Starting Native Plants From Seed – Part 1

By Carrington Lauzon, Owner eARTh Revival & Pollinate Collingwood Director

Propagating native plants can seem intimidating at first, but with the proper information and germination requirements met, seeds will have a high yield of growth. Let’s get into some of the science and seed sowing tips below, followed by some common seed treatments required before planting.

The Science of Seed Germination:

The seeds of native plant species each have their own timetable for germination. A built-in physical and chemical dormancy protects them from germinating until conditions are favourable for the seedlings’ survival, usually in spring. Some seeds have a hard outer coat or waxy layer that keeps water out of the seed. This physical dormancy is overcome in nature in several ways, which include; abrasion from soil, freezing, and thawing, digestion by soil microorganisms, passing through the digestive system of animals, and fire. A chemical dormancy is broken when the seed is subjected to one or more of the following, changing its physiological structure; spending a period of time in cold, spending a period of time in cold and moist, being in the presence of light for a period of time and being in the absence of light for a period of time.

Most Ontario native plants that have chemical dormancy will lose their dormancy in nature by spending the winter in the ground cold and moist.


Seed Sowing Tips

Until you are ready to plant or apply pre-sowing treatment, seeds should be stored in a cool, dry place and protected against rodents.

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Sow seeds shallowly. Surface sow or sow no deeper than the width of the seed and keep the soil moist but not too wet.

If seeds are very small, you may choose to use a spray bottle to ensure the seeds don’t get displaced by large water droplets.

Clearly label and date the seeds when applying the pre-treatment method.

The germination time of seeds varies, it can take a few days up to a few weeks. Be patient if the seeds don’t germinate right away.

The average frost-free date for South Georgian Bay is May 11th.

For indoor germination: seeds may take a few weeks to germinate and require some maturation before the seedlings can be planted outside. Plan for around 2 months of growing time (germination and maturation), plus add the required pre-treatment time if seeds need stratification.

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For outdoor germination: seeds will germinate when the weather and time is right.

Types of Seed Treatments

It’s possible to replicate a natural cycle that causes dormant seeds to germinate by pre-treating the seeds before you plant them. Below are some common pre-treatment methods, the germination codes denoted by a letter are often found on your seed envelopes. You may need to use one or more to get a particular species to germinate.

(A) NO PRE-TREATMENT NECESSARY other than cold, dry storage (also called cold-dry stratification).

(B) SEEDS NEED SCARIFICATION: rub between sandpaper to remove some of the seed coat

(C) STRATIFICATION NEEDED: seeds germinated after pre-treatment of cold-moist stratification. Approximate number of days is in parentheses (i.e. C(30) = 30 days of cold, moist conditions needed) *see Germination Code C stratification recommendations below

(D) SURFACE SOW: seeds are very small and need light to germinate

(E) DOUBLE DORMANCY: Seeds need a warm, moist period followed by a cold, moist period: Mix seeds with sterile medium, place mixture in a sealed plastic bag, and store in a warm (26°C) place for 60– 90 days. Then place in the refrigerator (1-3°C) for 60–90 days before sowing. Or, sow outdoors in early spring and allow one full year for germination.

(F) BEST PLANTED OUTDOORS IN FALL: sow seeds in prepared garden beds or labeled pots in November/December

In Part 2 of this post, we will cover two different methods to cold stratify seeds, along with indoor sowing, outdoor sowing, and planting in prepared outdoor beds! Stay tuned 🙂

Of Golden Value is the Canadian Goldenrod Plant

by Jessica Lehr, Director, Pollinate Collingwood

During many of my autumn and winter rambles across fields, I come across goldenrod, Solidago canadensis, with a ball-shaped growth in the plant stem.  I often wonder about the insect that overwinters inside.  Yes, those ball-shaped growths, known as galls, are a valuable overwintering habitat to flies, wasps, moths, and beetles, as well as a winter snack shack to black-capped chickadees and downy woodpeckers!

These Canada goldenrod are the plants that do it all!  Considered by pollination ecologists to be a plant that attracts a large number of native bees, this species of plant likes sun to part shade areas, a variety of soil types, dry to moist soil conditions, and blooms yellow flowers in late August through October).  The plant is also considered valuable as it supports conservation biological control, meaning that it attracts predatory or parasitoid insects that prey upon pest insects!  This is a mouthful, so I will explain how this works below.  

First though, I’d like to note that this 3-5 foot tall native plant is of the aster family.  Many people falsely accuse this plant of causing allergies and name it incorrectly as ragweed.  Ragweed (seen in the image to the right) is the species of plant that many people are allergic to. 

Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)

Goldenrod can spread via seed or underground rhizomes (shoots) and is often considered an aggressive growing native plant.  There are more than 25 native goldenrod species in Ontario, not all of which are as aggressive in growing.  I am enjoying watching my shorter zig-zag goldenrod, with its white flowers, growing in shady locations around my home.  

In addition to providing pollen to native bees late into the fall, this plant provides habitat (food and shelter) for animals at many trophic levels.  A trophic level is the position an organism plays in the food web.  Goldenrod is in the primary level, as a producer (growing with energy from the sun – photosynthesis).  Native bees are in the second level, being a primary consumer (meaning it requires food from a primary source for survival).  Another primary consumer is the goldenrod gall fly, (Eurosta solidago)!  This native species of fly is specially adapted to survival in goldenrod galls, meaning that goldenrod is the insect’s host plant.  Without Canada goldenrod, this fly would not exist and with that the support it provides to organisms further up the food chain.  

Female E. solidago lay their eggs in one of three types of goldenrod in the spring, right below goldenrod buds.  After 4-6 days the eggs hatch and the larvae begin to eat the inside of the plant stem.  As a larva eats, a chemical is released in their saliva which causes the plant to grow abnormally by increasing cell productivity at the site.  The gall, or growth, is noticeable about 3 weeks after the eggs are laid.  As the gall grows, the larva eats at the centre, creating a cavity to live in.  The plant continues to grow and bloom as if the gall and fly larva weren’t there.  

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Goldenrod with gall, Photo by Jessica Lehr

The larva moults twice over the summer and by the autumn they are about ¼ inch in length.  At this point, they eat a tunnel to right near the outer edge of the goldenrod gall.  This is in preparation for their departure in the spring, which happens once they become an adult.  As an adult, they do not have any mouthparts and so this tunnel is essential to their survival.  The thin layer of outer gall is thin enough to allow the flies to emerge by pushing through with a ‘bubble type’ growth on their head.

As a bonus cool nature fact, the goldenrod gall fly produces cytoprotective chemicals in its body to prevent freezing over the winter inside of the gall.  This ‘antifreeze’ can protect the larvae through -40C!

Overwintering in a gall is risky as the galls are identifiable to birds and some beetles as a food source and to two types of parasitic wasps as a place to deposit their eggs and food source for their own larvae.  As far as humans, some ice fishers will cut open the galls to remove the larvae for fishing.  I have even heard that we can eat the larvae as survival food, though I personally wouldn’t suggest it!

Rounding out the benefits of goldenrod is the fact that it supports predatory insects, including crab spiders and assassin bugs, that will help with pest control.   Assassin bugs will eat Japanese beetles, which are many times larger than themselves!

And finally, the seeds of the Canada goldenrod will support several seed-eating birds, including American Goldfinch and Dark-eyed Juncos; two of my favourite winter birds to watch. 

Next time you pass a gall, be sure to think of the insect inside and be grateful for Solidago canadensis.  The plants and the wildlife that interact with it are a valued part of our local environmental diversity.  Perhaps even consider adding some Canada goldenrod along the sides of your garden!

Interested in reading more???

Habitat Planning for Beneficial Insects: Guidelines for Conservation Biological Control

Glorious Goldenrod

Ramblings of an entomologist…

By: Carolyn Davies

Bees pollinate flowering plants. Seems simple enough, but did you know that animal pollination is vital for the productivity of numerous crops, including most fruit, vegetables, and nuts? Their work allows for the production of alfalfa to raise cattle and the creation of acorns for new oak trees. They ensure that diverse plant communities all over the globe can regenerate, so they can continue to produce oxygen, purify the air, filter the water, moderate the climate, and build soil. Bees really are THAT important!

How do we help the bees?

A fundamental shift must occur – we must stop trying to blanket our planet in highly controlled spaces that are toxic food deserts to bees (ie. concrete, pavement, lawns, vast expanses of single-crop fields, non-native and invasive plants). We must embrace the beauty of diverse native landscapes. We must act as if other living things are important.

Consider what it would be like to walk into a grocery store to find that the fresh foods you rely on are gone, replaced with White Baneberry, English Yew, and Poison Oak (all highly toxic to humans!). A few days later, you stop in to find that the entire building is filled with nothing but in-season strawberries… until they run out. Then there is nothing. This is what we are doing to the bees, replacing their food with things they can’t eat and planting massive fields with a single crop that flowers all at the same time. 

We’ve known about this for a long time, but instead of fixing the problem by restoring native landscapes, we’ve brought in European honey bees (Apis mellifera) to try to fill the pollination gap. In some regions of the world, land modification and extensive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have left the land uninhabitable to all insect pollinators, and people are now employed to hand-pollinate apple orchards.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by insects and all the ways they support life on our planet!

Figure 1: Entomology field research trip to Ecuador (circa 2002)

Now, as the resident entomologist (a.k.a. Bug geek) at Pollinate Collingwood, I have an obligation to share my knowledge to inspire others. What I know is that these tiny creatures are essential, amazing, fascinating, and stunningly beautiful wildlife that ensure the functioning of the planet, as we know it… so let’s take a moment to learn a little more about these wonderful animals:

  • Insect: a group of animals (yes, they are animals, just like you!!) with 3 distinct body parts (head, thorax, abdomen) and 3 pairs of legs. Beyond that, most insects have a pair of compound eyes to see almost 180 degrees around their body simultaneously and three simple eyes arranged in a triangle on the top of the head for detecting light levels. Quite a few have wings, like the flies (which have only one pair), dragonflies, bees, butterflies, and beetles (these all have two pairs). Others, like ants, have none (well, most of the time). Insects are quite variable – in fact there are more species of insects than all other known species of everything else combined (including plants, fungi, bacteria, archaeans, protozoans, and the rest of the invertebrates). This diversity of body types is matched by the different roles they play and interactions they have in the environment – meaning that they influence lots of important processes!
  • Bug: while many people use this term interchangeably with “insect”, true bugs are insects in the Order Hemiptera (there are just under 30 insect Orders in all, depending on the current understanding of evolutionary relationships between groups – see True bugs include cicadas, aphids, leafhoppers, and other insects that have straw-like mouthparts that are used for sucking up fluids. Mostly, this is for sucking from plants, but some (like bed bugs and assassin bugs), feed on other animals. Having the correct name is helpful to understanding the differences between them!
  • Pollinator: You’ve heard the term, you know them (and now you also know that they’re not bugs)! These are animals that have a specific job to help plants reproduce as plants have an inherent difficulty in finding a partner since they can’t move around. While some plants, like grasses and conifers, use the wind to carry their pollen, much gets wasted this way. The flowering plants have instead evolved to be more conservative with their pollen by producing and offering nectar as a reward to any organism that will visit and help to disperse its pollen. While we don’t know exactly how many flowering plants are pollinated by animals, Jeff Ollerton and his colleagues in 2011, used all sorts of data to estimate this number at 308 006, which is 87.5% of known flowering plants species.
  • Butterfly: Butterflies are generally considered to be important pollinators. Butterflies (and moths) are identified by their large wings covered in scales and their retractable sucking mouthparts (more like a hose, than a straw) for drinking nectar (of course, it’s not quite that simple, as some have no mouth parts once they leave the caterpillar stage). While visiting flowers, they invariably pick up some pollen and transport it to another flower. This is called a mutually beneficial relationship, as both the butterfly and the flowering plant get something they need, but butterflies aren’t the best pollinators as they are often happy to drink the nectar from any blossom, and plants need their pollen to go to other of their own species.  
  • Bee: The best pollinators are the bees. Bees evolved to collect pollen. Regardless of the flower shape, flowering time, or even location of the flowering plant, there is a species of bee uniquely evolved to support the reproduction needs of each! There are even bees in the arctic! Check out the search for Bombus polaris. The number of bee species is quite astounding – there are currently more than 20,507 species of bees on our planet that vary greatly in size and colour.

Figure 2: Bees come in black, white, and basically every colour of the rainbow! L-R top row, then bottom row – Osmia californica female, Colletes mandibularis male, Nomada denticulata male, Lasioglossum vierecki female, Osmia exigua female, Osmia bruneri female – all Canadian species (photo credits: Bees of Canada Gallery, Packer Lab, York University). 

More about bees!

Different bees are active at specific times of the year – so there are spring active bees and late summer bees. During their active time, females need to find a nest site, mate, and rear young (but not necessarily in that order). Spring active bees typically overwinter as adults, while late-season bees typically overwinter as larvae. The emergence of each species’ adults is aligned with a particular blooming period. While we don’t yet fully understand how they do this so effectively, we do know that climate change is impacting groups of organisms differently. So, bees that are specialists on certain flowers, may emerge to find that they’ve missed the blooming time and there is no food for them to gather for themselves or their offspring. 

So, how do you know it’s a bee?  

Bees are identified by the branched hairs that they have covering their bodies, which help to trap and transport pollen (See Figure 3). Since bees can sting to protect themselves, loads of other insects have evolved to look like bees to adopt this protection (check out this great post on bee mimics).  

Figure 3: Branched bee hairs (photo credit: Megan Asche via Twitter) – and yes, that’s a pollen grain (possibly Echinacea, but it’s hard to ID from this image)

Important Next Steps

What do we do with a better understanding of bees and other pollinators?? If we don’t want to continue down a path that leads to ecosystem collapse, there is a simple solution that involves restoring native plant communities. Pollinate Collingwood, along with countless other groups like us, are working hard to improve pollinator habitat on a local scale. While there are numerous ways to do this, Pollinate Collingwood is getting native plants in the ground, working with the Town of Collingwood to make municipal level changes, speaking to garden clubs and school groups, giving away free native seeds and plants, and working with local nurseries to expand the native plant offerings and signage. It’s a lot of work, and it’s vitally important.

What can you do? Join our work – connect with us on social media, choose to add native plants on your property, volunteer to help in our gardens, or write to your municipal officials about the importance of a pollination protection strategy. You don’t need to be in Collingwood… we need pollinators everywhere! 

To support our environment, there is no BEST strategy. We need them all – we must reduce, reuse, recycle, grow our own vegetables, compost, buy less, teach, be inspired, connect with nature, plant natives… Just start somewhere, make it a habit, then pick another. Local pollinators have already been lost or are on the verge (ie. Rusty-patched bumblebee, Gypsy cuckoo bumblebee, Karner Blue butterfly, Frosted Elfin, Mottled Duskywing….) – Let’s make sure we support the rest!

A Cross Country Move Inspired My Urgency

By: Shannon McCready (Director, Education Programs, Pollinate Collingwood)

We had to get out, and we had to do it fast because roads were beginning to close down, and soon there might be no way out.  My wife and I grabbed the ‘go bag’ officials advised families to make the week before and did a quick google search on how to get a car through a road surrounded by fire safely and how to prepare the house for firefighters to have the most success saving your home. As I filled up buckets of water for every doorway, my wife grabbed the wool blanket – a material known for not being very flammable. 

Photo by Melissa McCready

Maybe it would come in handy if we got stranded and had to walk along a road surrounded by fire.  Images of hell-like infernos filled our heads as we choked back the smoke trying to get our baby in the car seat.  We were off to Ontario, our safe haven where family would greet us with relief. 

The fire never did reach our town, at least not that summer.  We were able to reach the airport that was a four-hour drive away and had a wonderful time in Ontario as we checked in on fire reports back home.  The idyllic BC summers hiking and camping in our oasis were disappearing, and it wasn’t just one odd summer; it was becoming a regular part of most summers. 

Photo of Castlegar, BC by Shannon McCready

The benefits of living there were dwindling as the pull to be closer to family strengthened.  So almost two years ago, on somewhat of a whim, we googled Ontario towns and found one that seemed to offer everything we liked about BC. So we took a chance, found a rental, sold our house and packed up our little family to make the big move to our new hometown of Collingwood, Ontario.

We couldn’t be happier to be here.  Exploring our new landscape and meeting wonderful people, even amid a pandemic, has been refreshing and inspiring. 

Photo by Jeffrey Eisen on Unsplash

Last summer, a forest fire came even closer to Castlegar, my former town. I mourned as I watched friends post about evacuations, seniors sleeping on church floors, ruined camping trips and to top it all off, a heat dome that killed 595 people provincial-wide.  This time the fire was on the mountainside at the edge of town, creeping closer to houses by the day.  When the smoke and heat get that bad, there’s no playing outside for your kids, no gardening and no swimming in the lake. It’s not far off from a lockdown.  You stay in your house as much as you can, trying to keep the doors and windows sealed to keep the air inside as breathable as possible.  If you’re lucky, you can afford air conditioning and extra air filters in every section of your house.  If you’re even luckier, you can afford to leave.

Last summer, as we were frolicking on the beach, we caught a whiff of smoke in the air here in Collingwood.  The memories came flooding back, and suddenly it dawned on me – soon there will be no place to move.  If we continue with the status quo, there will be no getting away from it; it will just be our reality. As I watched my daughter happily rolling around in the sand, I thought about how climate change felt much more threatening to me than the pandemic. But it wasn’t just climate change; it was also how we see, use and value plants. 

       Photo by Shannon McCready

Someone once told me in BC that unless you’re in an old-growth forest (of which there are few left), most of the time when you think you’re hiking through a forest, you’re actually in a plantation.  As you look around and observe how the trees have been planted in straight lines and how little diversity the trees have in species and age, you can start to see that the cause of the forest fires is not just climate change.  The logging companies have planted most of these ‘forests’ to be of economic value for themselves.  There are few deciduous and old-growth trees, which are known to burn much slower because forestry companies actively use glyphosate on deciduous saplings, so they don’t take space from more profitable trees.  

Photo by Josefina Di Battista on Unsplash

As wind rushes through spaces created by perfectly lined trees, the community begins to face its denial.  The lost upper canopy that would typically create the shade and moisture required to keep the forest floor from being kindling, along with decades of clearcut debris, ignites easily.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash

The build-up is worsened by decades of natural wildfire suppression and the prevention of the Indigenous practice of cultural burns. The solutions are not easy to navigate. Talking about how forestry practices contribute to the wildfires can be socially isolating in towns where the economic backbone is forestry, sawmills and pulp mills.  Discussions often avoid blaming anyone in particular and result in solutions like wiping the brush and deadfall off the forest floors near towns so that cigarette butts thrown out of car windows and unmanaged bonfires don’t spark devastation.  Once again, nature takes the hit, but it’s not without consequence.

Last month, I came upon a rare social media post of environmental success.  The western population of monarch butterflies was arriving at their overwintering site in California, and their numbers were phenomenally more than the year before.  In 2020 they counted approximately 1,900 monarchs, and this year they found around 20,000. 

Photo by Studio Kealaula on Unsplash

I couldn’t believe what I was reading.  To be honest, before I moved to Ontario, I didn’t even know there was a western monarch butterfly population.  I had never seen them in BC and assumed they were more of an Eastern species.  In Interior BC, you hear about doing things to save the bears and caribou, but not once had I ever heard of efforts to save butterflies.

Luckily, things have changed in Castlegar since I moved. Thanks to the David Suzuki Butterflyway Project, a resident was inspired to take charge and create a group named Castlegar Butterflyway, with a similar mission to Pollinate Collingwood. They have linked up with the Kootenay Native Plant Society to build meadows and spread the word about the importance of pollinators and native plants throughout the town.  As a member of their Facebook group, I decided to share the great news regarding monarch populations.  What followed gave me that familiar feeling of despair.

The leader of the group Olga Hallborg commented, “Let’s hope they come to the Kootenays.  There have been no monarchs seen in the area since 2008.” And the next comment was even worse, “We have pollinator failure in the Kootenays around milkweed.  Milkweed itself is very specific to how it’s pollinated.  It needs larger native bees to do the trick, or knowledgable humans.”  

It’s hard to say precisely why the Kootenay region of BC no longer has the native bee population required to pollinate milkweed.  Hallborg refers to the worldwide 70% drop in insect population since the 1970s due to pesticides and herbicides, tidy lawns, invasive species, lack of native species and new development.

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

I suspect that the practice of sweeping debris off the forest floor near towns and the actual forest fires themselves are making the problem notably worse in that region. It’s a good wake-up call.  If we don’t take action now, the species we admire today will not be around for our children, and it’s happening already. In a quest to find more information about this milkweed pollination failure, I searched for local newspaper articles about it and found nothing.  The sad thing is, a species was lost in that region, and it seems that few people knew about it. 

Monarch butterflies are no longer in the collective memory of the residents.  They left without fanfare or grief.  They left within the whispers of a dedicated few. How many other species have succumbed to the same fate?  It turns out, many. And not only in this place, but everywhere across the globe.

Photo by James Wheeler on Unsplash

And this, my new neighbours, is why I feel an unbridled urgency to do something.  The time for sitting back and waiting for others to take action is over.  The native plant movement is the most hopeful way to make change that I have found.  Native plants store carbon deep within the soil, fighting climate change.  Their deep root systems improve water infiltration into the soil and reduce erosion. They feed our insects, thereby feeding our songbirds.  They create no need for lawn mowers and leaf blowers that emit CO2 into the air and add to the stressful noise pollution of our time.  Switching to ecological gardening practices will connect ecosystems and strengthen pollinator and wildlife sustainability, giving us healthier and more resilient communities.

I hope we, as a collective, feel the urgency to create a town where we wake up to the sound of songbirds, not lawnmowers. I aspire to a place where children make memories of butterflies and bumblebees dashing from flower to flower as they play in their backyards and schoolyards. 

A connection to nature brought most of us to this town, and as it grows, we have a growing responsibility to protect it.  I’m inspired by the progress Collingwood has made in the last year to protect pollinators and deal with climate change, but we have just begun. 

Photo by Robert Bottman on Unsplash

When we have arrived where we need to be, our neighbourhoods will look, sound and smell much different.  As we walk through our community enjoying the wafting sweet scent of native flowers, animated by birds, butterflies and bees, where there used to be grass desert, we will feel proud of what we accomplished. It’s going to take everyone’s participation, and it will be to everyone’s benefit.  I hope over the winter, many of you will join us by visualizing something new for your property – a garden that expresses your love and hope for the future.

For more reading, please read these informational sources: