“Jim’s favourite achievement was his founding of the Canadian Wildflower Society, later renamed the North American Native Plant Society (NANPS).”
Wildflower Willy’s world: Discovering the plants and flowers of the forest with the founder of Wildflower magazine
By Tim Dyson
Published in The Peterborough Examiner
Thursday, May 7, 2015 6:03:10 EDT AM
Well, it has been bumpy ride, but I do believe that spring has finally arrived.
After that mixed bag of seemingly never-ending winter,,, you remember, that gift that just kept on giving, (well into April?) Here we find ourselves wrapped in the warmth of the appropriate season once again. The time to shed a few layers, pick up the fallen twigs and dog poop from the yard, and think about the gardens. Since I became involved with the propagation of native plants a few years back, gardening has taken on an entirely new meaning to me.
You see, until the spring of 1996, plants, to me, were just something green that came from the ground, and some of them were good to eat. I knew the names of several dozen of them at the time, but much of my focused nature study to that point, had been on “things with wings”. Birds, (especially owls and other raptors), and moths pretty much owned most of my attention.
One June morning in 1996, however, during a walk in a boggy forest near Warsaw where I had previously seen a family of Gray Jays, I stopped to pour out the black and stinky muck that had suddenly collected in my boots. I had just stepped straight into the hole left behind where a large spruce had up-rooted some years before. Having had this experience before, it was of little issue to me, so after squeezing the black water from my socks, I put myself back together and carried on down what appeared to be a very old path.
As I rounded a little bend, I came to an area of small openings where sunlight was reaching the moss-covered floor of the damp forest. I searched to find a dry place to sit down, as suddenly all around me, I saw orchids. Lots and lots of orchids! There were clumps and singles of Large Yellow Ladyslipper, Small Yellow Ladyslipper, and although they were in peak bloom, there were also many Showy Ladyslipper plants too, though very few of them were actually fully open at the time.
I had seen all three of these species before while searching similar habitats for things like nesting Long-eared Owls and Sharp-shinned Hawks,,, but never before, had I ever seen them in such abundance, and in such an enchanting place as this!! I walked slowly out of there that day, (so as not to take a second dip into another root hole), but along the way, I found many more interesting plants, including Round-leaved Sundew, Shinleaf, and others, many of which were entirely new to me at the time. Plants! I had suddenly discovered… PLANTS!
It wasn’t long before I mentioned this walk and the plants that I had seen, to Doug Sadler, (who wrote a weekly column in this very paper for 41 years). Doug told me that if I had an interest in native plants, then I must head on up to Stoney Lake and meet a fellow by the name of Jim French.
Soon afterwards, I found myself on Stoney Lake at Jim’s cottage. His greeting seemed strange to me, as I almost felt like he wanted to say; “How have you been?” when we shook hands. Thats how welcoming he was to this long-haired gangly stranger who had just invaded his lakeside solitude. We’d never met before, however, but he treated me as would a friend, and that was fine by me. I explained to him my new fascination with plants, and how Doug had told me that “Jim was the man to talk to” about the topic.
We walked his one-acre property for quite some time, and Jim, all the while, pointing out this and that saying; “There is Cornus canadensis. This one over here is Veronicastrum virginicum, and next to that, a nice clump of Cimicifuga racemosa.”
On and on he went like this, until I was getting dizzy in my efforts to remember all (any) of these names!! I do not remember, but my guess would be that he pointed out close to seventy or eighty plant species to me that day, on my first tour of his “gardens.”
Almost all of them too, he gave the scientific names for. As he points out to this day, “They are not to be called Latin names, simply because not all names are derived from Latin. Scientific names, is the correct thing to say”. Now, however, nearly twenty years have passed, and I am able to know just about any plant he mentions, (by both scientific and english names), thanks to his lessons.
I would continue to visit Jim, (aka Wildflower Willy, as those closest to him have come to know him by), a few times each summer, but then in the early part of this century, I just didn’t get up that way very often. But, in the winter of 2006, I had the good fortune of moving to live in a cabin just 3kms down his road, and once the winter had melted away, I noticed his car at the cottage on my way by one April afternoon. And so, I popped in to tell him that we were now neighbours. It was a warm and bright day, but the only flowers that were in bloom at the time were some Bloodroots, so we spent our visit just talking about what was new since the last time we had met.
He did mention plans of a large extension of his water feature, however, and asked for some of my thoughts on the idea. Before too long, I was working at his Stoney Lake Native Plant Reserve, extending his existing water feature into a 207-foot-long gurgling stream running through many of his native plant gardens, complete with waterfalls and ponds.
You must first understand just how Jim got started with all of this business of botany and native plants in the first place. In 1981, he bought the cottage on Stoney, and somehow over the next three or four years, became converted to native plants, and away from the various cultivars and alien species typically being sold in nurseries. I believe that early on, some of the (now, well over 30 years old) White Trilliums that were already growing in all their splendor around the place when he bought it, really helped to inspire his interest – they are quite spectacular!
By 1984, he was completely taken by indigenous botany, and so, he wrote a query that he submitted to a newspaper in Markham where his home is. His add asked if there were any others out there with a similar love of the natural flora of this land. As the story goes, he was inundated with response, so much so, that out of it all the Canadian Wildflower Society was soon established.
The following year, they began to produce Wildflower magazine. Over the next several years, the membership grew so widely, that the CWS expanded to become NANPS, (the North American Native Plant Society), and now, Blazing Star is the publication of the membership. “From the Arctic Circle to the Panama Canal,” the society has boasted a membership of more than 3,000 individuals, including Robert Bateman, Farley Mowat, and Dr. Miriam Rothchild. And, on a certain memorable Friday afternoon some years back, Jim was listening to a CBC radio show as he drove up to the cottage, and their guest was Sir David Attenborough. Well, nearly out of time as the phone-in portion of the show was soon coming to an end, he hurried into the cottage once there, and called the show during a commercial break. As it turned out, his call would be the last for the day, and he got to ask Sir David if he would care to be Honorary Patron of the native plant society. As legend has it, he was quite delighted and cheerfully agreed!
All of this, coming from a man who fancied indigenous plants enough to attempt to find out if there were any others out there with a similar passion! Nice piece of work, Wildflower Willy! Just another great example of how a simple idea, if followed, can bring joy and kinship to so many and in this case, simply by running a small add in a newspaper. Would someone else have one day done the same? Perhaps.
But they did not, though Jim certainly did, and I sometimes wonder if he enjoys watching his creation (the society and its vast network) grow, as he does his gardens. Established officially in 1985, the society is celebrating it’s 30 year anniversary this summer. Next year, I will celebrate my 20th year of interest in native plants, and of my friendship with Jim.
Over the past decade or so, I have had the pleasure of working part-time at his “Stoney Lake Native Plant Reserve” (SLNRP) which has not only expanded my own knowledge of botany, but has opened up other related avenues like the propagation of many species of native plants. I never miss an opportunity to try and enlighten people to the beauty, simplicity, and importance of gardening with self-propagated local native plants. I suppose, like with so many other environmantal health concerns, education is key.
A great place to start or continue a botanical education, is at Jim’s native plant reserve on Stoney Lake.
If a veteran of local botanical study were to visit, I’d bet that he or she would not have trouble after just a few hours, identifying at least 300 native species (including trees and shrubs) on Jim’s one-acre property! Although about a week behind this year, the first spring ephemerals are now bursting forth from their winter sleep beneath the leaf littler. In full bloom right now are the Hepaticas, Bloodroot, Dutchman’s Breeches, and the first few trilliums of the season. Soon to follow, will be Trout Lily, Bellwort, Foam Flower and many others. As the spring progresses, the first orchids will show, as well as Wood Lily. Jim has so many species living there now, that from late April, until the extreemly late season Monkshood blooms through October into early November, there is always much to see in terms of flowering native plants.
Starting with the woodland species in spring and early summer, followed later by representatives of the tallgrass prairie and shoreline gardens in summer and autumn. At the SLNPR it seems almost as if there are flowers on the ground whenever there isn’t snow!! Trees, shrubs, vines, ferns, aquatics, grasses, and all manner of flowering plants – it has all been produced here over the past thirty years by Jim’s skilled hands, (out of which, poke his “two green thumbs!”)
He is at the cottage most days between April and December, and always welcomes guests no matter what their knowledge of or background in botany is. You can be as novice as I was nearly twenty years ago, or a seasoned botanist (like I hope to be after another twenty years), it just doesn’t matter – Jim encourages all with any level of interest in native plants to come on out and see what is going on in the various gardens he has so patiently nurtured over the past three decades. He can be reached at: 705-877-2494. Please call to set up a visit.
Naturalist Tim Dyson is one of the area writers filling in for Drew Monkman as he works on a new book project.