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Carolinian Forest

2003 August 21 – Carolinian Forest

Active Pursuits, Travel Column
Toronto Star Newspaper

The trees in Southwestern Ontario look exotic.

Many are out-of-proportion big with trunks you can’t wrap your arms around. Some, with huge, round heads of foliage, look like giant lollipops. The tuliptree has leaves the size of a huge hand, while the Kentucky Coffeetree has leaves a metre-long. The bark of the blue-beech looks like skin stretched over muscle, while the bark of black cherry resembles burnt corn flakes.

The forests are filled with colourful songbirds and wildflowers in spring. There’s the rhythmic hammering of the pileated woodpecker and the gobble of the wild turkey. The southern flying squirrel launches itself from one treetop to another, gliding at dusk. Swamp-like ponds are reminiscent of Louisiana bayous. The air is rich and steamy; the ferment of life is percolating.

With little imagination, hikers could easily feel transported to southern U.S. Indeed, stand in a grove of pawpaw, with its fruit as big as a fist, and you’ll feel immersed in the tropics. Yet, astonishing as if may seem, the exoticness of the region is natural and homegrown.

Known as the Carolinian Zone, the remarkable ecological region of Southwestern Ontario featuring trees, plants and animals that are more common to South Carolina than to anywhere else in Canada – is due to a temperate climate and long growing season. Cradled between Lake Huron, Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, the Carolinian Zone lies south of a loose hanging line linking Toronto with Grand Bend, and includes tall grass prairie and black oak savannah habitats.

For insight, pick up “Trees of the Carolinian Forest: A guide to species, their ecology and uses” by Gerry Waldron, published by Boston Mills Press. With colour pictures and hand drawings, the book identifies 73 tree species. It also focuses on a tree’s relationship to the ecosystem, the importance of native stock, biodiversity and habitat restoration.

The author, who has over 32 years experience in agricultural research, field biology and environmental planning, holds botany and horticulture degrees, and has been credited with the identification of three species previously unknown to Canada.

For specific places to visit, pick up “The Hike Ontario Guide to Walks In Carolinian Canada” by Brad Cundiff, also published by Boston Mills Press. It features more than three dozen walking routes in provincial parks, conservation areas, on rail-trails, sections of the Bruce Trail, Grand Valley Trail and Elgin Trail. Trail maps, directions, distances, estimated time, descriptions and highlights are included.

Both books will tell you that there’s little natural habitat left of what there originally was. The vast majority of land has been cleared for settlement and agricultural use – some townships have less than one percent of their original cover – and the former rich tapestry has been reduced to isolated fragments.

“Canada has about 4,000 plant species, and half of them are growing in the Carolinian Zone – in 0.5 percent of the nation’s landmass,” said Waldron. “That’s a significant chunk of the nation’s biodiversity.”

What frustrates Waldron is the lack of native trees used in reforestation and restoration plantings. “We have depended on imported exotic species to beautify our landscapes. Nurseries are top heavy with European an Asian species, and up until recently it was difficult to procure native species for restoration.”

It’s Waldron’s hope that his book will help with the propagation of native species, that in your wanderings you’ll find a favorite tree and plant one to enjoy in your yard. “Ultimately, I’d like to see the biodiversity preserved, and I’ve included strategies for that, such as linking natural areas, increasing them in size, and preserving more old growth characteristics.”