Tuesday, 6 May 2014

"Reading" the Woods

This past weekend I thought that, after this long and cold spring, it might finally be time to go foraging for one of spring's first treats, ramps, or wild leeks. While making my way to see if they were ready yet it occurred to me that, while I knew exactly where to find them, why would they be in that exact spot? I've always thought that a walk in the woods can be a wonderful way to allow one's thoughts the freedom to roam or to have a rambling chat with a friend. But I saw that, rather like the quiet joys of a book, walking in the forest can also be an opportunity to read, to clearly see what the landscape reveals.

I left the house walking along the hedgerow through our hay field. Clearly there would be no ramps here - too exposed and sunny and the grass wouldn't allow for the shallow roots of ramps.
Crossing the hay field by the hedgerow

As I got closer to the woods there was a pussy willow, its feet submerged in water. This site is too wet, perfect for a thirsty willow but not enough drainage for ramps.
The pussy willow in full bloom

The woods as I enter them are predominantly balsam fir and hemlock with some white ash. The character of a forest is determined by the interaction of climate, soils, land form and disturbance. While one can make broad sweeping generalizations of forest regions in Ontario it is also possible to make incredibly small detailed distinctions within those areas.
The woods here are predominantly Balsam Fir and Hemlock
I had to confirm with my non-resident silviculturist, Alex Hume, that this is in fact Hemlock

Our area is on the cusp of the Canadian Shield. In the south the land has fertile, relatively deep soils from shales and limestone, tending to be base and with good tilth. To the north the soil is less fertile, shallower and from Pre Cambrian, more acid granite and gneisses. The surface of the land has been shaped by moving continental ice sheets or covered by river and glaciofluvial (rivers and streams) and lacustrine (lake) deposits. Glacial overburden tends to be deficient in lime. Because glacial overburden was moved, deposited and reworked by ice and water, the character of classification (lithology) of the soil can be quite different from the underlying bedrock.

When there is a hemlock dominated woods the site can accumulate raw humus which does not break down well and form hardpan deposits which are not suitable for hardwoods. The soils in these woods also tend to be more acid. Ferns and moss are interspersed on the forest floor. I found a beautiful patch of white trillium which you would expect to see in more of a hardwoods forest but they are somewhat relaxed in their site requirements tolerating dappled shade to a more open site at the edge of woods. There are also enough deciduous trees to form enough humus for their needs.
Ferns dot the forest floor
A healthy stand of white trillium poised to burst into bloom

As I continue along the path there are more white and yellow birches interspersed among the conifers.
White and Yellow Birch make an appearance

And then I come across the first clump of ramps. Almost like a sign post pointing the way. Now the area is no longer flat and there are small hills and valleys punctuated with rock outcroppings.  Local climate is affected by aspect and slope (which direction it is facing). Ramps tend to like south or west facing slopes in a hardwood forest. The hardwoods allow for dappled sunlight at this time of the year  before they have leafed out. There are sugar maples, red oak and basswood with an understory of shrubs. The slope guarantees good drainage and the hardwoods produce a rich humus soil.
The first sign of ramps, a modest clump
The mixed hardwood forest with its more undulating topography

Ramps enjoy nestling up against fallen logs and on rocks slightly below the surface of the soil. They from dense clumps. Like trilliums they can take five to seven years to mature so it is important to take just a few from each clump.
The farther into the woods the more plentiful the ramps
This clump is wedged between the decaying fallen log and on top of a rock amidst  fallen leaves
Ramps, like so many of the other early spring greens, act as a spring tonic, delivering a high nutritional content, especially Vitamins A, C and E and trace elements selenium, manganese and chromium.
Ramps (wild leeks) cleaned and trimmed
A seasonal treat - ramp pesto

The same conditions that ramps enjoy are perfect for many of the spring ephemerals. An interesting fact about some of the spring ephemerals, notably trilliums and dutchman's breeches, is that their seeds are spread by ants, called myrmecochory.
Dutchman's Breeches, a wild relative of Bleeding Heart in the dicentra family
The relatively rare red Trillium - I saw more of these in one spot than ever before 
Blue Cohosh
A healthy patch of Bloodroot (Sanguinaria)
A thalictrum or meadow rue

And something else I can't identify - a fire engine red fungus

While I was initially tempted to take some wildflowers home, on reflection, I realized that the magic is in coming upon them in their natural habitat, keeping the "wild" in wildflowers.


1 comment:

  1. The wildflower that looks like columbine is some species of Thalictrum, perhaps early meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum). Here is a link: http://nativeplants.evergreen.ca/search/search-results.php?query=%20AND%20genus%20LIKE%20%27%24thalictrum%24%27%20:0
    And the little shrub in the photo with the caption "the farther into the woods the more plentiful the ramps" is a leatherleaf, Dirca sp. This is an unusual shrub with a small range that is an indicator of rich woods.
    Love the post!!!!!!