In 2014, a part of the area known as the Carden Alvar just east of Orillia, Ontario became a Provincial Park called Carden Alvar Provincial Park. It was a combined effort of locals, nature and conservancy organizations and the Provincial government to protect this unique, sensitive grassland habitat that supports rare plants, flora and a variety of endangered species. Today, work and education continues to protect, and raise awareness and appreciation for this unique, rare ecosystem.
Alvars first appear as unproductive land, with little to no soil, covering flat limestone or dolostone bedrock. The landscape looks barren and the vegetation appears stunted. Alvars flood in the spring and dry out during the summer months, creating harsh and extreme conditions for plants and flora to live under. But as you walk on the alvar you begin to find a distinctive group of prairie-like plants and grasses.
On May 6, the weather was beautiful and a small group of us gathered at the Robert L. Bowles Nature Centre to learn about the unique flora on the Carden Alvar. Bob Bowles, a Master Naturalist, led the way as we entered the Alvar at the Prairie Smoke entrance. Our walk started through a hay field where Bob pointed out Yellow Trout Lilies (Erythronium americanum). Trout Lily is not a rare plant but a common spring ephemeral that grows under forest cover but rare to see them in an open field.
We left the open hay field and began a gentle ascent along a forest trail with hardwood and conifer trees. Several plants were observed like Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica), Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), and Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), just to name a few.
We emerged from the forest trail onto the grassland Alvar where we discovered many plants, some in bloom and some not yet flowering. Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum) is a rare, beautiful and delicate plant. These plants were just starting to grow; most were only 4-6 inches in height. Prairie Smoke is in full bloom in May but after flowering in June, the seed head is surrounded by long, mauve styles.The styles are at the end of the seed heads (achenes) and are wispy. These styles appear like puffs of smoke traveling across the field in the wind.
Painted Cup (Castilleja coccinea) was in bloom but the plants were small in height. Another week or two and the grassland area will be covered with this beautiful, scarlet coloured plant. This plant grows well near other plants, especially grasses. It burrows its roots into the root system of nearby plants and grasses and is supplied with nutrients and water.
Painted Cup (Castilleja coccinea)
Spring Draba or Whitlow Grass (Draba
Other plants we observed were Crawe’s Sedge (Carex crawei), Shrubby Cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), Tall Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta), Early Saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), along with several plants of Richardson's Sedge in flower which is an early blooming sedge with right red and green leaves.
Early Saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis)
We then drove to the trailhead at Cameron Ranch. Here we observed Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis). The genus name Ranunculus is Latin for 'Rana' meaning frog and 'unculus' meaning little.
Some say the name originated from the species' preferred growing areas near water. Early buttercup flourishes in moist habitats where you would find frogs!
Early buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis)
Photo Credit: Martha Lawrence
Our next Alvar Flora Tour workshop is Saturday, June 17 @10:00 AM. where we will see more exquisite displays of unique flora found only on alvars. Send us an email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
We look forward to seeing you again.
Participants - Alvar Flora Tour Walk