By: Tierney Angus
Feb. 17, 2017
The City of Toronto and a dedicated group of volunteers are working together to restore High Park’s rare black oak savannah habitat.
Stately trees, some over two centuries old, dot a rolling, grassy landscape. Native grasses and rare wildflowers bloom, visited by migratory birds. The woodland is a glimpse into what southern Ontario looked like before cities, towns, and subdivisions cut the land into tidy little parcels. It seems an ancient, primeval world, until the next group of tourists steps off the bus and the spell is broken.
A history of fire suppression, invasive plant species and human traffic all threaten this rare environment, but controlled burns and the reintroduction of native plants are helping to restore the savannah to its natural state.
Jennifer Gibbs, Toronto’s urban forestry manager, has seen a marked improvement in the health of the savannah thanks to controlled burns. “Many of the fire-dependant species have increased their population levels,” Gibbs wrote. “The blue lupine is one example. Oak trees were in decline and now regeneration levels have increased.”
The flash and burn method works to destroy some non-native species and helps return nutrients to the soil, but it has its limitations. “Unfortunately, we also learned that certain invasive species were encouraged by fire,” wrote Gibbs. “[We] have had to adapt our management to control these species prior to a burn.”
Volunteers also help to tackle these invasive plants. The High Park Stewards’ Elite Invasive Squad members get their hands dirty fighting foreign flora: Weeding, planting, buckthorn-busting, and seed gathering workshops take place year-round. The Stewards hosted an indoor seed-cleaning workshop on Feb. 12, attended by about 40 volunteers, officials say.
Michael Pastor and Brad Taub, arborists, jumped at the chance to spend a snowy Sunday in the greenhouse plucking seeds from dried flowerheads. “Once it gets a little bit warmer we’re going to be going out, planting them, basically just trying to keep the native species here in High Park,” said Pastor. Both volunteers value green spaces in an urban environment, and say more needs to be done to raise awareness of the endangered black oak savannah. “I didn’t know about it until I joined this group,” said Taub. “It’s a particular problem in High Park because of the way it developed. I think cities in general should be planting more trees, and looking after the trees that they do plant.”
The High Park Stewards meet on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, rain, shine, or snow.