A model for naturalist’s actions: Toronto’s Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve

by Michael White

300 years ago, the Don River Valley at the location of Todmorden Mills was filled with trees and flowers and the Don River meandered through it. Wonscoteonok is what indigenous people called our Don. The river was full of salmon and trout and big lake white suckers and maybe a sturgeon or two. Native people came to fish and hunt there. 300 years later in 2014 much has changed.  There are visitors to the site from diverse nations, some are recent immigrants and some are descendants of the settlers who came to Toronto over the years since the 1700’s.

In 2014, three hundred years later, Volunteer stewards are selling little potted ferns like those that once grew along the river at an event called Doors Open Toronto in the Don River Valley. But the Don no longer flows through the section of land now called Todmorden Mills Park and its Wildflower Preserve. This river has been channelized and moved onto the other side of the 6 lane superhighway built next to it.

Passing up the Don Valley Parkway you can still see the brick chimney and buildings of the past:  a mill that now houses an art gallery and theatre, and some of the 18th and 19th century houses –  and, of course, the Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve.

The Preserve is one of Toronto’s and perhaps North America’s most exciting little ecological restoration sites. For many reasons it is a model for careful citizen involvement in protecting and enhancing natural areas in our city of Toronto.

Like the stewards at Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve, Richmond Hill has citizens working on its natural areas. Richmond Hill Naturalists have over the years worked in different ways and places to enhance natural areas in the town and the countryside of York Region. The names of Russ Tilt, Theo Hoffman, and the botanist Alan Channon are some who have worked in the parks, the York Region Forest and at the Mill Pond to inventory, plan and improve natural areas of the town and the countryside. Each year the Richmond Hill Naturalists work with the town and its councillors to do cleanups of some of the needy areas. The town Parks Department has become an effective protector of the growing community wild areas and waterways. In spite of all this, urbanization in our area means that natural areas are under more and more pressure making it hard for native plants and wildlife to survive, remain green and diverse.

I would like to recommend the example of the little band of leaders and volunteers at Todmorden that to all of us interested in the survival of nature in the city. The Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve began 20 years ago when a small group looked beyond the historical mill buildings and houses to the neglected old meander lands of the Don River. It is a Charity run by a volunteer board of directors. Its mandate is to do environmental restoration work. Membership is free and members receive updates on activities and events going on in the Preserve. Their first activity in the 1990’s was to raise money and support to create a wetland and pond. These gathered the water from the springs that seep from the valley edge cliffs. They provided a healthy environment for the animals and plants that once had lived in the valley. The project was a success and within a few years, green frogs, fish and turtles had moved in and made their homes in the pond. The Wildflower reintroduction began with the pond weeds and herbs in and around the pond. The pond and the small lookout on its edge beside the access path through the Preserve, named the Oxbow Trail, became the focal point of the project. The part of the creation of the pond for the growing number of volunteers was acquiring and planting the aquatic plants for the pond, such as soft-stemmed bulrush, blue flag irises, and river bulrush. In the years that followed many valley herbs and flowering plants were planted such as the spectacular yellow marsh buttercups or marigolds. They joined a long list of native shrubs and added to the native plants already growing on the site:  skunk cabbage that still flourishes among the tangles of fallen valley trees along spring fed wetlands, false starry Solomon’s seal, and Virginia waterleaf.

The other job of the volunteer stewards is a less pleasing one, but no less necessary. It is controlling invasive non native plants.  Earth worms that change the valley soils and warmer weather, make it a full time job to deal with the most aggressive of the newcomers. Some plants came with the forage crops for cattle brought by the early settlers such as smooth Brome grass. Thistle seeds, nettles and other weeds came too. From among these, are the almost unstoppable garlic mustard and Japanese knot weed, and on more open slopes, black pale swallowwort known as dog strangling vine, a cousin of our native milkweeds. Many volunteer hours are spent clearing these invaders to make room for the spread of blood root, wild ginger, mayapples, wild geraniums the delicate spring foam flowers, wood violets and Canada anemones which fill in or peek out of the cleared areas. Local schools (through the Rotary Ecosystem Education Program) and York University Environmental Studies students, have pitched in annually to help diversify the forest by planting trees and shrubs as well as wildflowers. Funding to purchase plants and equipment has been provided over the years by the Parks and Trees Foundation, by TD Friends of the Environment Foundation, the Trillium Foundation and by private donors. The City of Toronto Parks and Forestry and Recreation Department, in particular the Natural Environment and Community Projects Department, Horticulture Department and the Ravine Protection Department of Forestry have all assisted in many ways.

In the understorey are flowering and berry bearing shrubs, elderberry, wild rose and flowering raspberry, the many native dogwoods and vibernums. Above these are young oaks, walnuts, hickories and butternut, basswoods, maples, and elms. In the lower areas and around the big oxbow, once part of the Don River are cedars and poplars.

All this I learned in a wonderful, knowledgeable, detailed tour along the Oxbow Trail with Wildflower Preserve leader and friend, Paula Davies on a spring Saturday afternoon after she and fellow volunteers had done several hours work in the preserve. Each area, each problem, each success has its place, with quite a few ambitious projects waiting for school kids, volunteers or even some ecological restoration experts. The whole Preserve is quite an extensive area of 10 hectares, with some steep ravine edges along Pottery Road, Broadview Avenue and Chester Hill Road as well as the east side of the Don Valley Parkway. Now it is once again the home of rabbit, deer, groundhog, chipmunk, red squirrel, fox, coyote and mink. Garter snakes and deKay’s little brown snakes, green frogs. Many birds nest in and around the preserve; yellow warblers, flickers, song sparrows, and orioles. Visitors from the river side include occasional common egrets, black-crowned night herons, and great blue herons.  In spring it is full of migrating warblers and thrushes and the many more species that pass through Toronto’s migration flyway. These are the things you learn and see on a tour of this fine little space.

There are also more sinister problems. There is some instability on the ravine edges. There is the emerald ash borer which is in the process of eradicating the ash  trees, a whole species of beautiful and beneficial valley trees in our city.  The ashes are disappearing in much the same way that disease destroyed all the native chestnuts a hundred years ago.

It takes 6,000 visits by a warbler male and female to raise of brood of fledglings. If many of these visits are empty beaked because there are not native plants to feed the insects, that in turn will feed the young birds, then soon the birds will not longer be here to nest. That is a reality of ecology that the Preserve helps to solve.

There is also a new threat, the fire ants. They have recently arrived from the south and are found throughout the city. They are in the Don River Valley and the Preserve.  If they are not in Richmond Hill they will be soon.  They prey on small animals, insects and caterpillars in their search for food and sting exposed skin. In natural areas one now needs always to wear closed shoes, long pants with socks over the cuffs, to protect against these ants. Research is ongoing to find some way to contain or control them.

The Wildflower Preserve volunteers do their valuable work anyway. The results are beautiful and hopeful.

References:

  1. Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve Natural Trail Guide (available at the Mill) and at www.hopscotch.ca/tmwp
  2. A very good guide for gardeners: A Guide for Southern Ontario: Grow Me Instead: available from Ontario Invasive Plant Council at www.ontarioinvasiveplants.ca

Contacts:  Todmorden Mills Wildflower Preserve:  wildflowerpreserve@gmail.com

Richmond Hill Naturalists:  Michael.white@sympatico.ca