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Prairie Grasses

Past and Potential for Ontario's Natural Heritage - Page 6

Historical views and uses of tallgrass communities and their resident Poaceae remind us of a formerly more widespread, fertile, and beautiful grassland landscape. Catherine Parr Trail (1836), while traveling through a savanna in the Rice Lake area, remarked that a "number of exquisite flowers and shrubs adorn these plains, which rival any garden in beauty during the spring and summer months." On a trip from Turkey Point to London, another early traveler (Jameson 1838) described "Oak Plains… dispersed with a park-like and beautiful effect; and still flowers, flowers everywhere."

Some accounts demonstrate that some early settlers equated the treelessness of the grasslands with infertility and often called these landscapes "barrens." A traveler in the Brantford area in 1832 (Landon 1922) "entered a level, thinly timbered tract of country. The timber here consists solely of scrub oak. Scarcely a bush of any other kind is to be seen, and the land is probably a good deal sterile." However, other accounts make it clear that at least some settlers quickly recognized the fertility that was to be found underneath the towering prairie grasses. A visitor to the Windsor area in 1701 remarked that "The banks are so many vast meadows… fringed with long and broad avenues of fruit trees which have never felt the careful hand of the watchful gardener; and fruit trees, young and old, droop under the weight and multitude of their fruit, and bend their branches towards the fertile soil which has produced them." (Lajeunesse 1960). Mention is also made of the rich and abundant wildlife, including deer, wild turkey, pheasant, quail, partridge, woodcock, and (on the Detroit side) bison. It was noted that labour-intensive tree clearing would not be necessary as the trees were "so dispersed as not to interfere materially with…the plough" (Fergusson 1834).

Early settlers also found these sparsely treed areas to be easily settled. Catherine Parr Traill (1836) described early Peterborough as it quickly sprawled over the surrounding savanna:

It is situated on a fine elevated plain… The original or Government part of the town is laid out in half-acre lots; the streets, which are now fast filling up, are nearly at right angles with the river, and extend towards the plains to the northeast. These plains form a beautiful natural park, finely diversified with hill and dale, covered with a lovely green sward, enameled with a variety of the most exquisite flowers, and planted, as if by Nature's own hand, with groups of feathery pines, oaks, balsams, poplars, and silver birches. The views from these plains are delightful; whichever way you turn your eyes they are gratified by a diversity of hill and dale, wood and water, with the town spreading over a considerable tract of ground.

Settlement and place names such as the town of Prairie Siding (Kent county), Church of the Paris Plains (Brant county), and Turkey Point Plains (Haldimond-Norfolk region) are small reminders of grasslands long since ploughed under or paved over. Red Cloud pioneer cemetery near Castleton portrays a sad symbolism, as its aging markers stand watch over a small tallgrass remnant, a tiny island portraying bits of both our natural and cultural past, surrounded by cultivated fields.

Native Americans are credited with historic maintenance of tallgrass landscape; deliberate fires improved game habitat and nut and berry production, and made for easier traveling (Pauly 1997). Fires were set frequently enough on the Rice Lake Plains that the Native name for Rice Lake was Pemedashcoutayang, or Lake of the Burning Plains (Bakowsky 1993). Walpole Island, owned by the Council of the Three Fires, arguably contains the finest remaining example of tallgrass communities in Ontario, and speaks to the success of their management approach in conserving this fire-dependent ecosystem. Natives also make direct use of prairie plants for medicinal, food, and other practical uses. Sweet grass, Hierochloe odorata, is a species that occurs in wet prairies on Walpole Island that continues to be used for basket weaving (C. Jacobs, pers. comm.).

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 References Appendix 1

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Page design © 1999 T. A. Dickinson; essay text and illustrations © 1998 Lindsay Rodger except as noted.
Please send your comments to tim.dickinson@utoronto.ca; last updated 7-May-99

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