By Paul O’Hara
Looking around Ward 1 and the larger west Hamilton area today, it’s hard to imagine what it looked like three hundred years ago before European settlement began in earnest.
Based on the descriptions of pioneers, tourists, botanists and Crown surveyors, this was an astoundingly rich land where rocky escarpment woods of maple, oak, elm, butternut, basswood and hemlock met a rolling mosaic of tallgrass prairies and oak woodlands with swampy hollows, waterfalls, clear running creeks, and an abundance of native wildlife.
Two hundred and fifty years of settlement has largely removed those habitats. In pre-settlement times, the Golden Horseshoe had about 80% forest cover, the remainder being wetlands, savannas and prairies.Today, forest cover hovers around 15%. And of that 15%, most of the woods are of poor quality, isolated and choked with invasive species.
Today, the only natural habitat left in the Ward 1 neighbourhood is the rocky forest along the Niagara Escarpment. This band of forest between the lower and upper city is a vital habitat corridor and an oasis for native wildlife. However, this urban forest is generally of low to medium quality as it is very disturbed, with high concentrations of invasive species like Norway maple, European buckthorn and garlic mustard.
Healthy, biodiverse native plant and insect populations are the basis of the food chain and the key to creating strong ecosystem function.
Most of our native birds rear their young on insects, particularly on the caterpillars of our native moths and butterflies.
Those caterpillars must feed on the foliage of native plants in order to pupate and become adults
Furthermore, our native bees (over 350 species in the Golden Horseshoe) feed almost exclusively on the flowers (pollen and nectar) of native plants. Like the butterflies and moths, they have forged an evolutionary relationship with native plants over thousands of years, so if there are no native plants on the landscape, those insects and the birds that feed on them will not be on the landscape either.
Therefore, the low-quality forests along the Niagara Escarpment through the city, combined with the lack of native trees, shrubs and perennials in our gardens have made the Ward 1 neighbourhood an undesirable place for native bees, birds and butterflies. This is why it is critical that we change our planting practices in order to feed local wildlife. Professor Doug Tallamy, laid out this argument succinctly in his landmark book, Bringing Nature Home:
“We can no longer relegate nature to our parks and preserves, assured that it will be there for us when we need it. We can no longer replace the native vegetation in our neighbourhoods with foreign plants and remain confident that our native species will survive somewhere else. We can no longer rely on local natural areas to supply food and shelter to the birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians of North America.”
Therefore, we cannot rely on our escarpment forests and natural preserves like Cootes Paradise to support native wildlife at the Head of the Lake.
We must bolster the biodiversity of our neighbourhoods by planting native trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, ferns and wildflowers in our gardens and parklands.
Most of the properties in the Ward 1 neighbourhood have an overabundance of lawn that require significant amounts of fossil fuels (fertilizers and gas for lawn equipment) to maintain.
Think about the lawn areas that you actually walk on and consider converting some of your lawn (especially on the margins of your property) to native plant gardens.
When that Norway maple, boxwood or peony dies consider replacing it with a native tree, shrub or perennial. And if we all do our part planting native plants in our front yards, backyards and back alleys, we can create corridors of natural habitat for native wildlife throughout our built landscapes.
By planting native plants on our properties, we can help to create a habitat connection between our escarpment forests and Cootes Paradise/Hamilton Harbour, thereby raising the ecosystem function and ecological connectivity of the entire Head of the Lake area.
These actions will contribute to the wider community goal of creating a Web of Green for native bees, birds and butterflies across the Greater Golden Horseshoe and beyond.
According to Tallamy, there are 3 main tasks that we need to concentrate on to raise the ecosystem function of our neighbourhoods:
These natural habitat corridors will not only help to support our native wildlife and build a bridge between the forests of the Niagara Escarpment and the Bay, they will also help to moderate climate as strong, healthy urban tree canopies slow down wind speeds and reduce storm damage.
And, of course, these natural corridors will beautify our neighbourhoods and enrich our lives as well. Everyone knows by now that spending time in natural habitats improves mental health by slowing down our hearts and calming our nervous systems.
These renewed urban spaces, where butterflies flit through front yards and native birds sing in the tree canopy, can become great teaching tools for children of all ages.
So let’s all do our part planting native trees, shrubs and perennials in our yards to help create healthy, biodiverse neighbourhoods for all living things, including the citizens of this great city by the bay.
Paul O’Hara is a field botanist, landscape designer and native plant gardening expert. He is the owner/operator of Blue Oak Native Landscapes. His first book, A Trail Called Home: Tree Stories from the Golden Horseshoe, was published by Dundurn Press in May 2019. Paul lives in the Strathcona neighbourhood of Hamilton.