Archive for the ‘Non-human Nature’ Category

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As Canadians, we should know our maple leafs, right?  After all, it’s on our flag. But do we know the differences between a sugar maple leaf and a red maple leaf?  How about a silver maple or a norway maple?  I did an exploration of my neighbourhood to find samples of maple leafs. I’ve posted pictures of them, along with hints on how to identify them.

The Red Maple (Acer rubrum) has leaves whose edges are not smooth, but are serrated. The leaves are 2 to 5 inches. Often triangular in shape, they have 3 to 5 lobes. The fall colour ranges from yellow, yellow-green, orange and red.

Leaves of the Red Maple

Below, are pictures of Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) leaves. Notice the smooth edges.  They are a bit bigger than red maples, being 3 to 6 inches.  Also, they  have three to five lobes. Their fall colours range from yellow to orange to red hues. Below is a lovely red and yellow one I found beside Queen Street in Toronto.

Leaf of a Sugar Maple

Leaves of the Sugar Maple

The Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) leaves are also quite smooth, but their 5 lobes are usually more deeply cut. They are from 3 to 6 inches in size. Another distinguishing feature is the silvery underside which give this tree its common name. The fall colours are green, brown and yellow.

Leaf of a Silver Maple

The leaf of a Norway Maple (Acer platinoides) is quite similar to a sugar maple; however, it tends to be wider than it is long. They are also often very large. A foolproof way of finding out whether it is a Norway maple is if during the growing season  its leaves ooze a white sap when broken.  Norway maple leaves tend to turn colour later in the season, and have less spectacular colour — a pale yellow.  As well, like the leaf shown below, the Norway maple leaves are prone to getting black spots, a type of fungal disease.

Leaf of a Norway Maple

The Autumn Blaze Maple hybrid tree (Acer saccharinum x Acer rubrum) is a  cross between a Silver Maple and a Red Maple.  The five lobes of the leaves are not as deeply cut as  a Silver Maple’s, although it keeps the silver underside. The fall colour is scarlet orange, or red.

Leaf of an Autumn Blaze Maple

Leaf of a Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo) does not look like your typical maple leaf. Another common name for it is the ash-leaved maple — an apt name for this compound-leafed tree.

Leaf of a Manitoba Maple

A less well-known maple is the Amur Maple (Acer ginnala). Its leaves are smaller (2-3 inches), have double serrated edges and have 3 lobes.

So that’s a quick primer on maple leaves. Now go out and look around for these leaves before they all disappear for the winter. During their leafless season, you’ll need to identify the trees by  their bark and structure, which I find more difficult.

P. S. Which type of maple leaf do you think most resembles the one on our Canadian flag?

The Canadian Flag

The Canadian Flag http://www.pch.gc.ca









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The group of  White Snakeroot plants in my yard this year has created a delightful orb of delicate white flowers. It resembles a bush but it is actually a cluster of single-stemmed flowers.

I strongly recommend this native plant for shady gardens. Mine grows underneath the canopy of a neighbour’s Norway maple, and it has produced a plethora of flowers, starting in late summer, and continuing to bloom in September.

White Snakeroot

White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) is indigenous throughout southern Ontario in places such as rich woods, thickets, clearings, waste places, ditches, meadows and beside lakes and streams.  I planted mine four years ago and it has formed a clump of plants, about three feet wide and four feet tall in the centre.  The plants get taller towards the centre, which gives the illusion of a shaped shrub.

Do not plant this plant near pastures, however. It’s poisonous to livestock, and will create “milk sickness” in humans when they drink the milk of animals who have eaten the plants.

I think it’s safe to plant this perennial in my city garden, far from any grazing domestic animals. It will spread by seeds, so if you plant this flower, you will be pulling out seedlings. The picture below shows seedlings that grow in the stones surrounding my flower beds. They do not spread by roots, however, so they are relatively easy to control.

Snakeroot Plant Seedlings

Don’t be fooled by the ugly name, the White Snakeroot makes a pretty addition to shady city gardens.

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My hens-and-chicks plant (a species of Sempervivum) had pretty little flowers this summer. But I knew that the plant that bore them was going to die soon.  However, I wasn’t too worried because I also knew that there would be many other little ‘hens and chicks’ that would remain.

Hens-and-Chicks Flowers

I heartily recommend planting Sempervivum in  the most difficult of conditions. They do fine in sandy, dry, soil with poor nutrition. And they spread in neat clumps.  They’re especially great in rock gardens and xeriscaping. Although they’re not grown for their flowers, they are a nice little splash of colour in the spring.  Although the part of the plant bore them will die, if you’ve got a large enough cluster of them, you don’t need to worry, and you can enjoy this  flowery exit.

Dead Flower Stalk

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A few years ago I planted a sharp-loped hepatica — a native woodland flower– to add to my front garden.  I made the mistake of leaving it in  the coir pot, which I thought would biodegrade.  Later, I found out  that the amount of moisture needed to decompose the pots might rot the roots of the plant. The containers need to be constantly wet, otherwise they will dry out and take water away from plant roots. Also, when they decompose, they deprive nitrogen from the soil.

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica

When I didn’t see the flower last year,  I thought that it had died. But lo and behold, I spotted one small flower this year coming up through the leaf litter.  What a beautiful surprise!

The flower opens  first while the furled, hairy leaves are still just peeking out of the ground.  When the flowers disappear, the leaves open out.  These small brownish leaves are blending in with the leaves in my flower bed, which makes me think they may have been there last year, but I didn’ t notice them.

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica Leaves

Sharp-Lobed Hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta) like well-drained, rich soil, with dappled sunlight in the spring and shade in summer.  Mine is growing in sandy loam at the edge of the shade of a Norway maple.  Hopefully, it will continue to thrive and multiply there. Luckily, I hadn’t given up and planted something else at that spot. Sometimes it takes a year or two for a perennial plant to adjust to its new surroundings and show its lovely blossoms. So don’t give up on your flowers after one year… you may get a welcome surprise.

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This past Monday,  April 16,  I was hanging out enjoying my front garden when I noticed a fluttering overhead, and a flitting about in my garden.  There were dozens of butterflies — more than I’ve ever seen together at once — flying in and past my garden.  “Could this be part of a migration?” I wondered.

Monarchs were not among these butterflies. The majority I saw were Red Admirals. They were on the go, and  they didn’t stop long enough for me to take a picture.

After a little research, I found that there are probably more than ten species of butterflies in Ontario that make an annual migration.  Why don’t we hear as much about these migrations as the Monarchs? Could it be that, unlike the Monarch, there is no one overwintering location known for them?

Apparently I wasn’t the only one to notice these butterflies. The ROM Blog has a post about these Red Admirals being spotted all over southern Ontario on Monday.  One of the butterfly watchers on the blog said it was the largest migration of Red Admirals he’s ever seen.  They migrate from the US every year.

So watch out for these Red Admirals: they may already be laying eggs on those nettles in your garden which you had meant to pull last fall but, lucky for the butterflies, didn’t.

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Are you are looking for something to bloom along wiith the bulbs in your garden?  Two delightful plants in my garden fit that bill nicely:  bloodroot, and virginia bluebells.

Both of these plants are native to our woodlands and bring fleeting colour in our gardens before the leaves come out on the trees. Thus, they are called “spring ephemerals”.

Bloodroot (Sanguineria canadensis) gets its name from the red liquid that oozes from its stems and rhizomes when broken.  This red liquid was used by the First Nations for dye. Be warned, however,  that the rhizomes (type of root) are very poisonous, even fatal, when eaten.

Like all woodland plants, bloodroot likes to have a layer of leaves as mulch. They come up through the leaves in spring.  Bloodroot does spread, but not extremely quickly in my garden. I planted one plant and by the third spring, there are nine flowers.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia Virginica) also grow on the forest floor;  but they don’t necessarily need to be planted under a tree.  I discovered them several years ago at a native plant sale in High Park. I planted them nowhere near a tree and they thrived.  They are a lovely delicate blue and have soft, green foliage that disappears after blooming.

Last year, the first year after planting them at my new garden, they did not bloom, and they got totally devoured by an unknown insect.  But, much to my surprise and pleasure, they reappeared this year with flowers.  They too will spread in your garden, but are not aggressive.

These are jut two suggestions for flowers to complement  the spring bulbs in your garden.

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Look no further than the sidewalks in your neighbourhood for some nutritious snacks!  The other day I went hunting for edible weeds, and I found ten nutritious ones in one block alone.  Going a bit further afield, I found a total of 13 edible weeds and I likely missed some.

Now I wouldn’t recommend eating these plants that are sprouting by the sidewalks: they may be growing in contaminated soil, or have been visited by the neighbourhood dogs.  But I decided to share the information about these plants with you to illustrate that the plants we usually just want to get rid of can be beneficial to us.



Purslane plants are succulent and can can make do with relatively less water. They do well growing in the cracks between sidewalks and in people’s yards. This plant’s stems contains alpha-linolenic acid, one of the desirable Omega-3 fatty acids.

The other day I even saw Dr. Oz recommend the plant on his show. He told the audience that these omega-3 fats coat our membranes and joints. Purslane’s stems are also high in vitamin C.   You can make them in salads.  “In my home, we mix them with yogurt and garlic and it’s just spectacular.” says Dr. Oz.



This plant is ubiquitous in my neighbourhood. Plantain’s young leaves are edible raw in salad or cooked as a pot herb.  You can also blanche and saute with garlic. They are rich in vitamin B1 and riboflavin. The herb has a been  used as  medicine since ancient times.



I remember my mother showing me how you can eat the green seeds of these plants.  She didn’t tell me that all parts of the plant are edible — leaves, stems, flowers, seeds and roots. Mallows have been used in various times in history  as a survival food during times of crop failure or war.



This is another food that my mother fed me in my youth.  She made a (rather bitter) dandelion salad.  Perhaps she picked them at the wrong time, because it’s best to eat the leaves when they are young. The dandelion’s uses are actually quite varied.  Its flowers, leaves, stems roots all can be used. Anglo-Saxons and Normans found that the plant prevents scurvy. Dandelion roots are used to treat numerous conditions.

Lamb’s Quarters

Lamb’s Quarters

Lamb’s Quarters  has been grown as a grain crop in the Himalayas and is often harvested from  the wild in Africa. Its young leaves can be eaten raw or lightly cooked.  The seeds, which are closely related to quinoa, are filled with protein, vitamin A and calcium, and can also be eaten.



As its name suggests, goutweed is used for rheumatic diseases. This disease category includes autoimmune diseases and diseases that affect the joints and soft tissues, such as gout. Goutweed is also used for hemorrhoids, as well as for kidney, bladder, and intestinal disorders.



Burdock’s root can be pickled or boiled in soups and stews.  Eating it is also purported to get rid of poisons in your system.  You may know burdock more for the “burs” that cling to your clothes as you pass by.  I heard that these clingy seed pods were the inspiration for the invention of Velcro.   


Chicory Flower

Chicory has a variety of uses. Its young leaves can be used to make salads. The root can be boiled. And, the dried, roasted and ground root of the chicory plant can be used as a substitute for coffee.



You can make a  lemony drink with sumac by steeping the red fruits in cold water overnight.  Be aware that poison sumac has smooth leaves and spaced out white berries. Edible sumac has tightly clumped red flowers with jagged, leaves. Many  Middle Eastern chefs dry the berries of sumac, and then grind them up into a spice powder.

Sumac is said to contain calcium, potassium, magnesium, citric acid and antioxidants. The bark is used  as an astringent tea. It’s also reported to be antibacterial.  Sumac was used extensively by Native North Americans for food and medicine.

Japanese Knotweed

Japanese knotweed

Those who eat Japenese Knotweed often describe it as tasting similar to a lemony rhubarb. The young shoots can be sliced raw into thin rounds in salad.  Some people also cook  it into a dessert.

Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace)

Wild Carrot (Queen Anne’s Lace)

Deep fried carrot flower is supposed to be a delicacy. The root can be eaten while young, but quickly becomes too woody. Be warned however, that you should be absolutely sure it is Wild Carrot because it is very similar to poison hemlock!

Red Clover

Red Clover

Red clover’s flowers can be chopped in salads, steeped in tea, or cooked in soup.  I often pull out a number of the petals at a time, and suck  the ends that were attached to the base to get a nice little jolt of sweet. Now I know why honey bees like them.

So now that I’ve described some of the uses of the plants above, I hope that you can look at these “weeds” in a different light.

Note: Refer to an expert or published plant-identification guide before ingesting any plant. Photos in this blog are not meant  for identification.












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