. Above, the suburban community of Mountain’s Edge. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

How Las Vegas declared war on thirsty grass

Writing in the LA Times, Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Ian James report on how Las Vegas has emerged as a leader in water conservation, and some of its initiatives have spread to other cities and states that rely on the shrinking river. Its drive to get rid of grass in particular could reshape the look of landscapes in public and private spaces throughout the Southwest. In 2002, as the reservoir level dropped, the Southern Nevada Water Authority used more than its allocation of Colorado River water. At that point, the agency’s leaders decided to pivot quickly toward conservation. Cash rebates to encouraged residents to rip out lawns and put in landscaping with desert plants. In 2003, the Las Vegas area’s consumption of Colorado River water shrank more than 16%. Those conservation gains continued as the area’s water suppliers strengthened their rules, targeting grass. As the article details, not everyone is happy with the restrictions, but they are helping to conserve valuable water resources.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Pexels.

Drought detection on the cheap

Meanwhile researchers at University of Barcelona recently published a study in the journal Trends in Plant Science that presents a set of techniques that enable researchers to detect and monitor drought stress in plants in a cheap, easy and quick way. The study responds to the need to establish effective and low-cost protocols to easily detect and study how droughts affect plants. Specifically, the authors present a battery of very accessible techniques that can be applied with basic laboratory equipment: precision balance, microscope, centrifuge, spectrophotometer, oven, camera and computer.

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

In other good news Everglades restoration moves closer to reality with a crucial groundbreaking. Elsewhere Albania’s ‘wild river’ now a national park.