Our “Forever Protected” series shares why each and every park belongs in Ontario Parks. In today’s post, area ecologist Corina Brdar tells us the story of Holland Landing Prairie.
“The mosquitoes have been extremely problematic these last two days. It is almost impossible to sleep at night, because they are so abundant and so mischievous in every way. [SIC] like during the day.”
Sounds familiar, huh?
This isn’t a comment from a frustrated camper: it’s a 200-year-old journal entry from a Scottish explorer visiting what is now known as the Holland Landing Prairie Nature Reserve.
John Goldie walked (yes, walked!) from Montreal to Lake Erie in the summer of 1819.
Why would he do such a thing?
John Goldie, photo: archive.org
I was collecting plants, of course! At the site now called Holland Landing Prairie, John Goldie was the first European to officially discover and describe a new species of buttercup.
Two centuries later, I sit at my desk on a cold, wet spring afternoon thinking about the same terrain and the same buttercups. My colleagues and I hope the rain stops long enough so we can conduct a prescribed burn to restore habitat for John Goldie’s buttercup and other prairie species.
Let me tell you the history of Holland Landing Prairie from 1819 to today and you will see why this small nature preserve is an important part of our protected area system.
Representative Ecosystems of Holland Landing Prairie
First, let’s go back a few thousand years.
I used to think that southern Ontario was a huge swath of old-growth forest before the Europeans arrived, but I was wrong. Along with the towering American chestnut trees and flocks of passenger pigeons that filled the sky, there were areas of grassland from Windsor to Peterborough.
These grasslands existed thanks to a prolonged period of hot, dry climate after the glaciers left Ontario and were burned by First Nations. Ontario’s prairies were home to specialized plants, birds, reptiles and insects that needed dry, open conditions to survive: plants like the Prairie Buttercup described by Goldie.
What Goldie likely found were patches of prairie while walking north on Yonge Street from York, Toronto, to Holland Landing.
Fast forward to the mid-20th century
Although Holland Landing Prairie is now protected as a nature reserve, its unique ecosystems were not always valued. Land managers saw this open, sandy area as a wasteland in need of trees. So sure enough, they planted a lot of trees right on top of the meadow.
Near Holland Landing there are large areas of delicate sand that should be reforested
In 1976, another famous botanist visited this area and found an open prairie community full of interesting plants, including Prairie Buttercup, among rows of pine and spruce trees.
Before Google Maps and global positioning systems, Dr. Reznicek determined that Holland Landing Prairie is where Goldie first discovered Prairie Buttercup.
Over the past few decades, we have recognized Holland Landing Prairie for what it is: one of the last vestiges of Ontario’s Tallgrass Prairie ecosystems.
It was officially protected as a nature reserve class provincial park in 1994 with the goal of preserving and restoring this endangered ecosystem.
Aerial photographs of Holland Landing Prairie in 1954, 1971, 1988 and 1992.
Today, about 3% of the grasslands that Goldie and other early European explorers would have found are still found here in Ontario.
In fact, this type of ecosystem is disappearing from all the places it was once found around the world. That is why we are now working to restore the remains that remain in many provincial parks.
At Holland Landing Prairie, that means we are slowly and systematically removing trees that encroach on prairie remnants. We began burning sections of the park to help the prairie recover in 2018.
Prairie buttercups have adapted to survive through fire
Representative Species of Holland Landing Prairie
I think the only thing Goldie would recognize today about Holland Landing Prairie are the mosquitoes and interesting plant remains.
Prairie Buttercup was not his only botanical find. Today’s gardeners love the showy orange flowers of butterfly milkweed (tuberous asclepius), but Goldie was the first European plant lover to spot it here.
Other native species, which are also garden favorites, seem to appreciate our restoration efforts.
When we monitored the plants after burning the site in 2018, we found patches of Bee Balm, also known as Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta var. the cutest), and of course plenty of Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).
These plants are indicator species, meaning when a biologist finds them they can deduce a lot about the type of ecosystem they are exploring. In this case, these plants tell us that we are in a grassland ecosystem with dry, warm conditions and fast-draining soils.
Goldie was not an entomologist, but we believe that entomologists and entomolophiles (new word used here first!) can discover specialized species not widely found in the province.
Stay tuned for more “Protected Forever” posts about the incredible natural spaces that make up our network of provincial parks.