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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Tree Tuesday: Forest flowers of Mount Royal

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I was delighted to see KC Bolton’s beautiful photo of the magnolia blossoms against red bricks. Clearly, I wasn’t the only one. Twenty-four commenters voiced their opinion on the identity of the flowering tree. It’s hard to be indifferent to flowers at this time of year. Even those who don’t look down into gardens and sidewalk cracks can’t escape the seduction of the apple, cherry, plum, pear  and serviceberry blossoms that are now in full force. All members of the rose family, I should add, a family that includes almost most of Quebec’s native fruit — including strawberries, blackberries and raspberries — except the blueberries, currants and cranberries. Members of the rose family have five petals, like this serviceberry:serviceberry-spring-sm

Serviceberries, which grow wild in our local forest, are also commonly planted as ornamental trees. Not only is their flower and bark stunning, the berry — at least of some of the numerous species of serviceberry — can be quite delicious.

We’ll see service berries on the tree walk I am giving this Saturday. It’s but one of the subtle flowers that characterize the sugar maple forest in spring. This is the time of year when plants with such evocative names as bloodroot, trout lily, early morning rue, Jack-in-the-pulpit (below), and blue cohosh get to fly their flags — and only for a period of six weeks, during that brief window between the moment when the ground thaws and the tree canopy closes off the sunlight to most of the forest floor.


Given the diversity — and the bizarly divergent architecture — of these plants, it’s highly entertaining to get to know them and their life cycles. Some spring ephemerals, like the trout lily pictured last week, go through the full cycle of leafing, flowering and producing their seed, before disappearing completely back into their roots, all before the canopy closes. Others, like the trillium, flower in the spring while there’s light, then take their time to produce a single, large fruit that matures over the summer and drops to the ground in the fall. Ants then carry them to their hills and, collectively, devour the starch surrounding the seeds, leaving the latter to germinate in their tunnels. As ants don’t travel far, trillium colonies are concentrated, as we will see on Saturday.


Then there’s the large-flowered bellwort whose mournful yellow flower appears to pierce its leaf with its stem; later, the single triangular fruit will sit on the leaf, another offering to the ants.

What’s impressive about the understory plants of the sugar maple forest is how they’ve adapted to conditions of low light. Their leaves, for instance, are arranged for maximum exposure to the sun and minimal shading of each other. I’m also impressed by the number of species of spring ephemerals on Mount Royal. Given the number of people who use the park and the relatively little education we all get on the fragility of the forest floor, it’s quite miraculous to find, for instance, the two-leaved toothwort, pictured at the top.

I learned my Monteregian botany on Mont St-Hilaire in a fabulous two-week, on-site course given by McGill University and open to everyone. That mountain is far from a big city and tightly monitored so there is less off-path exploring than on Mount Royal and there’s greater biodiversity. However, Mont St-Hilaire is plagued with an overpopulation of deer who like nothing better than to have tender leaves of trillium in their daily salad. Take off its leaves, and the trillium regresses for seven years, meaning no flowers.

Given that humans are more reasonable than deer, let’s count our blessings — and our trilliums!

Saturday’s Spring Flower Walk:

OÙ: le monument Georges-Etienne Cartier

QUAND: 10h30 le samedi 16 mai, 2009 (durée: 2.5 heures)

TARIFF: $12, ou $30 pour trois visites guidées pendant 2009


APPORTER: de quoi à boire et à manger, un crayon



  1. Merci Bronwyn. Je n’ai encore jamais rencontré le Carcajou (two-leaved toothwort)sur le Mt-Royal. je suis bien heureux de savoir qu’il y en a encore !
    Je sais qu’autrefois les anciens l’appelaient Corson , mot qui ressemble à cresson.

    L’autre jour sur le summit circle j’ai remarqué de grosses touffes de Sceau de Salomon. C’est toujours une joie d’apercevoir une plante que l’on croyait avoir disparu de la montagne et qui nous surprend dans un détour !

  2. The photos are beautiful and the descriptions add to the interest that they elicit. Those lucky enough to take the walk will be amply rewarded.

  3. When I was 17, I lived and worked onsite in a bird sanctuary/wildlife refuge for two months, from early through mid-spring, as a school project. One of the unexpected benefits of being out in the woods and fields on a daily basis was the intimate look at the emerging green, from the ground up, with many things appearing that were really only visible during that brief period, for the reasons you’ve outlined. The walk tomorrow will be evocative of that experience.

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