The main focus of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project is to teach people about the beauty and values of native plants and how these plants fit into restoration of forests. Just to the east of the Sir Andrew Macphail Homestead, you’ll see our native tree and shrub nursery. While we do sell plants from the nursery, it is equally important as an educational tool for teaching tree and shrub identification and the concepts of forest restoration.
The native plant garden, which was situated under the old apple orchard and started in 1992, has grown into a much larger Native Plant Nursery to showcase and sell trees and shrubs that have a variety of uses (restoration plantings, seed sources and wildlife habitat) and settings (backyards, windbreaks, stream banks and forests). Due to extensive agricultural clearing over the past two hundred years, most Island forests are lacking in diversity. Trees are generally young and often have grown up on abandoned farmland. Many woodland plants are quite rare, and so we are learning how to bring back these plants.
When walking around the Homestead, it is interesting to think about diversity. How many different types of plants can you see? Are there a variety of ages of trees, from tiny seedlings to towering giants, and dead trees as well? Can you find or see signs of a mix of wildlife species? Diverse ecosystems tend to be healthier than simplified systems and offer a wider range of benefits, from providing habitat for wildlife to protecting groundwater.
Some of the plants you’ll see in these display beds are quite common in the province. The wild roses, willows, bayberry and red-berried elder grow well in full sun and can be found in many places, yet are rarely used in landscaping. The less common beaked hazelnut, witch hazel, highbush cranberry, alternate-leaf dogwood and sweet fern are equally attractive and can be used in many types of plantings. An assortment of shrubs provides an endless succession of leaves, flowers, seeds, buds, colours and shapes – visual reminders of the complexity of natural systems.
We hope visitors will appreciate the beauty of these shrubs and the native ferns and wildflowers that also grow in the beds. By using native plants, you can help provide seed sources for many species that are no longer present over much of the Island.
We began the original native plant garden in 1992, highlighting some species that were important to wildlife and could be used to enhance habitat around homes.
Then in 2003, we received a generous donation to help establish an arboretum on the site that would be used for teaching purposes. We further cleared a small area of White Spruce near the original nursery, with only one large White Birch and a few smaller European Mountain Ash remaining. We stumped the area and started planting a broad mix of native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and ferns. The results have been spectacular.
The Arboretum has continued to expand over the years with more to come. It now showcases most of the our native trees and shrubs as well as a large selection of ferns, wildflowers and wildlife.The Red Oak that we planted in 2003 as 3’ whips are now over 48’ tall. The clump plantings of 2’ Eastern White Cedar have become a gorgeous mass of green that is 24’ high and almost as wide. Even the Ironwood, a rare Island tree that struggled to start with, has done exceptionally well and is now nearly 35’ tall.
When we began in 2003, the area was protected and sunny, allowing us to plant a wide variety of native species that included Chokecherry, Red Osier Dogwood, Willow, Wild Rose, Bayberry and Spirea. But as the trees grew tall, the area soon changed into a shaded ecosystem. That meant those sun-loving plants started to struggle as their needs weren’t being met. And, of course, each year they became more scraggly and produced less fruit. We wanted to show off healthy native plants, but that only happens if conditions are to their liking
The newest section of the Macphail Woods Arboretum has really started to take shape. In 2014, we successfully applied to Environment Canada’s EcoAction Community Funding Program for support to create a new arboretum that would be a showcase of plants that could thrive in sunnier conditions. It is a three-year project, and will probably take another ten years until the area reaches its true potential. We were fortunate to also receive support in 2015 from TD Bank’s Friends of the Environment Foundation to help with our plantings.
Under the direction of Becky Byrne, we have been working to create a series of planting beds and pathways to house these plants, including large Witch Hazels at the entryways, larger trees to frame the North and Eastern boundaries, and a variety of shrubs, ferns and wildflowers throughout. These include some rarities such as Yellow Violet, Yellow Coneflower and Male Fern, as well as more common species such as Sweet Gale, Common Elder and Cinnamon Fern.
We’ve also created some new beds and plantings in the partially shaded area between the older arboretum and the newest expansion. And we are adding a wet area to the new arboretum as well, where we can showcase of the many plants that thrive in those conditions.
As mentioned above, this is a long-term project that will continue to improve every year. We will keep searching out seed sources for rare native plants from across the province and propagate them in our nursery. We’ll add new species to the Arboretum each year.
The Macphail Woods Arboretum is already an important part of our educational work. We use these areas for our many bird and plant identification walks, for touring visitors and school groups, and especially as part of our summer nature program. It is so much easier to teach about native shrubs and their importance to wildlife when you can have large specimens of Hawthorn, Serviceberry and Chokecherry right in front of you. We see a time when people will be visiting the Homestead specifically for the Arboretum, a place to learn about native plants and enjoy a relaxing outdoor experience.
As the plants mature, they will become food sources and provide nesting sites for a variety of birds and small mammals. As well, we will be able to collect seed from both rare and common species as part of our work to increase the number of rare native plants.
As with all of our activities, we could not have gotten this far without a great deal of support from the community. Children from our Sharing a Love of Nature summer camps and students from Queen Charlotte Intermediary School have been a great help, planting everything from our native Swamp Milkweed to the large Witch Hazels. We also held a volunteer planting day in 2014 and 15 people came out to help with our work.
It will be great fun to watch the Arboretum grow and meets its full potential. Our hope is that this lovely area will help us all develop a greater appreciation for native Island plants. We will be looking for volunteers to help out at the Macphail Woods Arboretum, so please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in lending a hand.