Growing diversity

The Nature of PEI by Gary Schneider

Hobblebush fruit

When faced with environmental problems such as climate change, threats to water, soil erosion, and a loss of biodiversity, it is easy to feel helpless. Too often we ask ourselves “how can I make a difference?” For the most part, all you can really do is educate yourself and make the right decisions. Reduce your carbon footprint, use your wallet to support farming and forestry practices that are truly sustainable, and teach your children.

The loss of biodiversity, though, is a different kettle of fish. While we may not be able to address the shrinking of polar bear habitat, or the continuing loss of songbirds—other than demanding action from our politicians—individually we can make a difference. And we can see this happening right before our eyes in Prince Edward Island.

Hemlock cones

When the nursery at Macphail Woods in Orwell began in 1991, it was an act of desperation. Few native tree species were being grown in any nurseries. As for native shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns, these were rarities in the nursery trade. It wasn’t that native plants were ugly and that non-native plants were gorgeous. It is quite the opposite in many cases.

We had little to no experience growing native plants but felt that it was important to move away from plantings of one or perhaps two species of conifers and towards creating healthy forests with a diversity of species. We were forced to learn on the fly. But learn we did.

It continues to be inspiring to meet people who have been direct seeding acorns into their woodland and getting great results. Since Fiona, I’ve spoken with many people who are collecting acorns to grow red oak trees. There is also interest among watershed groups and First Nations to start native plant nurseries to add diversity to their plantings, aiming at healthy forests.

I’ve written about red oak here before—it really is as simple as collecting the green acorns from the tree or as they as fall, and either store them in a damp medium over the winter and plant in the spring, or just plant them immediately throughout a forest where there is dappled light.

Other species are not quite as easy, but we’ve found that growing everything outside of the orchid family is well within the skill level of any gardener who has a little extra space for seeds. What about our rarest species? They must be difficult to grow, right? Otherwise, why are they so rare? This actually is a myth. Some of our rarest plants are extremely easy to grow. We’ve just gotten rid of their habitat and seed sources.

That’s the real benefit to increasing biodiversity in our forests (or in the creation of new forests). Once those oaks, or white ash, or witch hazel grow up, they will provide seed sources for the surrounding areas. So we’re not trying to fill up a forest with red oak or any other species. We’re trying to establish seed sources throughout the area so that in the future, they will be able to disperse their seeds with the help of wind and wildlife.

So if you find a beautiful yellow birch, collect the seed. Or painted trilliums. Or swamp milkweed. There are dozens and dozens of plants that are worth propagating to improve the Island’s biodiversity. Nothing fancy. No degrees needed. Just an interest.

Macphail Woods is planning to offer a workshop on plant propagation over the next few months. If you’re interested, please email me through and we’ll get back to you.