Dear Readers, for the next two weeks my Saturday posts will be from Canada, where I’m visiting the friends and family who live on this side of the pond. For part of this week I’ve been in Collingwood, a town of almost 20,000 souls on the coast of Lake Huron, where I’m staying with my husband’s aunts, Rosemary and Linda, both keen wildlife and plant enthusiasts. Visiting this part of the world always reminds me of the Chinese phrase ‘Same-same, but different’ – so many of the plants and animals are familiar, but then there are those which are not. On a walk down to the lake shore I found the plant below. I’m sure that my North American readers will recognise it immediately but it was a complete mystery to me.
Linda told me that this is Milkweed, is the food plant of the caterpillar of the Monarch butterfly. Its leaves contain toxins which make both the larvae and the adults poisonous to predators, which is probably some protection during the butterflies’ epic migration from Canada to Mexico, where they spend the winter.
At this time of year Milkweed is covered in seedpods, which will soon burst to reveal a mass of fluffy seeds. These are so light and buoyant that they were used as an alternative stuffing for lifejackets during World War Two – children were encouraged to collect the seedheads, and over two million pounds of milkweed floss were gathered in one year. The slogan was that ‘Two bags save one life’, as it took two bags of floss to fill one lifejacket.
The latex-like white sap was also harvested during the war as a rubber substitute by both Germany and the US, although it proved to have too little of the key ingredient to be feasible.
The flowers, which appear between June and August, are an invaluable source of nectar for all kinds of pollinators. The pollen is stored in special sacs, called Pollinia, which attach themselves to the insect and are pulled away when the insect leaves, provided that it is big enough – non-native bee species may become stuck to the plant, and die. Milkweed has been used both as a source of sweetness by Native Americans, and as a way of making arrows poisonous. Few plants can have such a variety of contradictory uses.
Onwards! We advance along the paths beside the lake.
The road from the bus station at Barrie to our destination at Collingwood was lined with stand after stand of Canada Goldenrod. It is the dominant plant of roadsides at this time of year, and will be familiar to my UK readers as well, appearing in many situations where the soil is disturbed. It is also said to have become a terribly invasive plant in China, and is flourishing in the abandoned rice-paddies around the abandoned nuclear plant at Fukushima. Clearly this is a plant of extraordinary resilience and opportunism. In Canada, it is browsed by deer and is eaten by at least twenty species of birds and mammals. In Ontario, the local Ojibway people called the plant ‘Geezisomuskiki’, which means ‘Sun medicine’, and it has been used by various North American First Nations people for both veterinary and human medicine. The Thompson tribe bathed their children in a decoction of Goldenrod for its sedative effect.
Staghorn Sumac is often seen growing along the railway lines in the UK, and is sometimes planted in gardens for its intensely red autumn foliage. It’s here in North America that it looks most at home, however, especially at this time of year, when the strange red fruits (called drupes) are beginning to ripen (the word ‘Sumac’ comes from an Arabic word meaning ‘red’). It is the source of the spice sumac, which has become very popular (especially with followers of chef Yotam Ottolenghi), but the seedheads are also used to make a pink soft drink called ‘Sumac-ade’ in North America. The leaves are added to tobacco and smoked by some Native Canadian peoples, and a dye can also be produced from the plant. Intriguingly, the wood of all Sumacs fluoresces under ultraviolet light, and I wonder if this is used to attract some nocturnal creature.
Sumac is a difficult plant to control, should one want to – cutting it down produces an array of sharp woody shoots. Apparently goats enjoy eating Sumac, but unfortunately they also enjoy eating pretty much everything else. As it is a plant that grows in poor, thin soil where other things are loathe to venture, it might be better, in general, to just enjoy it.
Being on a new continent can feel a little like being illiterate – I don’t immediately recognise even the commonest of birds and insects. In the photo above, I could tell that I was looking at a bumblebee, but I had no idea what species. A quick look at the trusty internets told me that this was a queen Common Eastern Bumblebee, but to me she was a wonderful creature – her ashy thorax made her look like no bee that I’d ever seen before. No doubt she is topping up her reserves with nectar in order to allow her to hibernate through the long, cold Ontario winter. Bumblebees are well-adapted for cold conditions, and it’s thought that their larger size and thick coating of ‘fur’ developed to protect them in the tundra areas in which they first evolved. If last winter in Collingwood was anything to go by, she’ll need every layer of insulation that she can get.
The New England Aster is a plant that is often grown in gardens in the UK, but here in Ontario it is a native plant that grows in abundance, making a colourful counterpoint to the Goldenrod. Its flowers are much more to the reddish-purple end of the spectrum than most asters (though the photograph doesn’t really bring this out), and the plant seeds and leaves are eaten by everything from grouse to moose. Again, it has an Ojibway name – Waunissikaehniswung, which means ‘that which would kill pain’ – native peoples in Canada and the US have used a poultive of the roots for pain, and an infusion of the plant for fever.
And then, this afternoon, we went to visit Juliet’s farm. Juliet is a close friend of Rosemary and Linda, and a sculptor who made the wonderful piece below.
Her house is surrounded by fields full of New England aster and Goldenrod, Milkweed and Red clover. And, floating above the flowers, their wings like tangerine-coloured stained glass, were Monarch butterflies. As soon as one left, another arrived to take its place, like planes queuing up to land. I managed to get just one shot of a butterfly feeding, so anxious were they to fuel up and be on their way south. At a time when these butterflies are becoming more and more scarce, this one field drew them in from the four points of the compass, as if they knew that, among all the fields of maize and canola they would get a welcome here.
Like wild creatures the world over, Monarchs are becoming scarce, due to the destruction of their over-wintering sites, the industrialisation of agriculture, the increased use of pesticides and a variety of other factors. But here, the butterflies found a brief sanctuary before their journey south. Let us never underestimate the value that the right resource, at the right time, can make to the lives of individual animals, whether it’s a pot of early-flowering crocuses for the bumblebees or a whole field full of wildflowers.
- – “Monarch Butterfly Danaus plexippus Laying Eggs” by Photo by and (c)2009 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) – Self-photographed. Licensed under GFDL 1.2 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_Laying_Eggs.jpg#/media/File:Monarch_Butterfly_Danaus_plexippus_Laying_Eggs.jpg