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The Nature of PEI

by Gary Schneider

Dutchman’s breachesWe live in a very disturbed landscape. There is no other way to look at it. In most other provinces, it is relatively easy to get away into the wilderness—large tracts of wilderness, raging rivers, mountains to climb. In our pastoral province, we have changed the landscape from an Acadian forest system to one that is dominated by farmlands.

In the coming months, I will take a look at nature in the province with the view of bringing it closer to Islanders. It will include both flora and fauna, how humans have impacted our natural history and the interactions between humans and the environment.

The Mi’kmaq were regular visitors to the province for thousands of years, making use of the resources while generally being light on the land. Fish and shellfish were harvested, plants were collected for food and medicine, birch bark was removed from trees for a variety of purposes. But the fishery remained intact, the plants came back each year, and the trees kept growing.

The European settlers arrived with a different philosophy. They were primarily looking for farmland, and the associated harvesting of huge amounts of fish, forests, and wildlife had a dramatic impact. Gone are the black bears, fishers, martins and many other species of mammals. Many species of native plants have become increasingly rare.

Fortunately, we have remnants of some relatively intact woodlands and other habitats from which we can learn, and we’ve had some great botanists and biologists surveying what is left of our native wildlife. So we know where the last two round-leaf dogwoods can be found, and the extremely rare Braun’s holly fern. We know the habitat needs of pileated woodpeckers and black-throated blue warblers.

It is what you do with that information that especially interests me. I am lucky that I get to spend a lot of time looking for plants that are rare in the province. So I get to see the yellow lady’s slipper, the rattlesnake plantain, the red oak and ironwood, and try to figure out how to propagate each species.

In my work, I have learned to take great pleasure in “small victories,” the title of a Garnet Rogers song that speaks of how important small things are. And it is fitting that it was on the property of the late great Hal Mills of Dunk River fame, where I first fell in love with a lovely plant named Dutchman’s breeches.

A friend and I were on a botanical expedition a few years ago and remembered that Hal had told me about this plant, which I had never actually seen in the wild. It is what’s known as a spring ephemeral—it appears very early, flowers, and then dies back almost completely in the summer. I had seen pictures of the plant in books, but seeing them in the wild was a totally different experience.

Each plant I see is interesting in some way—a beautiful flower, delicate foliage, attractive buds or seeds, even the habitat where it is growing. When I came upon the Dutchman’s breeches along the Dunk, it almost took my breath away. The delicate flowers and the finely cut leaves were different from anything I had seen before. These plants were small but stately, and very beautiful. I’m looking forward to figuring out how to get more of these plants back into our landscape.

Finding these plants was another lesson in how much beauty remains in this province, even though a great many changes have taken place. I’m going to attempt to introduce readers to more of the wonders that still remain, and what we can do to ensure that the plants and animals thrive alongside our human population.

—Gary Schneider is the founder and Supervisor of the Macphail Woods Ecological Forest Project and has a great interest in the natural history of Prince Edward Island.

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