The Sandhills of Eastern Ontario

The Sandhills (Sand Hills) of Eastern Ontario, located in Constance Bay , along the Ottawa River just to the West of the urban Ottawa area, are remnants of sand dunes left by the glacier-Champlain Sea-river dune building processes.  There were many of these sandy areas in this region. Since they are a developers’ dream, most (90% or more are gone) have been lost to subdivisions and parking lots. They are very reminiscent of the dunes in eastern Nova Scotia (still mainly intact!) and south east Florida, most of which are also now lost to development. The Constance Bay hills are a large area that was mistakenly forested by the provincial forestry department back in the post World War 2 period. Researchers have since identified this ecosystem as threatened and containing a large list of rare endemic species, both flora and fauna.

On Sunday September 14th, 2014, Art Goldsmith led a group of enthusiasts through some of the trails in the Torbolton Forests (ironic official name of the protected part of the Sandhills). Although quite cool and cloudy, the group learned about the ecological history, some of the less common and rarer plants, and visited the 1 hectare clearing where the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources established a Savannah Restoration in the late 1980’s. You can read Paul Catling’s (with B. Kostiuk) excellent review of this restoration project here:

Before setting out on the Sunday, Owen, Hank and I explored the trails in preparation.  We could imagine the Champlain Sea, filled with familiar marine creatures, now no closer than Riviere Du Loup Quebec, over the sandy bottom. We could also imagine the glacier meltwater crashing by us, several thousand years earlier, depositing the fine grained white sand, which had been blasted and ground from constituent rock by the massive glaciers. And also the Sea receded, the much larger “proto” Ottawa River and winds shaping the sand, forming the present day hills.

White Baneberry fruit, or Dolls’ Eyes, the latter name due to the look of the fruit, 

Actaea pachypoda

This photo was taken at Gillies Grove. The plant is found in rich woods throughout our area, including the Sand Hills.  The Sand Hills were not historically rich woods, but rather a sandy, poor nutrient Savannah habitat, which means scattered trees dominated by ground vegetation, primarily grasses and sedges. Some of the rarest endemic plants here are Sedges.

This Goldenrod, a familiar group of plants to all of us, is a common one. The Sand Hills support one rarer species. We believed that the above plant could be one of these, Stout Goldenrod, Solidago squarrosa.

It isn’t. It is Gray Goldenrod, S.nemoralis

It is a much more common, late blooming Goldenrod:

 Local people may review the entire list and the ecological history of these sand hills. David White produced one comprehensive publication on behalf of thwoe City of Ottawa (managers of the Torbolton Forest, the irony of this name may be apparent after reading about the history of the hills!):

My partner surveyor,  Owen, took the two photos below of another Goldenrod. That is Owen’s hand and my feet.  This plant looked much more like the uncommon Stout Goldenrod.  It isn’t!

Two strikes.  We decided to survey again next summer. Something to look forward to.

The Goldenrod in the photos below is another common one, Hairy (it sure is!) Goldenrod, Solidago hispida

Greg reminded me that the genus Solidago is often very difficult to identify to the species level.  There are two reasons for this. One:  individuals may vary greatly due to damage or to poor growing conditions. Two: species often hybridize, resulting in mixed characteristics.  Botanists have listed several hybrids in Ontario and conclude that many more are likely.


In late December, in support of the local Biothon, Owen returned to the Sandhills. Close to the Community Centre, he found a shrub I usually overlook. I am adding it here as a reminder to find it in the Spring when leaves are out.  its bud are similar to Sugar Maple, making this identification that much more difficult in Winter:

Owen’s hand and Gray Dogwood, Cornus racemosa

The photos above and below are a reminder to readers to mind their fungi. As previously discussed, this biologist doesn’t eat wild mushrooms.  I have been with several very highly skilled mycologists this year, who also do not ever eat wild mushrooms.  Even some common edibles, like giant puffballs, may cause gastric distress in some people (like ME!).  Identification is often difficult. Experts will not identify a mushroom from photos.  There are far too many mushrooms which look similar to each other and mushrooms change greatly in appearance with geography, climate and age.  Be cautious.

I could not identify the mushroom above, however Greg Lutick, who took a similar photo of this same mushroom, with the same slug at the base, identified this as Boletus edulis.  

The mushroom below is Galerina autumnalis, otherwise known as Deadly Galerina.  This common, small,  unassuming mushroom grows in clusters on decaying wood, though in this case, and often, the wood is on the ground , and so decayed that it is hidden by mosses and compost.  The toxin in Galerina autumnalis is the same as the toxins contained in the deadly Amanita species (Destroying Angels). Even a small amount may prove deadly.

We made a special trip to view and photograph this lovely shrub above.  it is one of the many Viburnums that populate our woodlands: Wild Raisin, Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides (Viburnum cassinoides). Found through out the eastern part of our continent, this shrub becomes more common as one goes from south to north. We use one of this plants close relatives, Highbush Cranberry, Viburnum trilobum, for local landscaping.  I am hoping to find this one too, for planting in my new garden in the spring (attracts birds, butterflies).

This lovely woodland flower above is in fruit (mid-September). It is one of our yellow woodland lilies, Indian Cucumber Root, Medeola virginiana. The whorled leaves are very distinctive as is the blue-black triple fruit. Note the “pine-like” stems at the top of the photo.  This is one of the Lycopodium, or Ground Pine. It is more closely related to the ferns, as it reproduces via spores. it is in one of the broad grouping of plants called the “fern allies”.


The Three Botanists: Owen Clarkin, Greg Lutick, and Ken Spicer. What do you think about a movie about these three in the style of The Three Amigos?



Photo above of the whole intrepid group, the author, in the front, a thorn between roses.

We enjoyed lunch at the clearing created by the Ministry of Natural Resources to re-establish native Savanna species in the Sandhills. This is the clearing referenced in the article above (Catling, Kostiuk).


Hank Jones accompanied us with his two delightful granddaughters, Amber and Alyssa. They are showing us the trail origin and the array of wildflowers still available for creating lovely bouquets in September.




The kids will end this, with their enthusiasm and our hope for the future.  We will see you next time.