By Jan Olson
The Canadian prairies are not known for a great diversity in trees. At present canopies of native poplars and white spruce dominate the forests of our ravine with numerous berry bushes underneath. Elms and ash trees line our neighbourhood’s streets.
When it comes to stateliness and grandeur the elm tree is second to none. This magnificent tree, known for its all-encompassing canopy and massive interwoven branches, is one of the most popular and desirable trees in the world. In most areas elms are cultivated as shade trees, but their graceful shape also adds beauty to any street. Edmonton has one of the largest concentrations of American elms in the world, unaffected by the Dutch elm disease.
The elms’ branches start high and grow upward to form an arching shape like a vase or umbrella. The bark of an elm tree is thick and rough, usually dark grey to greyish brown and made up of broad intersecting ridges. The leaves are dark green, up to 9 cm (3.5 inches) long and 2.5-5 cm (1-2 inches) wide with double-toothed edges. The leaf underside is rough because of raised veins and the two lobes next to the leafstalk are unequally rounded.
The American elm improves the atmosphere of a neighbourhood. They add great value to people’s visual experiences, increase land values, and add the right amount of shade for walks. Living under the canopy of elms in the area provides peace from busy lifestyles, and fast traffic on 99th Street, and bestows a sense of nature in our children and ourselves. In fact, the cooling effect of one elm tree planted in an urban environment is equivalent to five air conditioning units.
In the 1960s the Dutch elm disease (DED) fungus nearly wiped out the entire population of American elm trees in North America. DED is a deadly infection caused by a fungus (Ophiostoma ulmi) that can affect any elm tree. Once the fungus attacks the tree it causes it to wilt and eventually die. The pest that causes all this mayhem is a white, sort of fuzzy immobile elm bark beetle that does not really look like an insect. But, this motionless blight literally sucks the life juices (sap) from the afflicted elm.
Since its introduction from Europe in around 1930, it has destroyed millions of American elm trees across North America. An isolated case of DED was discovered in Wainwright, Alberta in 1998. Since then the fungus has spread slowly and now even some of the trees in Edmonton have been affected. The double row of elms on Whyte Ave between 99th St and 96th St. were selectively chopped down so as not to spread the disease. Cutting the trees was a controversial issue, but it would have been much worse to allow the spread of the disease to other elms in Strathcona.
Given its tremendous size, it’s not surprising that the elm’s wood is so highly esteemed. Timber from the tree is used to make a variety of useful products, such as, furniture, doors and framing, wagon wheel hubs and flooring. In addition, the inner bark is often used for medicinal purposes. Centuries ago, elm bark was heated and used to cure sore throats and sinus infections. Today, oils from the tree’s bark are extracted and featured in cough medicine.
One of the most common trees on the prairies is the Manitoba maple (Acer negundo), a grasslands native; it also grows along the banks of lakes, streams and rivers. The Manitoba maple is a fast growing and hardy deciduous tree that can flourish in many inhospitable locations; it is also known as the box elder, the ash maple, the cutleaf maple and the Red River maple. In fact, this species of tree is the most widely distributed of all North American maples. It is easily propagated, likes bright sunlight, and thrives on many kinds of soils. It is hardy and tolerates cold, heat, flooding and drought. It is tough and resistant to the ravages of most insects and fungal pests.
It grows fastest in its first 20 years and with careful pruning in its early years, it can become a striking, round-topped tree. This large tree is one of the best species for climbing, for making tree houses and offering shade on hot summer days and nights. As it is not as prone to injury from wind and ice as many other tree species it is effective as a rural shelterbelt. With our dry summers, this wind-break keeps top soil from blowing away in the air.
Further, its fast growth and fibrous root system are perfectly suited for erosion control on dry prairie land. The wood can be burned for heat, cooking, various ceremonies, and the smoke is reported to have medicinal value. The charcoal has been used for fuel and tattoos. Twigs can be hollowed out and used for pipe stems and bellow tubes. The trees can be tapped for sap, which can then be boiled down to make syrup. Burls and knots are known to have been made into bowls, dishes and drums by First Nations’ peoples.
Yet, ask most people living in the 99th St. area about the Manitoba Maple and most will roll their eyes. It has been described as an unpopular tree with its suckers reaching through all areas of the yard, its complex stem system, irregular tree crown and the ubiquitous seeds sprouting in gardens and on the edges of roads. Overall, the Manitoba maple has been maligned as having few urban virtues.
White spruce is a characteristic tree of the boreal forest, although it can be found almost everywhere in Canada. Found in a variety of soil types and climatic regions and is common throughout south-central and northern regions of Alberta. It is rarely found in a pure stand, but is usually mixed with other species. White spruces are medium-sized trees with single, straight trunks that end in thick, uniform, conical crowns. The lower branches and their needles droop or extend to the ground. In dense forests, the lower branches are gradually lost as the trees compete for light. White Spruce can live from 50 to 300 years and reach heights of 25 to 30 m, with a trunk diameter of 60 to 90 cm. White spruce needles stand out from all sides of a twig in a spiral arrangement. They are stiff, four-sided, bluish-green and 0.5 to two centimeters long. The bark is thin and scaly. The outer bark is a light greyish-brown. The inner bark is silvery-white. White spruce cones are about five cm long, slender and cylindrical. When they open the tight, light-brown scales spread to almost form right angles with the cone. The cones mature in one season. They open in late summer or autumn, and fall off the tree in winter or the following spring.
The white spruce is a very important commercial tree species, yielding excellent lumber and pulpwood. The wood is lightweight, soft and moderately strong with very tough fibres. White spruce are used to make a variety of products: papers, fibre molded products, particle board, planks and joists for construction, boxes and crates, doors, roof decking and paneling. The wood is also valued for use in piano sounding boards, violins, paddles and oars.
Aboriginal people living in Alberta used most parts of the White spruce tree. They made spruce saplings into snowshoe frames and sometimes into bows. They used the decayed wood for tanning hides. Spruce bark was also used to make cooking pots and trays for gathering berries. Aboriginal people in North America used the white spruce’s strong pliable roots to make lacings for bark canoes. They also heated the gum to make glue for waterproofing the birch bark seams of canoes, to fasten skins onto bows and secure arrowheads onto shafts.
White spruce provides food and shelter for many species of wildlife. The tree’s abundant seeds are an important food source for birds and small mammals such as martens, voles and snowshoe hares. Every two to six years, white spruce trees bear massive cone crops that produce more seeds than the seed-eaters can consume. This helps the tree to reproduce successfully.
Poplar is the common name often used interchangeably with respect to several distinct species of trees forming the genus populus. In fact, trembling aspen, plains cottonwood, and balsam poplar are all types of poplar. Because of the use of different common names, confusion often results. The poplar tree name has its roots in ancient Rome. The name populus refers to the practice of planting the trees near public meeting places in Rome in the early sixth century.
Balsam Poplar (Populus balsamifera)
This tree prefers wetter areas, which allows these trees to grow up to 25 m high with greenish grey bark at the top becoming more grey and deeply furrowed at the base; winter buds are large and curved with a sticky balsam-smelling gum. The leaves are simple oval or heart-shaped with pointed rounded teeth. The top side of the leaf is shiny dark green while underneath it is a pale green.
The balsam poplar is commonly found in forestland, abandoned farmland, burned-over areas, and river banks throughout Alberta. Its wood is light, soft, greyish white to light greyish brown in colour. The wood is used primarily for pulp. Balsam poplar is also used in windbreak plantings.
Aspen Poplar (Populus tremuloides)
The aspen can grow up to 30 m in height with bark that, at first, is smooth and greenish-white, becoming rough and dark grey with age. The leaves are broadly oval, sharp-pointed with fine-rounded teeth set on long, slender stalks. The leaf-stems flatten out causing fluttering in wind, hence its alias, trembling aspen. The leaves are dark green above and pale underneath. It is widespread throughout Alberta, especially important in the northern-central part of the province where it is the dominant species in the “boreal mixed wood” forest, being eventually succeeded by white spruce.
Aspen poplar has whitish to cream coloured wood which is short fibred, and relatively low in strength. It is used mainly for pulp products such as books, newsprint, and fine printing paper. Aspen, however, is especially good for panel products such as waferboard. Lumber is light in weight and is used for furniture, boxes and crates, core stock in plywood, and wall panels.
Sometimes it looks like a snowstorm is happening in the ravine in late June. But, this really is the natural phenomenon of what we call poplar fluff. Balsam poplar trees and aspen poplar trees shed their seeds each summer. Only female plants produce pods that split open and release minute seeds attached to long white hairs, or fluff. This fluff is dispersed by the wind which carries the seeds over large areas. It is quite irritating to many people as the fluff can be a fire hazard, allergen, or will stick to many of your other plants. The only long-range solution is to plant only male poplars or seed sterile varieties of hybrid poplars. The City of Edmonton has been replacing these trees, in its parks, with other varieties of trees since the mid-1980’s. However, in natural areas, such as ravines and along the river valley, the trees are left alone.
Other Local Plants
Lilium philadelphicum, also known as the wood lily, Philadelphia lily, prairie lily or western red lily, is a perennial species of lily native to North America. This perennial lily grows to roughly 30-90 cm and blooms between June and August. The plant can, however, grow to 1.2 m in height.
The wood lily has groups of leaves that form a whorl around the stem. From this base grows one to three large flowers, each of which had six bright orange-red petals. Inside the throat of the flower, the base of the petals lightens with brown spots. The long stamens are tipped with brown anthers that may extend slightly beyond the top of the flower.
Stems originate from starchy bulbs that are edible (served boiled). The bulbs are also eaten and dispersed by small rodents. The Cree name, “mouse root,” refers to the fact that voles often store the fleshy bulbs in their burrows. The Blackfoot also ate the bulbs either whole or as part of a soup. Holistic practitioners use the bulbs to reduce aggression. The lily has significant medicinal use. A tincture is made from the flesh of the plant and has proved of great value in healing uterine-neuralgia, congestion and irritation, and the nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. My mother told me a story that smelling a wood lily will give you freckles. Well, she loved the lily and has many freckles too… is this just superstition?
Many people find the wood lily visually irresistible and many lilies have ended up in a vase on a kitchen table. Unfortunately, lilies do not respond well to disturbance and once picked, the plant will not recover. In many areas, over-picking has decimated Wood Lily populations. See if you can find these lilies in the ravine or around the neighbourhood, but don’t pick them, leave them for all to see.
Beaked Hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)
Western hazelnut is often referred to as Beaked Hazelnut. It is sometimes commercially grown for its edible nuts In fact the community of Hazeldean is named after the wild plant growing in the ravine. This native shrub grows to 10 feet in both height and width and forms a very nice open, multi-stemmed shrub shape. The thin twiggy branches zig-zag as they grow, and the leaves turn yellow in the fall before they shed. Female flowers morph into a fruit which resemble acorns. The nuts are 3/4 inch in diameter and are concealed by two, leafy coarsely toothed husk-like bracts. The name beaked hazelnut references the bracts being fused at the tip, thus forming an extended tubular beak. Although, beaked hazelnuts can be commercially grown for their edible nuts, a wildlife habitat plantings can provide cover, and nuts are eaten by squirrels, deer, grouse and pheasant. Native people also used the nut. The nuts are picked in early autumn, stored until fully ripe, and then roasted or eaten raw. They were pounded into cakes with berries, meat, or animal fat and also boiled to extract the oil, which was used as flavoring. The nut’s milk was used to cure coughs and colds, to heal cuts, and as an astringent. The wood was fashioned into arrows, fishing traps, hooks, and spoons and the long, flexible shoots were twisted into rope.
I cannot recall a time when my family did not pick Saskatoon berries. Every summer it was a ritual to go to one of my aunts’ farms or to my uncle’s acreage. We used to turn our clothes inside out so that they would not stain too badly. Surprisingly we always came back with buckets full… even after filling our mouths with the sweet berry.
The Cree called the berry “misaskwatomin” or “missakqhahtoomina”, meaning “fruit of the tree of many branches”. The word sounded like “saskatoon” to John Lake, a Methodist minister for a group that had settled on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in 1882-1883. Saskatoon berries are purple-coloured, and the sizes of berries vary due to different cultivars. Other names used to describe this fruit were Serviceberries, June berries, Shadberries, Sugar pear and Indian pear.
The berries were a staple for both Aboriginal people and early settlers. The berries were enjoyed fresh, or steamed and mashed and then left to dry into berry blocks. Pieces of these blocks were then chipped off as needed and added to soups, stews or were simply re-boiled to reconstitute them. The Saskatoon berry has significant nutritional value; it is significantly high in protein, fat, fibre, calcium, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, and barium, yet low in phosphorus and sulfur.
Mixtures of the inner bark and roots were used to make a tea to treat diarrhea, dysentery, painful menstruation, and bleeding during pregnancy. A root tea was believed to prevent miscarriage. Some tribes boiled the inner bark of the Saskatoon to produce a remedy for snow-blindness; one drop of the strained fluid was placed in the affected eye three times daily. Fruit concoctions were also used for sore eyes and stomach problems. The wood of the bush itself was weighty and flexible enough to make arrows and other tools, basket frames and cross-pieces of canoes.
Alberta Wild Rose
This shrub is famous for its prickly stems with their beautiful pale pink flowers and nutritious rosehips. It was adopted by the Province of Alberta to be the official floral emblem in 1930. In Alberta, you can find the Wild Rose in bloom starting in late May and lasting until early August. The fragrant flowers are bright pink with petals 3-5 cm in size and can be used for the manufacture of perfume.
The wild rose is classified as a deciduous shrub (bushy shrub) and can be found almost everywhere in Alberta. The plant grows generally from one to three metres tall, and has “bristle like” branches. The larger stems are densely covered with small prickles with the occasional thicker thorn. In the springtime, new green buds develop on the stems of the wild rose and they grow larger until they open up into the beautiful pink flowers for which these plants are so admired. When the wild rose is in bloom, its fragrance attracts bees and other insects to gather and distribute the pollen. As the flower begins to wither, it turns into a small oval shaped hard seed container called a “rose hip” which is also considered the fruit of the plant.
Small animals such as squirrels, snowshoe hares, songbirds and rodents are attracted to the rose. Mature rose hips are probably not as tasty to birds as other fruits, and therefore remain on the shrubs, providing an important winter resource to deer, rabbits, coyotes, and moose.
Wild rose hips are known for their high vitamin A and C content (an important resource during winter months) and can be used to make syrup, jelly, jams, and marmalades. During this process, the hips are peeled of their skins and mashed into a pulp with seeds removed. The hips of the Wild Rose are also gathered for the preparation of rose hip tea, made from its leaves and flowers.
The aboriginal people used the plant for medicinal purposes. It was used to treat ailments such as bee stings, colds, blindness, stomach aches, and diarrhea. A mixture made by boiling rose roots in a compress was made to reduce swelling. The same blend was gargled as a remedy for tonsillitis and sore throats.
Wild Red Raspberry
Memories of stained hands and lips bring smiles to everyone’s face. Raspberry picking is a staple summer activity. Some people pick from their own yard, while others, like the kids down the block raid your back alley plants. Wild raspberries grow in our ravine and in some yards of the neighbourhood, but most are now hybrid versions. Today, raspberries rank high on the list of the world’s most popular berries.
Scientists are not entirely sure about the origins of raspberries. Wild raspberries appear on at least five continents, and there is enormous species diversity for this fruit. Trading and traveling may have been important in the spread of raspberries into North America from eastern Asia across the Bering Strait.
Wild raspberries are fairly easy to spot. They grow 1 to 1.5 m high, but their most identifiable attribute is that they have arching stems that sometimes re-root into the ground. The vines are purple and thorny (brambled). Raspberries are perennial plants, with biannual stems or canes. It takes about three years before raspberry plants reach full-bearing fruit potential. When fruit forms on the stems, the berries take from two to three weeks to ripen. The picking season for red raspberries begins in late June, and usually lasts for four to six weeks.
The leaves and roots are used as an anti- inflammatory, a decongestant, a stimulant, can help with eye problems, and even with labour pains. The leaves and roots can be used to treat tonsillitis and mouth inflammations, treat burns, minor wounds and ulcers. The fruit can also make a purple to blue dye.
Red Osier Dogwood
In general, native dogwoods have a four-season appeal. With spring come flowers, sometimes showy, sometimes fragrant. Summer brings berries that contrast nicely with the leaves. Autumn leaves are eye-catching, with shades of red and orange and, for some species, a late show of bright berries. For some species, at least, a snowy winter affords a stunning contrast of bright red branches against the white snow. This vigorous shrub is typically 2 m tall with small, creamy-white flowers in a flat- topped cluster that can bloom anywhere from early summer to early fall. White berries are present in late summer and fall. In our area we have the Red Osier varietal. Dogwoods have proven to be extremely invaluable to wildlife and humans alike. Shrubby species stabilize slopes and shores, protecting them from erosion. Their branches provide shelter for land and water animals. Dogwood flowers provide nectar to pollinating insects and then become fruit that is sought after by birds and mammals. Even the buds, twigs, and leaves of dogwood are munched on occasionally by local wildlife, although usually not enough to seriously damage the plant. While you are looking for this plant in the ravine or neighbourhood you can tell a silly joke to your companion. “How can you tell if it is a dogwood?”…”You can tell by its bark!”
High Bush Cranberry
Although often called “Highbush Cranberry”, this plant is not truly a cranberry. The name comes from the red fruits, which look superficially like cranberries, and have a similar flavor and ripen at the same time of year. The fruits, sour and rich in vitamin C, can be eaten raw or cooked into a sauce to serve with meat or game. This is a commonly used berry in Western Canadian cultures. Peoples of various origins both Native and European have used the berries for years. Its popularity is slowly growing again with an increased interest in native prairie fruits.
It is a deciduous shrub growing to 4 m tall. The bark is gray and rough and has a scaly texture. The berries develop in large clusters, making them easy to pick. If you are planning on eating the berries fresh, wait until after a frost to pick. The frost will soften and sweeten the fruit. While the berries are not a favourite of many birds, they are a very important survival food as the winter progresses. Ruffed grouse, cedar waxwings, thrushes, robins, cardinals and grosbeaks are among the birds that feed on its fruit. Highbush cranberries are ready for picking by mid September to October. Because the berries stay on the plant unless pulled off, they can be picked all winter long and used for jellies.
In addition to food, the bushes also provide birds with shelter from the elements and hiding places from predators.
1) Discussions with neighbours in Mill Creek and 99th Street Area
2) France Royer and Richard Dickenson. Plants of Alberta. Lone Pine Publishing. 2007
3) Wayne Inkpen and Rob Van Eyk. Guide to Common Native Trees and Shrubs of Alberta. Inside Education. Government of Alberta.