Saving the Savannah: High Park’s ‘Elite Invasive Squad’

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volunteer work to help restore toronto’s high park doesn’t stop, even under a blanket of snow

By: Tierney Angus

Feb. 17, 2017

The City of Toronto and a dedicated group of volunteers are working together to restore High Park’s rare black oak savannah habitat.

Stately trees, some over two centuries old, dot a rolling, grassy landscape. Native grasses and rare wildflowers bloom, visited by migratory birds. The woodland is a glimpse into what southern Ontario looked like before cities, towns, and subdivisions cut the land into tidy little parcels. It seems an ancient, primeval world, until the next group of tourists steps off the bus and the spell is broken.

A history of fire suppression, invasive plant species and human traffic all threaten this rare environment, but controlled burns and the reintroduction of native plants are helping to restore the savannah to its natural state.

Jennifer Gibbs, Toronto’s urban forestry manager, has seen a marked improvement in the health of the savannah thanks to controlled burns.  “Many of the fire-dependant species have increased their population levels,” Gibbs wrote. “The blue lupine is one example. Oak trees were in decline and now regeneration levels have increased.”

The flash and burn method works to destroy some non-native species and helps return nutrients to the soil, but it has its limitations. “Unfortunately, we also learned that certain invasive species were encouraged by fire,” wrote Gibbs. “[We] have had to adapt our management to control these species prior to a burn.”

Volunteers also help to tackle these invasive plants. The High Park Stewards’ Elite Invasive Squad members get their hands dirty fighting foreign flora: Weeding, planting, buckthorn-busting, and seed gathering workshops take place year-round. The Stewards hosted an indoor seed-cleaning workshop on Feb. 12, attended by about 40 volunteers, officials say.

Michael Pastor and Brad Taub, arborists, jumped at the chance to spend a snowy Sunday in the greenhouse plucking seeds from dried flowerheads. “Once it gets a little bit warmer we’re going to be going out, planting them, basically just trying to keep the native species here in High Park,” said Pastor. Both volunteers value green spaces in an urban environment, and say more needs to be done to raise awareness of the endangered black oak savannah. “I didn’t know about it until I joined this group,” said Taub.  “It’s a particular problem in High Park because of the way it developed. I think cities in general should be planting more trees, and looking after the trees that they do plant.”

The High Park Stewards meet on the second and fourth Sunday of every month, rain, shine, or snow.

3 thoughts on “Saving the Savannah: High Park’s ‘Elite Invasive Squad’

  1. During the late 1940’s & early 50’s High Park was a forest wonderland for lads of 8-13 We roamed the park looking for the wildest places; for hikes fishing & over- nighters In winter the smaller ponds became our exclusive rinks. Because of WWII parts of the park had become neglected & wild a perfect wilderness for young boys with little of no access to life outside Toronto. I still have pleasant dreams of time spent there. Brian 76

    • That’s great to hear! Grenadier Pond was opened again for skating this year.. the city hasn’t allowed skating on the pond for over fifteen years. Very cool that you were able to camp there as a kid. There’s no way we’d get away with doing that today.
      Do you have any old photos of the park from that time? I understand if you don’t, but if you had a brownie camera and kept the snaps I’d love to see them.

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