Tree Advice from a Tangled Bank


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By Jack Phillips

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing in the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” —Charles Darwin

Many blessings come to a professional tree hugger. My work has taken me to cities in the Prairie Provinces where I was quite taken by the native flora. The Canadian prairie might appear harsh and colorless in the minds of many, but I found the region to be rich in gorgeous native plants—including a diversity of trees and shrubs. The length of days and seasons, as well as the floristic influence of the boreal forest just to the north, give the shortgrass prairie a distinctively Canadian character. But the landscape felt familiar to a Nebraskan.

Something else was sadly familiar: the overwhelming presence of exotic trees and shrubs in parks, boulevards, and other public property. Maples, dogwoods, crabapples, lindens, lilacs, and pea-shrubs from faraway places abound. Non-native trees dominate cities in the Prairie Provinces and the Great Plains, where native tree species are seemingly few and often overlooked. European immigrants wanted and still want trees, but this desire has resulted in ecological injury where healing is needed. Planting programs of the past unleashed waves of potentially invasive exotic plants that have damaged native plant communities and ecosystems.

Human communities are also diminished with loss of native plant communities. The preference for exotic, non-native, and nonlocal trees fails to celebrate the heritage of the First Nations, who lived as active members of local food webs and natural communities. It also fails to express the history of settlement and the natural history that made settlement possible. Native trees had a particular role to play in the prairies, offering shelter, food, fuel, and other provender. I’m sure there is no Cree name for a grafted cultivar European little-leaf linden, the darling of many urban tree programs. It is familiar in some form to northern Europeans, but early immigrants would have found it bizarre, for example, on the banks of the Assiniboine River.

My native preaching is often met with ill-reasoned retorts. The claim that there aren’t enough good native choices in the northern Plains simply isn’t true, or may not be as true as assumed. Maybe what is lacking is walking. Nature preserves are not hard to find in this region, and most urban areas prove fruitful as well. Many species of native trees and shrubs have survived the alien invasion and wait to be discovered in tangled creek banks and urban ravines. Some detractors also argue that “native” is hard to define. This is not true in a botanical sense because it is generally agreed that “native” refers to the plants that were growing wild at the time of European exploration and settlement. Another common rejoinder is that native trees and shrubs are unavailable. But there are increasing numbers of native nurseries throughout the Great Plains, and local native plant societies provide a ready resource. One need not resort to plants of distant origin; a splendid planting palette can be created with natives grown from wild local seed.

I had hoped to find a good collection of native trees in Saskatoon’s Patterson Arboretum but had better luck finding many of these along the South Saskatchewan River’s tributary creeks right in town. Manitoba maple, green ash, cottonwood, and peachleaf willow created graceful canopies against the winter sky. Wild cherries and elders thicketed steep banks as sundry red-osiers, wolf-berries, and service-berries made sporadic incursions at every opening. Scores of songbirds—some familiar, some not—went about their fidgets. Jays and magpies announced my presence with a hint of sarcasm.

I expected to find these creeks choked with alien plants, and they were certainly present in large numbers. But many natives held their own; maybe life here is challenging for ecological latecomers. Deciduous woodlands show their strength along rivers and creeks in a manner typical of the Great Plains. It is along these watercourses that one discovers that woody plants love the prairie and in some measure have survived human ambition.

This proved true in Regina as well. One day after work I wandered along Wascana Creek. Spring had arrived, but buds were slow to open. Nonetheless, the flora failed to disappoint. I was greeted by burly maples, ashes, and cottonwoods—each one twisted and swept by wind and time. The water’s edge was thick with burgundy dogwoods and masses of yellow-tinted willows with shades of blue. Skunk bush climbed to the top with naked, knobby fingers. I was charmed by random clumps of pretty little bunch-berries, but closer inspection was belayed by tangles of goose-berry and raspberry canes. I was surprised to see buffalo-berry and cousin rabbit-berry, the latter a smaller version of the former, together in a neglected shortgrass meadow at the edge of a ball field that was being foraged by snow buntings. The close proximity of a busy thoroughfare and the regional airport made the scene all the more intriguing.

When you get to Calgary, you’ve almost run out of prairie. The Elbow River bisects the city and flows right through the zoo. A native arboretum intertwines the animal exhibits, combining fauna with flora. This layout makes a walk through the zoo pleasant and picturesque. The walking bridge across the Elbow paints a more local picture with Salix and Populus. These genera boast a dizzying array of almost identical species that challenges the most hardcore taxonomists. These species—willows, cottonwoods, poplars, and aspens—tend to have leaves with whitish or silvery undersides and glossy upper surfaces in every shade of green. On an autumn lunch break I saw mixed greens with silver flashes and golden accents. Juncos and sparrows added russet and slate. As the wind shook, spun, and cast leaves up into the air and onto the water below, I stood transfixed as bunches of preschoolers bounded by.

Winnipeg, at the opposite corner of the prairie, offered similar joys. One frozen morning my colleagues and I collected soil samples along an urban tributary creek of the Red River. Even in winter the natives were resplendent; the dark, bespeckled bark of chokecherry laid streaks against rugged oak, while maroon red-osier made the bright red tips of gray dogwood pop. Redpolls and chickadees accompanied us. Sounding geese echoed the past. At that moment we were joined with the first peoples who lived there and settlers who later came, finding wild riches to answer their hopes. Here, where the prairie meets the boreal plain and the Assiniboine and the Red rivers converge, wood and water were plenteous in flood plains and oak savannas.

A few months later a warm afternoon found us walking along a remnant oak savanna, part of a bygone ecosystem that drew the settlers that eventually decimated it. A wet meadow shouldered the stand, keeping an advancing subdivision at bay. Chalky aspens framed rugged oak as the low sun ignited purple and steel from service-berry and plum. The meadow fairly blazed with red-osier and prairie grasses. My Winnipegger friends joined me in my incredulity: How could anyone prefer imported whatsits to the shapes and colors before us?

Throughout the Great Plains, wild plants and untamed thickets prove instructive wherever I find them. Charles Darwin probably would have agreed. He concluded On the Origin of Species thusly: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes…” For Darwin, the tangled bank revealed the “laws acting around us.” I’m intrigued that this revelation came close to home, and despite his global sojourns, he closed his seminal work with that parochial image. We may not see what Darwin saw, but we can get some good advice from a tangled bank.


A Few of My Favorite Native Trees and Shrubs for Planting in the Canadian Prairie

Some people confuse the terms “native” and “naturalized.” The former refers to plants that were present in North America at the time of European settlement; the latter refers to plants that were introduced and have become established in the wild. Naturalized plants offer some benefits to native plant and animal communities, but they do far more harm than good when they become established in the wild. If you want to support local ecosystems, plant locally native plants.

The Canadian prairie is replete with beautiful and interesting native shrubs: Red-osier (Cornus sericea), bunch-berry (C. canadensis), gray dogwood (C. foemina), shadbush (Amelanchier alnifolia), beaked hazel (Corylus cornuta), wolf-willow (Elaeagnus commutata), twining honeysuckle (Lonicer dioica), skunk bush (Rhus aromatica), black currant (Ribes hudsonianum), goose-berry (R. oxyacanthoides), prickly rose (Rosa acicularis), red raspberry (Rubus idaeus), buffalo-berry (Shephedia argentea), rabbit-berry (S. canadensis), wolf-berry (Symphorocarpus occidentalis), huckle-berry (Vaccinium membranaceum), moose-berry (Viburnum edule), and highbush cranberry (V. opulus), among others.

There are also a surprising number of handsome deciduous trees that are native across the prairies: speckled alder (A. incana), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), cottonwood (Populus deltoids v. occidentalis), balsam poplar (P. balsamifera), aspen (P. tremuloides), wild plum (Prunus americana), choke-cherry (P. virginiana), bird-cherry (P. pensylvanica), peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides), and the beloved Manitoba maple (Acer negundo). Green ash is currently being ravaged by the emerald ash borer in many Canadian and US cities, so care must be taken to not rely heavily on this species. As always, a diversity of native trees and shrubs in neighborhoods and on private property is important.

A few more tree species are native to southeast Saskatchewan and southern Manitoba. Round-leaf hawthorn (Crataegus rotundifolia), bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), basswood (Tilia americana), and American elm (Ulmus americana) grow in the Assiniboine and Qu’Appelle valleys. Dutch elm disease has not spread aggressively in many parts of the Prairie Provinces, but planting native elms should be limited in cities with large elm populations. The University of Manitoba has selected a resistant native strain that is being commercially produced.

The Assiniboine joins the Red River on the boreal plain of southeastern Manitoba. Here we add a few more species to the list of native trees, including white birch (Betula papyrifera), hackberry (Celtis occidentalis), hop-hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), and showy mountain-ash (Sorbus decora).

This is not a comprehensive list, but a few of the trees and shrubs with beautiful and interesting features. These recommendations are all deciduous, as the Canadian Prairie is generally void of conifers. Many of those listed here are either riparian or closely associated with surface water. The planter will be well advised to take time to learn the conditions, niche, and plant community in which each species grows and to plant accordingly. This is best accomplished by learning to identify native plants and by spending time in the bush. Of course, becoming an active member of your local native plant society is a good idea.

Note: Common and botanical names follow Flora of the Great Plains, University of Kansas Press, 1986.

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