The Good Witch

Each November there is a guided hike in Altona Forest – all about recognizing and identifying trees by their bark, buds, and growing patterns. One resident tree we discuss is the native witch hazel. With graceful spreading branches, it has a vase-shape and is attractive – but we’d just missed her late-fall show. I promised myself that I’d go looking for this small tree’s display this year in mid-October, since my timing is off every year!

Witch hazel is commonly known for it’s medicinal qualities as an astringent, treating insect bites, sunburn, blemishes and other skin inflammation, and it’s historical use as a water divining rod.

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However to gardeners and naturalists, witch hazel’s qualities are about it’s spicy scent and it’s blooms… at a time when you’d never expect to see anything blooming. Native witch hazel – sometimes called ‘winterbloom’ – is Hamamelis virginiana. It blooms in fall – almost impossibly late in fall with a show of small, scented yellow firework blossoms.

The flowers have thin, ribbon-like petals that are swirled and twisted from the small four-petaled base. Watch for these clusters of blossoms in October to early November – the tree may have it’s fall yellow foliage or be bare in bloom-time as it was today.

Foreign species bloom in yellow or red, come from Europe, Japan or China, and bloom in late winter. While these more showy varieties are commonly found in the garden centres, they shouldn’t be confused with the native variety.

You will find native hazel growing in dappled sun, in woody areas, and at the forest edge or in clearings. The witch hazel we saw was right on the trail – near Post 36. At about 9 feet tall, it was a small example of the tree which can reach 20′.

Seed pods of witch hazel are also interesting since they are tight, brown pods that suddenly explode sending their glossy black oval seeds up to 10′ away. Some birds will eat the seeds, though no birds rank these as favourites.

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As witch hazels are forest-edge species, I suspect many were lost to the development of our neighbourhood. I sourced 2 native witch hazels from a ‘from-seed grower‘ and planted them where TRCA cut the 2 ash trees at our fence-line. They are growing slowly and will one day add to the native canopy, shade out the existing dog-strangling vine (DSV), and hopefully seed into the area. The forest edge is full of aggressive invasives that move in when the ground is disturbed (from construction) like DSV and buckthorn so let’s hope this good witch can hold her own!

Gardening with native plants is about finding plants indigenous to our area and then figuring out how to use them in our gardens. Will they give us the ‘interest’ that we look for – that could be bark, foliage, blossoms or berries? Will they be space efficient? Will they lend themselves to planting beds? Does witch hazel make your planting list?

I hope that there are a few witch hazels left in Altona Forest – not just the one right on the trail. Let me know if you’ve spotted a witch hazel along Altona’s winding paths.

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Though yellow. the small blossoms are easily lost in the colours of the season


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This unobtrusive clump shrub/tree in the foreground is the witch hazel

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

About Witch Hazel (and photos through the seasons)

Native Range Map

About Witch Hazel (wiki)

Native Witch Hazel – description and blooming pattern

How to Grow and Care for Witch Hazel

The Good Witch ~ © 2018 Natasha G





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Through New Eyes

This month I’m giving my space to someone else who wanders the forests… and with a keen eye and open heart to places like Altona Forest. Someone discovering Altona Forest with fresh eyes:

When I moved to this area 9 years ago, the trails were maintained, the boardwalks were in excellent condition, and the forest had recently been cleaned from the dumping that had been going on in the area. But unfortunately funding was sparse and the forest was not maintained.

Some people began to dump garbage at the entrance, off leash dog-walkers made it dangerous for hikers, some youth began to gather to smoke or drink at a couple of the entrances – and our City and TRCA did little when called about these types of infractions.

Altona Forest needs a lot of love these days…


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As You Like It…

‘They’re having fun wrong!’

What? This has been floating around in my head for about a year. The quote is funny and quirky and borrowed from a tv show, but this declaration is the distillation of confusion and friction between different interest groups and generations in how to enjoy forests and conservation lands like Altona.

In a nutshell – no one generation or group can shape what enjoyment of a forest means – or tell another how how to actively engage with it (within the laws and regulations meant to protect that space for people and wildlife obviously).


Will you spend your time butterfly watching?

How do you engage with the forest? What makes you excited about being in nature? What interests you about the forest? Do you carry your device with you? Do you prefer the silence and solitude? Do you take a camera? Do you want to learn as you go? Do you want a guided walk? Do you want to contribute to regional or national science monitoring? Do you prefer to jog?


The soft needles of the tamarack

More than at any other time in history, we have multiple options in how we engage with our world. Younger generations tend to interact through technology – and while that is a huge over-generalization, it’s a paradigm shift and signals a departure from the previous concept of ‘being in nature’. For example, my grandparents generation had no use of the nascent technology at all, my parents have some limited use, I find I’m increasing my use but it’s very specific and targeted, and my nieces and nephews see the world through the technology. If you lined up these generations in front of a forest trail, they would be engaging with it differently.

Here are just a few ways you can engage with nature in parks, shorelines and conservation lands like Altona Forest:

  • Plantings
  • Clean-ups
  • Photography
  • Games (virtual, orientation, scavenger, or geo-caching to name a few)
  • Science (bioblitz and virtual bioblitz)
  • Meet-ups for hikes or exercise
  • Solitary calming exercises such as forest bathing or meditation
  • Old-is-new hobbies like bird-watching
  • Some special locations offer thrills like mountain bike trails, canopy walks, or rappelling

Will nature be your playground, peaceful escape, teacher, wellness guide, bootcamp instructor? A combination of all of these? No matter your age, knowledge level, skill level, or fitness level, there is an activity for you.


Will you delve into increasingly popular bird-watching – either alone or with a group?


wood ducks


As You Like It ~ © 2018 Natasha G

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Iris: Welcoming a Wetland Worker

Hot, sunburned, covered in mosquito bites, smeared in mud … that’s me.

This is not my idea of fun. I actually hate mud, bugs, and humidity – ask anyone who knows me. I get sun rashes and can’t stand worms. I am more neutral about the slugs and snails now sitting on my rubber booties. I don’t like going off-trail or stepping ankle deep into squelching mud.

Today was the last day of my planting. Late in the season and thus even more challenging. It’s June 4th and I’m putting the last 36 iris plugs into their homes in the north-west corner of Altona Forest.

So why did I do this? Spend hours over the past few days in mud? Because the end justifies the means. I’ve met red (biting) ants, all sorts of bugs, poison ivy, and piles of deadfall. Today and these areas are the worst.

I wrote this on the last day of planting blue flag iris plugs donated to Altona Forest. How often do all the factors align? Donated native plants. The right plants capable of amending the area’s problems. TRCA’s nod of agreement. Weather. So all I needed to give was time, effort, some knowledge and ability. How could I not do this?

Bonnie of Tin Roof Rusted not only kept her word to donate native blue flag iris to the forest, but actually doubled her donation to 144 healthy plugs ready to begin their life and water amendment in Altona Forest.

The weather (over-hot and dry for this late-May and early June) was a boon for this planting project. The vernal streams and ponds in Altona Forest were drying. Areas that would have been in water and difficult to access dried considerably.

It’s not only safer and easier to work in the target areas, but it gives a very good indication of which areas will stay moist during droughts – so I can plant iris along the path of the water. Despite the rising clouds of mosquitoes, I followed some of the vernal stream beds in the north end of the forest – planting one here and one there in the sun-dappled clearings along their path and among large swaths of jewelweed.

The area targeted for the most iris is the north west corner of Altona Forest – beside Post 30. This area has challenges. It was wet-forest with ash trees and shady boardwalk. Then came the foreign emerald ash borer, and the entire strand of ash died. This area is naturally wet, but gets more water and too many nutrients from a tree nursery that sits beside it. Over-rich water flows into the area and into the pond affecting its plants and animals.

Deadfall is dangerous: the only part of my planting that held actual risk. It’s easy to lose your footing, step on a branch that breaks, get your foot wedged in-between sunken logs. It’s an ankle breaker – and since I was alone I had to be extra careful. It’s slow and tedious work but this is where the nutrient-rich water enters into the forest.


Blooming in early-mid June in our area

Blue flag iris asks only for hours of sunshine and wet earth. In return, they do a great job of cleaning the water they are in. A natural filtration worker mitigating the effects of the nutrients flushing into our forest.

Here are 3 facts about blue flag iris:

  1. They are found in the wild from Manitoba east to the Atlantic provinces. There is more than one variety; blue flag (iris versicolor) and Virginia blue flag (iris virginica). The latter is only found in southern Ontario and Quebec in Canada. The west has their own slightly different ‘western blue flag’.
  2. They are water-edge plants and will tolerate standing water for a few days at a time. Once established they have deep root systems that can handle some drought as well. They do very well in garden/pond settings and can be divided every 2-3 years. They just need full to partial sun every day
  3. They bloom once per year – in early summer. The blooms are on slim stalks about 2ft tall with multiple violet-blue blooms that feed hummingbirds, moths, butterflies and native bees.

I was considering titling this post “Into The Mud” as I crept under branches and scrambled over old tree trunks. Finally all 36 iris went into that challenging area to hopefully spread. As for the rest, each group of 36 was a different planting day:

  • 36 went into the wet meadow on the other side of the boardwalk;
  • 36 went along the vernal stream system running east from the ponds towards Wildflower Drive;
  • And 36 more went along the Rosebank Tributary near post 5 – an area that is dappled sun and wet woods.

Hot, scratched, and a little sore, I headed along the dilapidated boardwalk winding my way to the forest’s exit. As I was walking, a white admiral butterfly flew right up to me and stopped on a leaf 4 feet from my nose: the forest thanks you in quiet but magical ways.

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Blue flag iris seed-heads ripening in the July heat

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

  • ** Tin Roof Rusted is a TRCA-approved native plant supplier and TRCA knew of the plan and the location of the planting. Unless it’s for a public planting organized by TRCA, no planting is allowed in a conservation area.
  • Native iris (and other plants) sources: Photos in this blog are from my ‘test subject’ – acquired from NANPS sale 2 years ago and planted at the edge of my rain garden. I have used it to test growing/water/light conditions.
    • Tin Roof Rusted in Mt Forest (further away, but she is an approved supplier to TRCA – a former resident/ City Councillor/ advocate of Altona Forest!)
    • North American Native Plant Society Annual Sale (3 sales in the GTA usually in May)
    • Native Plants in Claremont (north Pickering)
    • Evergreen Brick Works often has a summer market of sustainably sourced native plants
    • Vandermeer Nursery in Ajax offered a section of native plants, plus has ‘nativars’ (which are cultivars of native plants) so choose those carefully since selective breeding for beauty can select out traits and food that birds, pollinators and butterflies look for and need
  • Growing and Caring for Blue Flag Iris
  • Blue Flag Iris (about) – Canadian Wildlife Federation
  • Growing Habitat and Seed Heads – photos Ontario Wildflowers
  • About Blue Flag Iris (US source)

Iris: Welcoming a Wetland Worker ~ © 2018 Natasha G

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Elegant Deceiver

Two days ago I saw an flash of orange and black flutter through my garden. It was the first viceroy of the year. There is nothing that says ‘summer’ more than watching butterflies take advantage of the breeze and blooms in the summer sun.

Whether you have just a small flower bed or a whole area designated as a ‘pollinator space‘, it’s justifiably satisfying to see butterflies arrive. Do you watch for cabbage whites? Swallowtails? Monarchs? Viceroys?

The viceroy is a beautiful orange and black butterfly with a lace-like wing edge – a very similiar appearance to the monarch. It is elegant and also a savvy deceiver. Most people learn of viceroys in relation to monarchs: the wing pattern is slightly different, the size is a little smaller, they are Ontario natives who don’t migrate, and they are not milkweed-dependent like monarchs.


It has long been known that these species benefit from the frequent mistaken identity. Since monarchs eat milkweed as caterpillars, they ingest the toxins of the plant and while they are impervious to it, they incorporate it’s off-putting taste and toxicity. A symbiotic relationship between monarchs and milkweed makes the monarch unappetizing to predators. Their bright colours may draw attention, but predators know that the butterfly is unappetizing. The viceroy exploits mimicry that offers some additional protection.

The viceroy is somewhat distasteful itself – so this is not a case of a tasty butterfly being protected from predation by visual confusion with the vile-tasting monarch. Instead, they are both distasteful, and have a mutual benefit from looking alike.

But how about for us… those of us looking at the fields and flowers… and spotting an orange and black beauty? How can we tell?



  1. Have a ‘horizontal band’ of black on their wings that intersects the vertical black lines that both species have. This is the easiest way to tell them apart
  2. Have a less wide wing span – you have to learn to judge this in relation to their bodies
  3. The ‘lace’ detail at the wing edges of the monarch are more detailed and smaller than those on the viceroy. Additionally on the top wing (fore-wing) the pattern is more white in the orange on a viceroy as opposed to the black and darker orange on a monarch.

If you are close enough, also look at the bodies from above – the viceroy is fully black while the monarch has white spots on both the head and lower abdomen.


Comparison via

If you are casually watching one, look at how they fly. Monarchs have a distinctive flight that I’ve seen described as a ‘flap, flap, glide’ but I’d describe as a lazy non-directed movement. Viceroys are more flapping and direct – they seem faster and straighter. In some cases the monarch is a deeper orange – but don’t go by colour since there are wide variations between individuals.





Both monarchs and viceroys feed and breed in our warm Ontario summers – and both visit native blooms such as bee balm (monarda), coneflowers (like black-eyed susans and echinacea) and blanket flower (gaillardia).

Watch for the flashes of black and orange … and try to distinguish which of these elegant butterflies you are seeing.


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Butterflies of Ontario

Butterfly and Moth Guide (Ontario Nature)

Butterflies of Toronto (e-book from ROM/City of Toronto)

Caterpillars ID

Viceroy or Monarch? ( spotting the differences – Journey North/

Viceroy and Monarch Mimicry

Mimicry – a discussion

Elegant Deceiver ~ © 2018 Natasha G

*Please note that while viceroys frequently fly around Altona Forest’s edges, they refused to pose for me. I took these viceroy photos in Rosetta McClain Gardens in Scarborough (late Aug ’17 – hence the tattered condition of the wings). I only sign ‘My Altona Forest’ to photos I’ve taken in Altona Forest.

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Amphibians Beyond The Ponds

Feeling like ‘a frog is a frog’?

Just a little curiosity is all you need to take the leap and discover their amazing song, life cycle, and contribution to our woods. So I’m going to challenge you to go to the ponds, watch, listen and discover a frog.

I really know nothing about frogs or toads. So why am I writing an article about them? Because they are cooler than you think – than I thought. Because just a few bits of knowledge are the starting point – whether you begin your own research or head out to observe.

Amphibians have been called ‘indicator species’ – their decline is tied to and illuminates wider problems of environmental toxins, changes in climate, fragmentation of habitat, and invasive species or disease transfer. Everywhere, amphibians are in steep, frightening decline. They are both predators and prey – and they affect many food cycles in their native ranges.

Altona Forest has a number of wetlands, but they were amended, drained, segmented, and changed for human purposes. This drastically affected the distribution of frogs and the viability of the area for the life-cycle from egg to tadpole to frog.

I have seen 4 of Altona Forest’s frog species. I believe that those who monitor and know local amphibians agree that there are 6 currently present in the forest. You can observe frogs in a number of places – Lacey’s Pond (an area in transition because there was not enough open water in the pond for frogs until last summer), the Amphibian Pond on the north boardwalk, the edges of Petticoat Creek as it passes by Altona Forest’s main entrance, and the rainwater collection ponds in the south ‘panhandle’.

Since I am no expert, each title below is a link to more information about the species – including their calls so you can listen for them. I’ll begin with the species I haven’t seen:

Spring Peeper:

For a frog to be named for the sound it makes is a sure sign that it has a distinctive call. The spring peeper is a tiny brown frog often found on trees. It is one of the earliest frogs to emerge after winter and can call while there is still snow on the ground. I can only say I’ve heard it – since you can hear them from a distance.

Grey Tree Frog:

The name is perfect – yes this very small frog can be found climbing trees. But look very carefully since it has the ability to change colour to blend into its surroundings. Last year on a guided forest walk, a grey tree frog was spotted in a tree beside the amphibian pond in Altona Forest north. Though I stare at trees a lot, I haven’t seen one. Meanwhile, forest-adjacent residents say that they’ve found them in their gardens. I’m not so lucky – but I’m still looking!

Leopard Frog:

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The leopard frog is named for it’s spots. It has a pointier nose, ridges running along its sides, and a brighter green colour (though they can also be brown). This mid-size frog was in the shallow edge of Petticoat Creek – but I have spotted them at the rainwater ponds in the south as well.

Wood Frog:


Wood frogs are found (big shock) in the woods. You can find them in damp areas and I’ve spotted them in the muddy areas beside vernal streams. While they are shy, small frogs, once a year they gather at the ponds to mate and then seem oblivious to people and the click of the camera. This pair was at the north amphibian pond.

Green Frog:


Green frogs are not always green – they can be any number of deeper shades of green and tan brown. They also are found in every size but have large discs (ears) beside their eyes that make them easier to distinguish. Their call sounds like rubber bands. They are reliably spotted at the amphibian pond – where I photographed this one last week.

American Toad:


American toads are the only toads in this area. Unlike frogs, they are able to wander farther from ponds and into forest or neighbourhoods. While I’ve seen toads in Altona Forest (around the amphibian pond and in the forest adjacent to it), this one hopped from the forest into my garden – where he’s welcome to stay and rid me of all sorts of garden pests!

Wetlands are forests, ponds, marshes and many other spaces – places that invite biodiversity.  Amphibians play a central role in these ecosystems… and now you know to look not only in the water, but in the trees and in the shaded forest for these adaptable but shy inhabitants.


Amphibians Beyond the Ponds ~ © 2018 Natasha G


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Our Woodland Spring Ephemerals

It seems like we wait forever for spring to arrive. And when it does, it’s fleeting and disappears before we can fully embrace it. That feeling of a short-lived, ephemeral season is echoed in our local Ontario forests by beautiful blossoms that rush to seize the mild warmth and dappled sunlight of spring.

A spring ephemeral is defined as a woodland plant that grows, blooms, seeds, and dies back in a few weeks to a couple of months. They are often very short plants (under a foot tall), have minimal leaves, and bloom in the leaf litter of a deciduous forest. Ephemerals usually bloom in April/May depending on the severity or warmth of our spring weather. They use spring’s open forest canopy to gain all the dappled sun they need to bloom and then, when the trees put out their leaves and summer sets in, the ephemerals die back and lie dormant until next spring.

The most famous of the spring ephemerals is Ontario’s provincial flower – the trillium. They are bright, cheery, bloom for about 2-3 weeks, and fade into shades of pink as they age. Trilliums crisp white petals mirror the 3 bracts and leaves below them. And it is true that it’s illegal to pick them – in any park, conservation area, or public space – for good reasons. Picking a trillium kills the plant in nearly all cases, and even if it survives, it would be years before it could bloom again.


Trilliums along the loop trail in Altona Forest

Trilliums are hardy and yet delicate and very susceptible to human ‘interference’ – a trait they share will other spring ephemerals. Some take years to grow from seed to mature plant. Their short growing season means that a lost leaf or flower is unrecoverable and can destroy the plant. Many of these plants die in transplanting or even handling – so carry your camera and take only photos and memories with you.

If you love these spring beauties and want to add natives to your garden to support pollinators, there are ethical nurseries that don’t wild-harvest (aka steal them from their native homes) – I will list a couple below in ‘resources’.

Don’t miss the subtle and hidden beauty spring holds in the forest. You need to be out walking at the right time to be able to appreciate these natives during their best (but short) show.

Here are 5 other woodland ephemerals you might see annually along Altona Forest’s trails:


Bloodroot is a cheerful plant that has one flower and one emerald green, intricately lobed leaf. It’s usually one of the earliest to bloom in spring and can be found in little colonies of many plants growing in a clump about 10″ tall.


2. Trout Lily

Trout lilies face downwards so it’s easy to miss their delicate beauty in spring. Their name is derived from the mottled colour of their leaves – resembling the fish. You will often find a single leaf  with no flower (that’s the whole single plant) – because (like trillium) it takes seven years for a plant to get from seed to flower.


Identify the trout lily by the speckled leaves

3. Jack-in-the-Pulpit

It’s easy to miss this spectacularly striped beauty. Stoop low and take your camera to chipmunk-height to take a closer look. The bloom looks like a champagne flute with the tip of its one ‘petal’ dramatically bent over the opening. This unique characteristic protects it but makes it hard to spot. The tube is really a bract – the ‘flower’ is the stalk inside the tube.


Lit by the sun, the stripes on this ‘jack’ are dramatic

4. Marsh Marigold

Can you resist the sunny cheerfulness of the marsh marigold? This plant loves damp soils and even standing water and is often seen along vernal streams and ponds edges. It grows in a clump with neat rounded shaped leaves and stems with multiple flowers.


5. Lady Slipper Orchid

Before these neighbourhoods were built, there were many delicate and whimsical lady slippers in this area due to the damp wooded conditions and the right sustaining soil bacteria. Lady slipper orchids die if they are moved or disturbed: they have very complex and narrowly-defined growing conditions. The rare remaining lady slippers in Altona Forest are extremely fragile and unfortunately prone to tampering and theft. Keep your eyes open for them in damp areas along the trails – and enjoy their beauty in the late spring.



Bonus Round

And now a challenge… Have you seen the blossom called ‘spring beauty’ in Altona Forest? I haven’t – but I know it grows in the woods of Rouge National Urban Park just a walk away. It’s a tiny early-blooming little pink and white flower. (If you see them in Altona, please let me know where so I can photograph them!)


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Our Woodland Spring Ephemerals ~ © 2018 Natasha G



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