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Spring in Rowntree Mills Park

By Jim Graham

Rowntree Mills Park is a great place to go to unwind. It has a long history, but very little of it is visible today. Joseph Rowntree settled in the area in the mid-1800s, where he built two mills, a grist (or flour) mill and a sawmill. His son William Henry Rowntree built a large house at the top of a hill on what is now the northeast corner of Finch and Islington Avenues. This house was torn down in 1959. Remnants of settled history include a small cemetery at Islington and Rowntree Mills Road, and a boarded up house on the east side of Islington north of Finch, which was built by the Devins family in the early 1950s.

The recent social distancing rules that have prevailed in Toronto have reduced park attendance, but on the plus side this is a great time to wander through the park and see plants and animals returning or waking up. I walked through the south half of the park on May 3, and found lots of activity.

Approaching the park along Finch Avenue you can see the effect of the pesticide ban that has been in force for the past decade – lots of dandelions!

This is actually good because it is great value for pollinators – bare grass offers nothing. Dandelions can also be turned into a nutritious addition to salad.

As you move into the park at Finch/Islington you will be greeted by numerous signs of spring – unfortunately the mature vegetation is mostly non-native, although more recently native specimen trees have been planted. One of these is a young Ohio Buckeye, which is a type of chestnut. The flowers are already pushing up, and the bronze colour of the young leaves is striking.

There are some mature Silver Maples in the park, and many young examples of a hybrid between the Silver and Red Maples – the Freeman Maple.

Not far off, near the south parking lot, is a small backwater that connects to the Humber. It doesn’t look like much, but it was packed with frogs whose calls were deafening. This is a good sign – frogs are ‘indicator species’ that disappear quickly when their habitat becomes polluted.

The frogs were not confined to this patch, their song filled the air all the way along the main road through the south half of the park, as it is quite wet on the east side of the road.

There were also lots of toads underfoot.

Even the non-native trees have their good points at this time of year. The Manitoba Maple is far too common, but the flowers on the male trees are attractive as they wave in the breeze that will carry their pollen to the flowers of the female tree.

Another non-native species common to the area is the Norway Maple, planted by the City in their tens of thousands from the 1960s on as a tough street tree. The flowers are quite attractive at this time of year, and they are sources of nectar for early butterflies (The Mourning Cloak overwinters as an adult).

The park was also full of birdsong – Blue Jays, Northern Flickers, Cardinals, the first Redwing Blackbirds to name a few, as well as drumming of woodpeckers and even the rattle of a Kingfisher.

In one brief hour you can connect with nature and enjoy all of these sights and sounds, which is great therapy in these days of lockdown and isolation. When you also think of the large volumes of fresh air, plus gentle exercise and absence of traffic noise, it’s easy to see how visiting the park can become a regular habit.

Some links:

Frogwatch Ontario: www.naturewatch.ca/frogwatch/ontario/
TRCA Humber Watershed page: trca.ca/conservation/watershed-management/humber-river/watershed-features/

About Jim Graham

Jim Graham is a longtime resident of Emery and a more recent convert to working with plants. In the spare time allowed by a career in Molecular Diagnostics, he obtained a Horticulturalist Certificate online from University of Guelph in 2007. Since that time Jim has a self-trained devotee of native plants, and these days works part-time and would normally deliver nature walks on his days off (if not for the current pandemic). He has worked extensively in local schools, and delivered gardening and nature programming in Panorama Community Garden for eight years.

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