Native Plant Propagation Prospering

Native Plant Propagation Prospering

by Gary Schneider

One of the great pleasures that comes from my association with the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project is to see the dramatic increase in interest around native plants. W hen the project first started in 1991, there was little talk about native plant landscaping and m ost forest plantations contained just one or two species of coniferous trees. There was even less interest in propagating native plants.

That has changed, starting slowly but gradually building up momentum. Our work across the Island with private landowners, schools, the provincial government, federal and municipal parks, and community centres has brought well-deserved attention to native plants. The message has evolved as well, changing from using native plants to improve biodiversity and rebuild fragile populations of rare plants to promoting their beauty and hardiness.

The Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre (ACCDC) in Sackville has been a great asset for determining what is a native plant and its rarity. They have a ranking system for plants found in each individual province (S1 to S5). Some of the species which we grow, such as white spruce, wild raisin, and red osier dogwood, have a ranking of S5 – “widespread, abundant, and secure under present conditions”. Though common, these are still very useful plants and can be planted in a wide variety of sites.

The most exciting part of the nursery work is growing rarer plants. I cannot describe the pleasure that ensues from collecting seed from rare plants such as ironwood or witch hazel that you’ve grown from seed.

T he ACCDC rankings for rare plants are:

  • S1- Extremely rare: May be especially vulnerable to extirpation (typically 5 or fewer occurrences or very few remaining individuals)
  • S2 – Rare: May be vulnerable to extirpation due to rarity or other factors (6 to 20 occurrences or few remaining individuals).

Over the past few years we have made great progress in increasing our numbers and varieties of rarer Island plants that can be used in a variety of landscape and restoration projects. W e have been growing beautiful witch hazel, one of our rarest native shrubs and listed as an S1, for years as a specimen plant that is a lovely addition for almost any relatively protected area. That could be in a woodland setting, or around a home. In September and October, the leaves turn yellow and fall, revealing bright yellow flowers. The flowers look like those of the forsythia shrubs commonly planted around Island homes, yet appear at the opposite end of the growing season.

Witch hazel is very useful as a medicinal. The twigs and bark are used to produce oil of witch hazel, while the roots are used to produce a tincture that is also known for its healing powers. Also, witch hazel is the shrub of choice for making the divining rods used in water-witching.

Hobblebush is one of our showiest plants throughout the year, although these shrubs are so rare that few Islanders have had the chance to see them. Growing to a height of 6 ft. (2 m), hobblebush has opposite, velvety buds that develop into large, heart-shaped leaves which turn bronze in the fall. The flowers form large, flat clusters and are very white. The berries turn a very attractive cranberry red in late August and finally purple-black when fully ripe.

The plant gets its name because if the tips bend down and touch the ground, roots can form and the shrub can literally “hobble” you as you walk through the woods. Hobblebush produces heavy crops of berries, which are used by ruffed grouse, pine grosbeak, Swainson’s thrush and other birds. Although it is not listed as a preferred food by most wildlife manuals, for several years now the heavy seed crops have vanished quite quickly, so they obviously are favoured by some birds. Hobblebush is a premier landscape plant if you have any shade at all around your home, especially given its attractiveness throughout the year. It works best in a naturalized situation, perhaps in a wild area under larger trees. We use this shrub in many of our woodland plantings, not only for its beauty but for its heavy seed crops for wildlife and the diversity it provides.

Some of the other rare plants we are growing at the nursery include:

• Virgin’s bower (S2S3) – this delicate, white-flowered clematis is one of our few native vines

• Yellow violet (S2) – a lovely, tall branched violet, with yellow flowers

• Cut-leaved coneflower (S2) – our native rudbeckia, related to the brown-eyed susan but with yellow petals and a green centre

• Ironwood (S1) – also known as hop hornbeam, with exceedingly hard wood

• Bog birch (S2) – a short birch that has great landscaping potential

• Roundleaf dogwood (S1) – a tall shrub that has the beautiful foliage we associate with all dogwoods

• Hairy sweet-cicely (S2) – a plant noted for its interesting foliage

This year we have also collected seed from zigzag goldenrod (S2S3) and black ash (S2), and will also be trying to propagate some of our rarer ferns over the winter. As always, we will keep you up-to-date on how the plants are doing, and you can always get more information from our web site ( We are also looking for more seed sources for the following plants: showy mountain ash, partridgeberry, black ash and ironwood. If you are interested in helping out at the nursery or would like to assist with seed collecting, please contact m e at or call 651-2575.