Over the years, I have turned a childhood fascination for wild things into a gardening style that incorporates native plants. I have found that seeds from meadow plants are generally easy to collect and germinate. With the early woodland flowers, however, you really need to have a sense of the right time and place as well as an understanding of how plants connect with other living things around them.
Spring woodland flowers come up quickly after the snow melts, taking advantage of the sunlight before the leaves emerge from tree buds. Their appearance is a welcome sight after the long, cold winter. A spring hike through the woods is a feast for the eyes, especially when the forest floor is carpeted with trilliums and other wildflowers. This complex community is a masterpiece of timing and interconnectedness.
Last year, in an attempt to expand some of that beauty into my own yard, I set out to collect seeds from woodland spring flowers. I kept my eye on some bloodroots growing near my front door. By June, their seed pods were thickening and clearly the time was imminent when they would spill their contents. Then, one day I noticed a line of ants leaving the yellowing plant, each with a copper-coloured seed. Following the line back, I discovered the bloodroot pods had opened and ants were diligently carrying away their precious cargo. I quickly gathered the few seeds that were left and carefully placed them into a shaded bed nearby. I did the same with trillium seeds in July. I was hoping for germination this spring. Nothing happened. Perhaps they need another cold spell before they emerge from their seedbed, but I wonder if I disturbed a crucial part of the germination process.
It turns out that each seed produced has a tiny fleshy appendage called an elaiosome, which is rich in proteins, fats, carbohydrates and vitamins. This appendage is produced by the plant to entice ants to pick up the seeds and carry them off into their tunnels. Once there, the workers and larvae feed on the elaiosome, leaving the seed intact and ready for germination. The seedlings emerging from the ant hill are protected from predators by their hosts and likely derive nourishment from this special association.
Countless relationships exist in natural communities that have developed over thousands, if not millions, of years. Our backyards, left untouched by pesticides, are buzzing with life that connects and interconnects in a multitude of ways. We, too, are part of this amazing web. Our dependence on plants is obvious from our need for food, oxygen, medicines and shelter. And our understanding that plants, in turn, have many vital associations with other life in their community automatically makes us an intricate part of the picture.
Healthy gardens depend on these connections. The native plants that once inhabited our space evolved ways to connect intimately with other species in their community. Giving these plants space in our yards will allow this incredible net of mutual dependence and connection to re-establish itself. We need only watch and learn.
Beate Heissler recently retired from a career in outdoor education. In the spring of 2006, she opened Natural Themes, a native plant nursery near Frankford, Ontario.