Oh Possum!

This time of year brings flocks of juncos to my birdseed, woodpeckers to the suet, and a strange set of footprints under my feeders. I watch carefully to see a possum wander into my garden at dusk or early evening. As the nights get cold, and snow covers the ground, possums are forced to brave the cold and wander further afield to find food.

Am I the only one who thinks possums are cute? Many people see them as frightening, foreign, dangerous, or ‘a face only a mother could love’. They are smaller than raccoons and have the back-end of an over-large rat with lots scary-looking teeth on the front end (they show these out of fear). They can also appear scruffy and disheveled. Don’t fall for the scare-mongering bad press – and look beyond first impressions.

Possums are too-often unfairly vilified. I’ve heard sad tales of people harming them or purposely hitting them with cars (like turtles – not their fault that nature built them to be slow). I can’t imagine this kind of cruelty – but this post on facebook made me realize that it was past time to write about my winter-friends.


Original source unknown – but we’re thankful!

Possums are peaceful, slow-moving, non-aggressive, and generally good neighbours. They don’t carry diseases, damage decks or roofs, and don’t attack humans or pets. Just don’t try to touch them – they are still wild animals. They hiss and show you their teeth when they are afraid or cornered – it’s their defense mechanism. They are pretty harmless – so much so that when terrified they sometimes ‘faint’.

I loved the term ‘playing possum’ but it took me a while to understand what that really meant. When possums are confronted and afraid, they lose consciousness – appearing dead. Like skunks, they can emit a ‘fear stink’ if approached – but unlike other creatures, they fall over, drool, and become involuntarily catatonic.

Possums are immigrants to our forests – moving northwards with the milder winters. But just because they are newcomers and strange to us doesn’t mean that they are bad. Possums crossed the land bridge and began their northward migration when the north and south American land masses collided millennia ago… the retreating ice age allowed them more viable range.

They are officially named ‘Virginia opossums’ (Didelphia virginiana) and are amazing creatures – evolutionary wonders – the only North American mammal with ‘pouches’ for their young. They are marsupials – they carry their joeys like kangaroos – and I’ve met their Australian cousins in Brisbane’s backyards. Marsupials are some of our planet’s earliest mammals. Prehensile (clinging) tails and opposable thumbs allow possums to climb. Solitary and nocturnal, they are also adaptable omnivores – like humans or raccoons – and will eat insects, snails and slugs, grains, berries, fruits, eggs, small snakes, amphibians or carrion. Possums fill an important role in the forest food chain but will seek garbage cans, compost piles, and outdoor pet food when hunger pushes them to it.


found on facebook – posted by Nikki Headley

Does ‘new’ mean ‘invasive’? No. Possums or ‘opossums’ are native to North America, and only the long icy winters have kept them from living in these woods in the past. They can’t hibernate, don’t have a warm thick coat of fur, and have bare feet, ears and tails that are prone to painful frostbite. They are not built for the cold like many of our other woodland creatures and have a great deal of difficulty walking in deep snow, foraging in long winters, and surviving the deep freeze.

Many possums die each winter – falling prey to harsh cold, hunger, or off-leash dogs, hawks and owls. Sadly they have short lives of just one to two years and this explains why they breed at young ages and have large ‘litters’. They live a harsh existence.

Possums are part of Altona Forest – I’ve seen one or two a year for the past several years – walking along the fence or foraging under my bird feeders. They are welcome to all the grubs, voles, bugs and seed they can find: their eating habits rid us of a number of pests. In fact I stored fall pumpkins in our garage to open-compost them in the back corner of my garden in December-January – providing some winter food for the possum and nutrients for my trees.

I think that we can learn to be generous and compassionate with nature; kind to fellow creatures simply looking to survive and coexist in peace. There is always a way to find balance and be inclusive.


Image ~ pixabay


Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

For a hilarious depiction of our city-friendly wildlife and possums, I’d suggest watching the movie ‘Over The Hedge‘. This movie is a great way to introduce kids to possums – and to discuss their lives, challenges, and roles (and those of other urban wildlife). William Shatner does the possum voice-over; too funny.

Possums in Ontario (Ontario Nature)

Southern Ontario Possums

About Possums (wiki)

All About Possums BioKids Program – University of Michigan

Virginia Opossums (National Geographic)

Opossums (Britannica)

Living with Possums

Oh Possum! ~ © 2016 Natasha G



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Tamaracks Revisited

Tamarack is a gorgeous late-fall favourite and an answer to the question ‘what tree is both coniferous and deciduous?’.

I love it’s dichotomy – the way it throws a curve-ball into the learning we gained as kids. Coniferous refers to a tree that is cone-bearing – it reproduces by seeds in a cone structure. Deciduous refers to a tree that loses its leaves in fall, enters dormancy, and revives in spring. Native tamarack (Larix laricina) is both – proving that by strict definition the two groups are not mutually exclusive – mature trees will create lots of little cones and in late fall you will see tamarack needles turn a deep gold before they fall to the ground.

Tamarack is a long-lived tree growing between 10 and 20m and requiring normal to wet ground and full sun exposure. It’s branches have needles that are carried in soft bunches of about 20 and arranged around the stem in a spiral. It is an attractive tree in three seasons with it’s soft chartreuse needles in spring, the deep green needles of summer adorned with tiny bright-red cones, and then the gold of fall. In winter it looks sad and uninspiring – but feeds birds and chipmunks with its tiny rosette cones.

Around this time last year we began planning a spring volunteer planting day. Without it, Altona Forest would not get any trees to help the loss of the ash species to foreign bugs. The question always arises about what trees to add – and it can be a contentious question. In this case, we would be planting what trees TRCA* could source and provide for Altona Forest – only trees available from the TRCA grower.

One of the chief considerations is location. You can’t cheat light conditions – and it’s risky to cheat water conditions when planting trees. The area was along the Summerpark border of the forest – where many ash trees were felled (a result of the Asian invasive emerald ash borer) and invasive dog-strangling vine and buckthorn threatened to make further headway in taking over. What would love these damp conditions, add to the native biodiversity and wildlife of the forest, and be part of the TRCA collection?

The winner was tamarack. Tamarack is a superstar of the larch family that thrives in the vast band of boreal forest that lies to the north of us. This highlights an interesting part of Altona’s location: it is the northern edge of Carolinian Canada – but hosts some species that thrive in the short seasons and thin soils of the boreal forest as well. Tamaracks already exist in Altona Forest small numbers.


The soft needles of the tamarack

This spring, TRCA provided 30 tamarack trees and the Altona Forest Stewardship Committee invited volunteers to come out and plant them in the muddy and tricky area near the little stream that ends in Summer Park and parallel to the adjacent backyard line. It was a challenging planting for the few intrepid volunteers, but all the tamaracks were planted.

I recently clambered over the deadfall and stumps to revisit the area of the planting. It’s now 5 months after they went into the ground. Two were almost lost in a sea of tall jewelweed and one had to be rescued from a bittersweet nightshade vine that had taken a strangle-hold and bent the tree in half over the summer. Another was similarly bent in half by dog-strangling vine. Maybe we need to keep an eye on these trees for their first couple of years.


Young tamarack bent in half by a dog-strangling vine

Three tamaracks were granted a special position – in a different location.These three trees were planted in a muddy spot in the north-west corner of Altona Forest where the boardwalk begins and a large stand of ashes have died. They can be easily spotted beside self-guided hike Post 30. It is an area in dire need of new trees – but also an area where any visitor to Altona Forest can readily see a tamarack and watch their progress as they grow and change colours with the seasons.

In revisiting these three spring-planted tamaracks, I noted that the damp, muddy conditions combined with no canopy had offered these trees the best conditions in a drought-ravaged summer. They had doubled in size and now stood proudly reaching sky-ward among the fall wildflowers.


This young tamarack (larch) shows the colour changes and the needles beginning to drop

Watch for their golden show this fall, their chartreuse new needles in spring, and watch them as they grow and mature in our forest. As they become teenagers, they will begin to put out some of their distinctive tiny red cones. Visit the easily visible three at the boardwalk edge in different months and watch their challenges and successes.

It was worth scrambling into the rough and getting mucky to plant them – in fact I wish I had 10 more to plant! I love the tamarack – in all its seasons – and I think you will too.


*TRCA – Toronto and Region Conservation Authority – is the owner and manager of the Altona Forest on behalf of the City of Pickering. Its funding is indirect through the local municipalities /regions, and in Durham Region (Altona Forest) they don’t receive sufficient funds to add more trees, repair the boardwalks, maintain the trails, or provide services that match those in York, Peel, and Toronto.

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

About Tamaracks (Ontario)

Tamarack Plant Guide (USDA)

Photos and Distribution Map

About Tamaracks (BC)

Growing Tamaracks – parameters

Tamarack – A tree for the city ?

Tamaracks Revisited ~ © 2016 Natasha G







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Fall Beckons

There are two types of people: those who need to know why the leaves change to various colours and those who just want to enjoy their beauty.

Regardless of which type you are, the forest is beckoning – and the trees are enjoying their prime colour weeks. These are the warmest days left this year. Go and explore – look up, look down, see with fresh eyes, and enjoy the whole glorious experience of fall in Altona Forest.





What makes leaves turn colours? Why do they fall? Why are there different colours? Click on the linked sentences below and learn all about it…

Leaf colour comes from the pigments in leaves. The green is chlorophyll – the photosynthesis pigment that helps the tree manufacture it’s food using sunlight. But there are also carotenoids (yellow) and sometimes anthocyanins (red) in leaves.

When the nights are cooler and daylight hours lessen, trees are triggered into a survival process in order to preserve their energy and survive the coming winter. The trees’ energy is stored in it’s trunk and roots. Leaves are expendable – and can be liabilities in winter.  As the chlorophyll is drained from and destroyed in the leaves, the other existing pigments begin to show. Leaves become more translucent and can look like they are lit from inside by the sun.

“At the point where the stem of the leaf is attached to the tree, a special layer of cells develops and gradually severs the tissues that support the leaf. At the same time, the tree seals the cut, so that when the leaf is finally blown off by the wind or falls from its own weight, it leaves behind a leaf scar.” That’s why it’s called ‘fall’

Fall Beckons ~ © 2016 Natasha G




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The Real Pawpaw

I didn’t know what the native pawpaw was until 3 years ago. Maybe I’m a little slow with this: I didn’t even know it existed. Did you imagine that southern Ontario was home to a ‘tropical fruit’?

I thought the pawpaw was a very different fruit not realizing that the papaya, a popular fruit of central-American origin, is sometimes given the misnomer ‘pawpaw’. This gave rise to the fruity confusion. Some disambiguation is needed: the papaya (Carica papaya) is not even from the same tree family as the pawpaw (Asimina triloba). The real pawpaw is a native, eastern North American, temperate, fruit tree bearing sweet banana-meets-mango fruit* that is very rare in Ontario but grows wild in the southern Carolinian eco-zone.

Pawpaw is Canada’s largest native fruit – and a marvel of nature because a tropical fruit tree evolved hardiness to expand it’s range further and further northward to eventually withstand a southern Ontario winter.


The form could be shrub-like or single-stem 20ft tree like this one. The pawpaw fruit are found hiding under the leaves

Where do you find pawpaw? There are still some wild stands in the Niagara peninsula. Was the Altona Forest area once host to this delicious fruit? It would be speculation, but the lake-effect warmth, sheltered sunny valleys, and fertile soils would likely have seen one or two pawpaws grow in the Carolinian areas near the protected shores and valleys of Lake Ontario that are now Rouge National Park and Altona Forest (Petticoat Creek watershed). Since the last ice age is still retreating, could this tree’s northern ‘migration’ be naturally continuing?

Though once common, pawpaws were almost lost to their native Canadian range with the construction of towns and cities on the fertile lands where they grew. The shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario are protective and temperate – and now very developed. Pawpaws fell to progress. Since these areas are the tree’s northern-most range, there would have been fewer trees to begin with since the winters challenged them – and since they need at least one other tree to cross pollinate with, a single tree would have little chance of repopulating an area.

The problem with pawpaws is that they don’t do well as a fruit to take to market – they bruise, their natural black spots don’t look appetizing, they have very thin skins, and they go bad within a couple of days of being picked. This propensity for spoilage made them seep from the collective consciousness, though their history includes being used regularly and prized by the first nations and then settlers.


Ripe pawpaw fruit such as these don’t look appetizing – but looks are deceiving

If you are quick-acting, lucky, and live in Toronto or Ajax, you can buy two native pawpaw trees for your garden through Your Leaf. There are limited quantities. Sadly Pickering doesn’t participate in the Your Leaf program. You will need a pair of trees because they will need to cross-pollinate to provide fruit – of course you and your neighbour can each plant one as long as they are only about 15 feet apart according to Your Leaf.  And since the tree is a suitable city-garden size of 20ft tall at maturity, it will fit well into many urban settings. If you grow one, save me some seeds please.

There are some challenges to growing pawpaws since the Altona Forest area is pushing the northern edge of the range. You will need to find a sunny, protected spot that gets ample water. If you are starting from seed, their seeds cannot dry before planting. So if you eat a fruit, put the seeds into a ziplock bag with a damp paper towel and plant it as soon as possible. (If you’re not planting them, offer the seeds to others as they are in demand and a tree that produces sweet fruits will have off-spring that offer that same sweetness.)

For butterfly lovers the pawpaw offers one final draw: it is the host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and a sure way to draw them to your garden!

In my annual winery tours of Niagara, I will definitely be sourcing some pawpaws to try! There is a resurgence in interest, awareness, and cultivation of this native fruit. Just imagine the delicious food you can collect from your own garden for your table – and I’m sure wildlife from the area would be only too happy to help you with any ‘lost’ fruit!


*I have to admit (very sadly) that I have seen but not yet tasted an Ontario pawpaw. The ones I photographed above were on private property. I have read many accounts of what it tastes like and am going with the banana/mango description though others say it tastes a little like melon or custard since it’s from the custard apple family. They also smell heavenly – a sweet scent with hints of pineapple, guava, or banana. If you’ve tasted one, please add a comment about it’s sweetness, colour, flavour and texture!


Leaves of the pawpaw in fall     (Image ~ Pixabay)

Resources ~ Begin Your Reading Here

Pawpaw Overview (University of Texas at Austin)

Planting Guide – Pawpaws (Kentucky State U information)

Tasting Pawpaws in Ontario

Native Pawpaws

Sourcing Pawpaws for Your Garden

Pawpaw Plant Profile (USDA)

Pawpaw Growing Conditions

Planting My Pawpaw

Enjoying Pawpaws (USA information)

Foraging for Pawpaws (US information)

Pawpaw Photo Gallery

‘America’s Forgotten Fruit’

About Pawpaw (US video)

A Pawpaw Grove (US video)

Your Table ~ Got Pawpaws?

The Real Pawpaw ~ © 2016 Natasha G













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Spice World

I’ve discovered a native shrub-tree that is a real find for gardeners. The native spicebush (Lindera benzoin) is a species that has lots to offer both the gardener and local biodiversity.

Spicebush (also called wild allspice) is northern dwelling member of the wider laurel family and has a large range in eastern North America. It is an adaptable understory tree that can be found in lowlands, marsh edges, and woodlands. Forest animals such as possums, raccoons and rabbits feed on the spicebush, pollinators enjoy the flowers and use it as a host, and birds eat the fruit and help spread the seeds.


Spicebush via WikiCommons                                                                                                              Image ~  USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA –

Here’s what makes spicebush a winner:

  • It is a large shrub so it can look like a small scale tree in the smallest of urban spaces. It grows 6-9′ tall and equally wide.
  • It offers springtime flowers. The spicebush puts out yellow floral bundles in the early spring. While the individual blossoms are not showy, the shrub becomes eye-catching and visually interesting with bare branches adorned with small yellow pom-poms. Enjoy it’s beauty while it’s providing early-season food for native pollinators.
  • It offers fall colour. Spicebush bookends the growing season with yellow displays. It ends the season with a show of bright yellow leaves on its wide branches.
  • Female plants produce fruit – small, edible, glossy-crimson berry-like drupes ripen in fall. The berries of spicebush feed birds like wood thrushes, robins, kingbirds, and catbirds. Spicebush is so popular with migratory birds, you might never see a berry.
  • It’s scented; that’s how it got its name ‘spicebush’. The scent from the leaves, flowers, fruit and stems is described as being clove-like, citrusy and spicy. I planted mine in October – to me they smelled tangy.
  • It’s a primary host plant for gorgeous pollinators you will want to draw to your space! Spicebush is a favoured food of the day-flying spicebush swallowtail butterfly’s famously charming caterpillars and the large night-flying  promethea silkmoth’s larvae. It is also favoured by other swallowtails (such as eastern swallowtail).
  • It can handle acid or alkaline soils and short periods of very wet or moderately dry soil. It has excellent adaptability in lowlands and wet soils.
  • Spicebush is a rain garden superstar that should be recognized for it’s full potential. Rain gardens are low-lying areas built to accommodate downpours and short-term puddles- with water flowing from your driveway, roof and gutter system. Rain gardens use water-tolerant plants and create a beautiful, ecologically-smart,  low-maintenance way to support our biodiversity, streams, and water table.
  • Spicebush is very cold-hardy in our area once established.
  • It thrives in part-shade conditions which many gardens have and many gardeners struggle with. For gardens with those impossible low, wet, partly-shady areas, this is an underused gem!

Does Carolinian native spicebush grow wild in Altona Forest? I don’t know – but I hope so!  I am not sufficiently skilled to be able to identify them, but the current natural range includes the Niagara area, Bruce Peninsula, and as far north-east as Belleville. Altona Forest’s high water table and wet sun-dappled forest offers ideal growing conditions. If you’ve seen them in Altona Forest or have grown them in your garden, please share your insights.

Planting native species often begins with a hard look at the conditions and constraints of your space: is it wet or dry through the season, how much light will the target spot receive on a daily basis (you can’t cheat light conditions), how much space does the mature shrub/tree require, your soil conditions. Spicebush is an easy fit and problem solver. The only catch is that this native is tricky to transplant because it takes time, regular watering, and care to re-establish itself. Once established, it’s low maintenance.

While the weather is hot, dry, and hostile to planting right now, the year’s best time to plant shrubs and trees begins in September. Fall heralds in warm days, a little more rain, cool nights, and sun-warmed, welcoming earth; shrubs and trees settle in well (with a little consistent watering). I hope this will inspire you for fall planting of this and other native species.


PLEASE NOTE: A coloured Province or State means this species occurs SOMEWHERE in that Province/State. Ontario is coloured, regardless of the limited areas where spicebush grows naturally. Range map provided courtesy of the USDA website and is displayed here in accordance with their policies

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Spicebush Overview and Photos

Growing Conditions Spicebush

About Spicebush (wiki)

Shrub Overview

Spicebush Characteristics

USDA Plant Guide (pdf)

Spicebush Importance to Birds

Pictorial Blog Post – Spicebush and Biodiversity

Designing Your Landscape for Wildlife

How to Select Native Plants (Credit Valley Conservation Authority)

Ordering Spicebush (for Ajax, Toronto or York – Pickering does not participate in the YourLeaf program. I have sourced my shrub from a small independent grower)

Human Uses for Spicebush

This is not the same plant as Carolina Allspice – another aromatic eastern NA native worth your consideration.

Spice World ~ © 2016 Natasha G



Posted in Along the Trails, Forest-Friendly Practices, Gardening for Biodiversity | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forest Bathing

What is forest bathing? It’s not running through Altona Forest in the rain. I’m referring to a Japanese concept I ran into about 2 years ago – Shinrin-yoku (森林浴). It’s a practice of engaging with forests to increase your psychological and physiological health – and doctors in Japan give prescriptions for it. Since its early 1980’s inception, this type of ecotherapy focused on tuning into nature, and letting go of the ‘mental noise’ and devices that structure our days. I’ve been noticing how it links with groundbreaking science. Let’s just call it ‘forest therapy’ and look at what walking in the forest can do for you.

May9 041.JPG

You can expect physical activity and perhaps the social interaction of the experience to increase your sense of well-being. You already know how activity positively affects the body, but does walking in a forest go beyond conventional benefits?

Stress reduction is one factor: the same person walking on a city walk for the same amount of time doesn’t get the same level of benefit as walking in the forest. The one variable is where the walk takes place – forest.

It’s almost instinctive knowledge that simply being in nature is healthy and beneficial. Fresh air, dappled sun, cool tree canopy. To connect with nature in a forest gives us mental and physical health benefits that have developed over the millennia of our evolution. We developed synergy with natural spaces.

One very simple way to look at it is that humans are a part of nature – not distinct or removed from it.  The types of places that sheltered our evolution resonate in our bodies: we physically react to terrain that nurtured our species. The colours, sights, sounds, touch and smells of nature are as much a part of us as oxygen. We have been denying our deep connection to the natural world for longer than two heavily-industrialized centuries… moving away from the environments that sustained us. It’s interesting that the effects of being in forests are both immediate and increase exponentially over time.


image from urbankidadventures.com

Forest therapy goes beyond just the benefits of a ‘walk in the park’; the full Japanese experience takes it a level further for deeper health benefits. It involves all of the senses and engaging in the experience. It’s not a fast-paced heart-rate enhancer (though you could work on that as separate goal). Forest bathing is meant as a way to connect with nature – slow walking, sitting, silent contemplation, looking more deeply. Slow down – get rid of the myriad of devices, still the hyperactive commentary in your head, and try to stay in the moment. Notice what is around you. This practice has similiar effects to meditation. Look up, and side to side, far into the distance and also close to your trail – don’t only look at the trail just in front of you. Stop to contemplate and enjoy a flower, tree, lichen, or mushroom. Touch the trunk of a tree (tree huggers had it right all along!). Listen for the taps of woodpeckers, songs of birds, the shuffle of squirrels. Breathe deeply. All these simple processes lower cortisol levels, lower blood pressure,  improve mood and decrease ADD in children.

As you are breathing deeply you will absorb the forest’s phytoncides. These plant-produced chemicals are a plant’s defense system to protect themselves from attack – from insects and bacteria. Phytoncides are being researched to find exactly how they work within our bodies – because there is a proven synergy where the human body has learned to utilize these tree-produced chemicals (good voc’s – volatile organic compounds) to bolster its own defense systems. These chemicals work on the cellular level to increase our bodies’ fight against disease – even major diseases like cancer. They are antibacterial and antifungal and boost our immune systems by increasing the activity of  ‘natural killer cells’ which attack invasive cells in our bodies. Our bodies can’t produce phytoncides, but they know how to utilize them – and the positive effects last for days after contact has ended.

This discovery is seductively interesting: extrapolate what it can mean for long-term health for anyone with regular access to walking in a forest!

How much ‘forest bathing’ do you need? Mary Carol Hunter of the University of Michigan’s research indicates that just 10 minutes in nature 2-3 times a week begins to show beneficial changes to mental health, cortisol levels, and with increased time short term memory began to show improvement. Twenty minutes a day ‘significantly’ boosts vitality levels – based on an older study.

Walk slowly. Breath deeply. Take your time ‘bathing’ on Altona’s trails and enjoy an increased sense of vitality, energy, and resilience to illness!

(Please please please…. don’t take it too literally! I don’t want to find you bathing with the frogs in the amphibian pond!)

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

Join Us – Get Started With a Free Guided Hike in Altona Forest

Forest Bathing ~ © 2016 Natasha G



Found on slideshare.net


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Going Guerilla for Milkweed

There is something delicious about being rebellious! It’s also amazing to see your actions make change for the better happen in a visible way. When what you do saves monarch butterflies and improves biodiversity, it feels even better.

This past fall I signed Suzuki’s Monarch Manifesto and really meant it. I collected about 20 ripe, split-open pods of ‘common milkweed’ from a field near a friend’s cottage in Haliburton. These are native, wild-grown, and are diverse genetically from the few remaining milkweed plants in Altona Forest.

I collected ripe common milkweed pods on a dry, cool day in fall… and stored them in a paper bag. On a sunny, slightly breezy day at Altona Forest’s hydro corridor entrance, I let the fine filaments of the seeds take flight into the sunny open areas that milkweed thrives in. It was amazing – and strangely exciting and therapeutic- to see all those seeds take flight. (I recommend it for the sheer fun value!)


Swamp milkweed – prefers full sun and wet soils (poor soils are fine)

The hope is that these seeds will become tall milkweed plants. They will provide nectar, nurseries and protection for monarch butterflies. The monarchs help to pollinate the plants and the symbiotic circle will continue with new seeds flying in fall to help continue seeding the hydro corridor’s sunny wasted spaces. Milkweeds (asclepias) are perennials – so they will return year after year to support monarchs and other pollinators.

I’m getting ahead of myself. For a ‘weed’, milkweed can be challenging to get started from seed. Just ask people who’ve tried to grow it. I’ve been asked how to make it grow – but I’m as new to it as you are. I sourced great tips:

  • Milkweed seeds are fully ripe only when the pods split open naturally – when they open when you lightly press on the pod’s seam. Harvesting earlier means the seeds are wasted – too green to be viable;
  • Ensure that the seeds are fresh, dry and well ‘ripened’ – they are prone to mold and bacteria if damp. Molded and rotted seeds won’t grow. Carefully dried and stored milkweed seeds can last up to 15 years;
  • Find an area with the right sun conditions – generally as much sun as possible
  • Let the seeds fly and ‘overwinter’ (go through the needed ‘vernalization’ of a moist cold period required for germination);
  • Distribute them where the milkweed would be mostly undisturbed by foot traffic and animals.

Milkweed may flower in it’s first season, but people growing milkweed report that it can sometimes take up to three years for a bloom. Experienced milkweed gardeners recommend the ‘milk jug method’ because it allows for outdoor growing, natural stratification (the breaking down of the seed’s hard outer layer), and easy transplanting. If you need to stratify and vernalize the seeds artificially, then separate them from their ‘wings’ and keep them in a fridge for 30 days with slight dampness and sterile vermiculite.

I hope to see a few milkweed plants this summer. A beginning. Hope for a wildflower-filled future in the hydro lands at the north gate of Altona Forest. If you grow the native milkweeds, I invite you to join me in being a ‘native guerilla’.

The sunny open spaces in underused land is a great opportunity to ‘go guerrilla’ with surplus native wildflower seeds you may have. What else would like this area? Any of the monarch’s other native food sources like rudbeckia (black-eyed susans), all varieties of cone-flowers, native lupine, prairie smoke, blazingstar, native asters and blanket flower. Natural fields and meadows are areas with high biodiversity of birds, pollinators and native flowers  –  a habitat missing from Altona Forest thanks to development.

Altona Forest is off limits – due to protective regulations and poor growing conditions for  field wildflowers.


Guerrilla gardening is an art. Aim for good seed variety – and Ontario natives. There are many similar plants that are not native. Choose only native plants – to support local biodiversity in the roadside ditches, empty lots, and yes – places like the hydro corridor. All great projects begin at home – so plant some native wildflowers in your own garden first. They will provide food for butterflies and seeds for you to scatter.

There are 3 main things to keep in mind when going guerrilla for wildflowers:

Source: Don’t deplete one natural area to add to another (or to a home garden) – that’s simply destructive. If you’re collecting milkweed seeds like I was, be kind and respectful of genetic variety and take one pod from each plant that has multiple ripe and viable pods. If you are wild-collecting – it’s illegal to collect from any conservation area.

Native Species: Be sure that what you are collecting and dispersing is actually a native wildflower. How do you know? You can work backwards and choose some species from a trusted book or website on natives… and harvest them from your friends’ gardens. Or you can purchase some native plants from a trusted source, and collect their seeds when they mature.

Place: As in real-estate, location is everything. Common milkweed doesn’t grow in wet conditions (however swamp milkweed does!). Milkweed needs at least 7 hours of direct sunlight in a typical day. Field wildflowers generally need as much sun as they can get… and they don’t like to be trampled so beside a foot path is not the best spot.

When you are wandering Altona Forest later this summer, stand at the hydro corridor gate and the area just in front of you will hopefully have some milkweed blooming. Please tell me if you see monarchs!

Tip & Project: Take a variety of native wildflower seeds from your garden and make ‘seed bombs’ or ‘seed balls’ with them. It’s as much fun to make seed-bombs as it is to deploy them! This is a great project for a social club or for kids –  Instructions…


Swamp milkweed in Altona Forest

Resources ~ Begin your reading here:

This time I’ve hotlinked resources through the article… so simply click through to begin your own reading

Some of the tips on growing milkweed come from the live webinars presented through the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s monarch butterflies conservation initiative. Though some of the best information and Q&A comes from the live chat window during the presentations!


Going Guerilla for Wildflowers ~ © 2016 Natasha G



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