Originally published:? August 14, 1999. Globe & Mail.
There?s a lot more than animals at The Toronto Zoo I discovered recently. The zoo is huge and the Rouge Valley location spectacular. And I was there to look at plants especially those most meaningful to a gardener. My guide was the Manager of Horticulture, John Ambrose, who has been instrumental in linking existing natural habitats in the Rouge Valley to the fragments of forest on the tableland that the zoo rests on. He?s also developing corridors of wildflowers for butterflies (especially the resident species that don?t move all that readily).
It was the butterfly garden that hit me most profoundly. While the kiddies are watching giraffes browse (they love dogwood just in case you have a giraffe), or trying to find the red panda asleep in a tree, you can be watching the action in the nearby butterfly meadow.
This is a brilliant concept. There are several different kinds of meadows, certainly enough variations to inspire any gardener. As you enter, the planting is very domestic and in a border about the size and shape you?d find around any city or suburban home. It?s jammed with plants that attract butterflies. Given the action, they are wonderfully effective. Now, what?s great about these plants is that you should be putting them in once steady fall rains begin.
Then you drift into a wild area filled with asters (Aster spp.), Virgin?s Bower (Clematis virginiana), coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata); and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). At this time of year all decked out in their brilliant colours, they are alive with the sound of buzzing. You?ll also see Queen-Anne?s lace and Echium vulgare. Though they weren?t planted and aren?t native, these two plants will also attract butterflies.
What captured my fancy most was the Larval Food Plant Bed. If you?ve ever wondered where butterflies have their babies, and how they grow, this border demonstrates both amply. They like to lay their eggs on very specific plants, then the new-hatched babes have the right food to start munching on immediately. They can turn a plant into a skeleton pretty quickly. And this is where they stay (as pupa) until they emerge as full blown butterflies.
This island border cut out of the grass may look a bit untamed filled as it is with sunflowers (Helianthus cultivars), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) and native grasses such as big blue stem (Andropogon gerardii), but this is were caterpillars thrive.
There are leaning pile of logs and a rocks for shelter and basking in the sun as well as water (crucial to all insects). Kids would adore it. And would seem easy enough to devote a small chunk of almost any garden to this part of the natural life cycle of such important animals.
We also wandered through what Ambrose calls the goose landscape. Like any open space, the zoo is plagued with Canada Geese so what they?ve been doing is growing goose barriers by interrupting movement between geese?s two favourite places – the open ponds and the grass. It?s also part of an on-going programme of diversifying the landscape. Grasses grow long, plants are allowed to naturalize. Geese hate long grass and they loathe shoving past shrubs. In these areas serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.), birch (Betula papyrifera), dogwood (Cornus sericea), ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and spirea (Spiraea alba) are all vying for positions. Any native plant or shrub would do, just as long as it?s suitable for the growing condition in your area.
The Toronto Zoo, 361A Old Finch Ave., Scarborough, Ont. 416-392-9100.
Mea culpa: in my last column I suggested using mulch to bait all those ?ugly black bugs and squoosh them.? Well, I must have been having a bad earwig day. To explain why here?s a message from Linda Gilkeson, entomologist extraordinaire from Victoria BC: ?Those are ground beetles (big, black, fast, frightening guys) and they eat slug eggs, grubs, root maggot larvae, etc. A mulch is the very best way to encourage these long-lived, territorial beetles to colonize your garden?.To an entomologist with a particular soft spot for the predator insects, it is heartbreaking.? Mea maxima culpa. I weep for all the squished black beetles and promise not to do this again.