23 December 2008

Happy holly days!

Winter just officially arrived two days ago, with 30+cms of recent snow and -23C windchills, so I know it takes a little faith and optimism to celebrate that our patch of the planet really has begun returning toward the sun. But, yes, it's true: field season 2009 has just been conceived!

And here in Toronto, today, December 23rd, is the first day we'll see an extra minute of sunlight:
Solstice season in the city always reminds me of the essay Lost Rites - Searching for an authentic way to worship nature where Maria T. Stadtmueller looks for, and finds, her own honest way to celebrate winter solstice in New York City.

Here are some excerpts:

"Like a lot of people seeking some spiritual connection to the natural world, I read up on Native American spirituality, but it felt like a cultural trespassing to demand a seat for my white ass in the sweat lodge. What I am, I realized, is spiritually hungry and European.

[I've also] attended pagan rites... and the scenario is inevitably the same, with much ado about robes, men who like to wear Maybelline, and no detectable spiritual substance. ...I can't keep a straight face at pagan pageants.

Surely, I thought, I'm not the only one here with years of environmental activism under her belt. Surely I'm not the only one who, in working to protect them, has made herself learn more than she ever intended to know about monarch butterflies, coral reefs, or old-growth root systems. Then why aren't we celebrating what we know about the natural world? Why instead are we beseeching the sun to return in the spring when we all learned in fourth grade why it will?

There was one solstice gathering a few years ago that felt truly celebratory. There was no ceremony, no costumes, just ten shivering strangers bundled up for a Central Park tour titled "Winter Solstice in New York: Who Survives?"

As we headed into the park that Saturday morning, our two female park rangers occasionally stopped us to describe how particular birds or bushes withstand a Northeast winter. These women knew their turf: They pointed out lofty holes in oak trees where a half-hidden raccoon would be sleeping off a rough night in Upper West Side alleys; they knew where to spot a hawk when all we had noticed was the scattering sparrows. We stopped in front of a glossy green holly tree, a real extrovert against December's taupe and gray. Holly leaves survive, one guide explained, because the tree stores water not in the leaf cells, but in interstices between cells; there the water can freeze and expand, and the cells remain intact. A thrill bubbled up through my half-frozen marrow at the genius and beauty of this little system. Oh, you are wise, I thought. You are glorious! This tree, and these women who knew it, and the light that clicked on in our faces when we knew it too--this was a catechism of sorts, nature's Magnificent in which science could sing its stanza."
Stadtmueller is talking about a holly like the one pictured above, perhaps a European or hopefully a American Holly ilex opaca, whose native range includes New York, but doesn't reach this far north.

Our native holly is the Common Winterberry Ilex verticillata (below).

Unlike the typical Christmas season hollies most of us are familiar with, Winterberry is deciduous, losing its leaves in the autumn, which is fine because those bright red berries are their charm. Winterberry is a “very common” native in our Ecodistrict (7E-4), and "regionally rare" (L3) in the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority area. Come Novemeber it's easy to spot growing in wet areas. How wet? In this pic, where it was one among many along roadside ditches NW of Carden Plain, you'll notice it's growing between a wet ditch and a swamp. Although I haven't tried it yet, apparently it's also an adaptable garden plant too.

: If you do decide to bring Winterberry to your garden, remember, like all holly trees and shrubs, it's dioecious, with male and female flowers on separate plants. And, as always, don't settle for cultivars or distantly sourced plants. Why? One example is that even among plants of the same species, in the same garden, those sourced from different local eco-types may bloom or fruit at different times, but our local animals, pollinators or migrating birds depend on our plants, the plants they co-evolved with, to flower and fruit at their unique specific time. Besides, you don't have to settle: our area has some excellent native plant nurseries (see the list of "native plant nurseries & sources" in the links at the right) who can help you source ethically propagated local Winterberry.

Again, happy holly days,
merry Solstice, and all the best in garden and field season 2009!


Steve S said...

Hi ya. I haven't found Winterberry anywhere in or near Toronto yet but it's supposed to be here, though I suspect in bogs that are long gone. It's common on lake edges and swamps in central Ontario. It does OK in gardens but none of the native growers have it, only the commercial nurseries.

I get the uncomfortable spiritual feeling she does too. Never seen any rituals that don't make me laugh at how ridiculous they look and feel. I get more from being out in nature and just being quiet and feeling the whole place.

Happy New Year.

native plant girl said...

Hi Steve :)

Honestly, I'm a little lost about how to facilitate "peer-reviewed content" here, so your comments are invaluable (and a relief). Thank you! :)

You're right: I've never seen Winterberry down here myself. Instead of "easy to find" I meant, "easy to spot" and again you’re right: easy to spot in wet parts of central Ontario.

Here are a couple of local exceptions I found through the OMNR NHIC natural areas reports:

-Heart Lake (near Brampton)
-Puslinch Lake Bog and Wetlands

Also, Winterberry is one of 25 floral “indicator” species the TRCA monitors on 60 of its sites through its Terrestrial Volunteer Monitoring program since 2002. Although they published "TRCA Terrestrial Volunteer Monitoring Program: Monitoring Results 2002 – 2007" this past June, it doesn't mention if or where they actually found Winterberry. The only information about Winterberry in that report is:

“Winterberry Ilex verticillata. Rank L3 [note: this rank seems to be up to date to 2002?] Indicator species: Presence indicates: thicket swamp, deciduous swamp, bog. Absence may indicate one or more of: wetland removal or high silt loading; hydrology changes; contamination of water.”

But if someone wanted to know more they could contact Theresa McKenzie at the TRCA Ecology Divisions -- she leads the TVM program and would have that data.

"Local" is a slippery word for me, and well, I guess most people I know too. Sometimes, I think as liberally as a 200km radius from my house (although that makes me uneasy). Other times, it means what I can bike to w/in an hour within my watershed.

As for "local" Native Plant Nurseries who sell Winterberry:
-Grand Moraine Growers
-Native Plants in Claremont

But of course, to be sure, folks would have to ask where the seed was sourced, and consider how appropriate that is to where they'll be planting it.

Re: Solstice. I'm with you! On it's own in a natural context, it's already enough of an exciting "event" for me. Also, I find myself saying “merry solstice!” to my neighbours and I'm surprised and warmed by how many of them also think of it as the centre of the holiday season too. Still, for some reason, I find myself aching for a campfire to tend come solstice eve. :( It just seems right. But that's neither legal, or a good idea (100+ year old semi-detached Victorians, some w/o firewalls) where I am.

Stay warm and Happy New Year to you too!

native plant girl said...

PS: “200km” - you know what that is? Walsingham makes me lose my mind!

the eco-districts and seeds zones have been developed for a good reason.

Steve S said...

Winterberry is pretty rare here. If anyone finds it, I suppose TRCA wants to know. Those nurseries should be OK but I wonder where Claremont gets it, they don't grow most of their own woodies from scratch.

The smell of a nice fire out in the snow would be wonderful right now. The only time I get it is summer vacation camping up north.

200km is a long way. The seed zones are a crass measure of the climate, closer is a SeedWhere map that compares the source with the planting location. Walsingham has a lot of similarity with the southern part of Toronto according to SeedWhere. I am concerned though that everyone ignores Toronto seed sources and gets their seed from more convenient sources near their farms, even if they're in the same seed zone. Even Claremont used to collect around Toronto and now they get seed near their nursery for the most part.

The MNR seed zones are convenient and the best we have to go with for now. If we could get people ordering stock from their seed zones we'd be way ahead of where we are now.

If you're trying to be accurate it wouldn't hurt to sometimes ask me questions. Stuff they tell you at seminars is usually lacking some important details they don't think you need to know.

Scott R, Minneapolis said...

Hi from Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA ! Thanks for an amazing blog, a wealth of info and obvious vitality. I'm just scanning native plant blogs tonight. I've been growing native plants from seed for past 7 years or so here in Minnesota. Would like to mention a book I recently came across, another broad reason to promote the planting of native plants in urban and suburban gardens: to feed local insect and other herbivores, which then provide food to other trophic levels on the food web. Native plants provide much better food resources than do introduced nursery species. The book is "Bringing Nature Home", by Douglas W. Tallamy, Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, Copyright 2007. Check it out, great book ! Thanks again !

Scott R.

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