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Preserving and Enhancing the Genetic Diversity of Southern Ontario Plants with Puslinch Naturally Native Trees

Article from Hamilton Pollinator Paradise

“I love the winter time,” Marion Robertson says to me, over the speakerphone. She’s got the kettle on and lets me know that her husband and business partner Richard, may be popping in and out of the conversation. They are owners of Puslinch Naturally Native Trees, a nursery plant stock supplier. Now that the snow is thick on the ground, it’s the ideal time to do inventory and plan for the spring.
“I can research other classes of plants and trees and spend the next year sourcing them,” she says.

Marion shares a little about the origins of the business. They began as beekeepers (and still are). Richard chimes in, “We started growing trees, shrubs and wildflowers because of the honeybees and also endangered pollinators. You start out looking at one aspect; originally it was asking ourselves how we could help.”

With the best of intentions in mind, the couple purchased trees and shrub stock from local area nurseries. But what they discovered was that within a year, a good portion of these trees and shrubs had died. 

The lesson learned? “A Latin, botanical name only ensures you are getting that specific plant. It does not indicate the origin of the seed,” Marion says. Plants from locally collected seeds have a much higher survival rate than those plants imported from outside an area’s growth zone.

“It was next to impossible to find Carolinian or native stock from seed collected in our area at our local nurseries. That’s why we started our nursery business.”

​Seed Collecting

Seed collecting all year: hop. On this cold, overcast morning, there are around 10,000 plants in pots sitting outdoors, all having sprung from local seed. What’s captivating my imagination is that all Marion and Richard’s seeds are hand collected, nothing bought, except for some from special reintroduction programs. A lot of their stock is Carolinian, endangered or uncommon larval pollinator plants that have disappeared from the landscape. As to be expected, this dedication to increasing the biodiversity of our southern Ontario landscape poses obvious challenges: the availability of stock, year by year is affected, due to adverse weather that impacts flowering and seed set.

No matter, the commitment is strong: “These native species were once a natural component of the landscape and need to, again, be a part of it,” Marion says. The pair also pick up local and heritage seed from the University of Guelph. 
Marion and Richard tell me that the value of most seeds is still not broadly appreciated. This is a very serious problem. For instance, they attribute canceling of funds to and subsequent closure of the Ontario Tree Seed Facility in Angus (by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) to the undervaluing of seeds, and their true worth–as such, the facility ran a deficit.

“Compared to the cost of gathering, cleaning and storage the seeds were not sold at a high enough price to offset costs,” Marion says. Something like Kentucky Coffee actually went for 27 cents a seed. A more fair price would be $1.” 
When the seed facility announced its closing, the bigger nurseries bought the surplus seeds.  “This gave them a cushion for approximately one year,” Marion says. She predicts that once these reserves are gone there will be pressure on the industry to hire and train seed collectors; “So there will be opportunities in the future.”

Driven to growing plants from original and ancient stock, Marion says she considers herself somewhat of “a sleuth,” venturing across various terrains to uncover these hardy seeds. She’s referring to the investigating she did on her search to find one particular 400-year-old oak located in the Niagara on the Lake region.

Of course, that leads to the issue of ethical seed collecting. “You only want to take a percentage of the seeds you find, you have to leave some for natural regeneration,” Marion explains. She describes scenarios where some people have literally vacuumed masses of seeds up in one go. Furthermore, seeds collected this way prove to not be very resistant genetically: “a thousand seeds from three trees–but what have you really done?” she asks.

Is there a specific time of year to actually collect seed, I wonder? 
“It depends on the species,” Richard interjects, surprising me by the sound of his voice–I thought he’d left. “For instance, you can pick serviceberries seeds in May; oaks you can pick their seeds up to the end of November.” He describes their catalog of plant stock as being “unique” and constantly evolving since they are always searching for new seed sources that will help preserve the genetic base of Ontario plants. 

Sustainable Biodiversity

As a seed collector, Marion says the number one issue of concern is indeed, genetic resilience: “it goes beyond writing a plant list,” she says. Marion says the concept of purchasing seed from various nurseries when one is doing a planting, so as to enhance and diversify genetic biodiversity, has been lost. She believes that idea is worth bringing back, “We’ve got to change the way we get out there an buy, not just one big order from one nursery!”  Rather, she would like to seem more “mom and pop operations,” the Conservation Authority playing a bigger role, Some other key factors to consider when it comes to genetic biodiversity is the longevity of species. “Take oak trees–they have suffered air pollution, climate change, and so on. Those are the trees we want to collect seed from.”

Climate Change and Assisted Tree Migration

Ancient tree sleuthing: a Sugar Maple ​Our conversation now turns to the frightening topic of climate change, and how, as Marion says,  it is happening so much quicker than natural migration. From her research, derived from experts at Yale University, climatology papers and the forestry think tank at Sudbury to mention a few sources, she explains how trees grow in a “climate envelope,” and that they have evolved a rate of migration in response to glaciation. 
“Considering the glaciers only moved 1 inch a year the trees evolved just to stay ahead of the advancing ice,” Marion explains. She points out that the climate has changed and is predicted to change much faster than the rate of glacier movement, and that eventually, trees and ecosystems will have to move a projected 300 miles. Way beyond their ability.  
 “On top of that, we have declining pollinator populations, and roads that are an environmental impediment in front of those natural migrations,” Marion says. “So we need to do it for them.” 

That’s why, last year, Marion and Richard’s launched their “assisted tree migration” program.
“The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources realizes that we are still stuck in seed zones–that are not relevant anymore, but they don’t know how to deal with it,” Marion says. “It’s going to have to be an industry based movement and in places like British Columbia, Quebec, Michigan, Minnesota have started to do this mitigation work.”

In creating plant stock that will be better suited to climate change, the hope is that these hardier plants will be able to survive and thrive in biodiverse plantings. This means growing tree stock that is wind and drought resistant in response to climate change. To this end, Marion talks about the necessity of having “wind action on trees.”  
Marion explains how when a tree that has been staked, that weakens  its “bone structure.” 
“If trees don’t have a wind action on them, they won’t learn to respond,” she says. “The first violent storm in their new habitat, they can’t withstand it. But people don’t want to buy crocked trees. They get upset if they see bit marks.”
She considers the onus for climate resilient trees falls “square on the lap of consumers” because it’s driven by consumers. “They want absolutely straight perfect trees,” she says. “But we have to get out of that “it has to be perfect” mentality” with its “colour of the year” and so on.”
Rather, people would do well to learn to “rejoice if you see things being eaten!”

How we can help

Now it’s our turn. Let’s talk about what we can do in our yards and on our properties to up genetic biodiversity. Enter the “survival trees,” as Marion and Richard call them. In March and April, when nothing is blooming, Silver Maples are some of the first trees that pollinators will go to take the sugary water as food. Willow trees are also popular with pollinators; they are a great spring addition.

In planting for pollinators, Marion suggests working it so there is always something available; think goldenrods and asters, two plants that are “hugely critical” food sources because they last well into November. “The point is to do meaningful planting; plant with purpose,” Marion stresses. “Ask yourself, is it native, does it help endangered pollinators?”

More Useful Tips
Planting for the host critter in mind ex: native pipevine is the larval plant for the endangered Pipevine swallowtail butterfly.  Planting complimentary plants to extend feeding season of pollinators:  For example, the added bonus is that the Ohio Buckeye and Kentucky Coffee trees bloom at different times, therefore, extending the feeding season for all pollinators.

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