Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zoo Tour with the "Plant Guy"

Ray Metcalf, "Plant Guy"
When I was ten years old I participated in the Ontario Forestry Association's annual "TreeBee" (which I swear was held that year in the auditorium of my future high school, UTS, but I cannot confirm that anywhere). I remember studying hard to learn how to recognize many different species of trees and plants on sight in preparation for the visual portion of the contest, a fast-paced slide show on the main screen. I could tell an elm from an ash from a maple from an oak just by seeing a picture of a leaf for a few seconds. Our school didn't win any prizes but we held our own and I spent the next several trips to wooded areas naming every tree I passed out loud for everyone to hear. Somewhere along the way, though, the enthusiasm waned, the information was locked away and I was no longer able to replicate those great feats of my preteen years. Yesterday I participated in a walking tour as part of my Volunteer training that jerked me right back to early 1972 (my TreeBee era)—a guided tour of the Zoo's plant life (such as would be offered to a Grade Three class) hosted by Ray Metcalfe.

Black cherry tree, with a bark
"like burnt Corn Flakes"
It was a bright and sunny—but very cold (for Toronto)—day yesterday but you wouldn't have known it by looking at Ray (pictured at the top of this page). He has stubbornly refused to dress "appropriately" for the weather ever since he arrived here from somewhere in the southern US about forty years ago, choosing instead to "adapt" to the climate. He never wears a coat even on the most blustery or bitingly-cold of days and his only nod to the plummeting temperatures of the past week was to toss on a scarf. Despite this proclivity, however, he did have empathy for the many in his "class" who did not share his enthusiasm for cold weather (not me, though, as I love this time of year) and began his talk in the warmth of a classroom in the Volunteer Centre. He described the ecosystem of the Rouge Valley as "Carolinian forest" and told us that about 90% of Canada's Carolinian forests have disappeared due to such factors as habitat destruction for farming and the building of towns and cities. He spoke of how willow trees "communicate" with each other: when one tree is under attack from, for example, an army of caterpillars it will produce an overabundance of salicin (used in the production of aspirin) to cause its bark and leaves to become too bitter to eat; this salicin gets into the air and is sensed by the other willow trees nearby who will then produce extra salicin of their own to prevent an attack before it happens. And then it was time to brave the wind and cold and begin our actual tour.

"Blue-beech" ironwood
I took a great many pictures on the tour and recorded the subject matter in my notes, so I might refer back to it when it becomes my own turn to lead some Grade Threes around. I'm only going to skim the surface here, though; for one thing, I cannot possibly do justice to the vitality that Ray brings to his presentations. After we left the warm Volunteer Centre, Ray took us past a sycamore and paused in front of two different types of ironwood trees: the hophornbeam (thick and sturdy) and the blue-beech (pictured here, much skinnier in the trunk). I wonder if I will ever be able to recognize an ironwood in the wild without damaging it; one very distinguishing feature is that the bark peels off in the shape of a capital "I". The blue-beech (which is not a beech at all) was used to fashion small, sturdy implements such as axe handles while the much thicker trunk of the hophornbeam was turned into sleigh runners and the like. This seems to be one of Ray's favourite stops on any tour of his (I've been on a couple); I imagine it's because these two very different types of ironwood are growing right next to each other and it's very easy to compare and contrast them. His other favourite stop along this pathway is in front of the smoking area just a little distance from these ironwoods; there you will find a pair of white pine trees—one living, one dead—which affords Ray the perfect opportunity to launch into a story about the founding of Bytown (now Ottawa) which is very lively but far too long to go into here. It involves the Napoleonic wars and Britain having to travel to Canada to find white pines to use for the masts of their sailing ships; it's quite easily researched on the interwebs but, having heard Ray tell the story more than once, I can assure you it's much more interesting to follow along in person standing in front of one of these beautiful trees. (White pines, by the way, are recognizable from their needle structure: they come in bundles of five, unique to their species of tree.)

Staghorn sumac
In this same area we were shown a beech tree (smooth bark), an ash and a black cherry (second picture on this posting) and told about the four stages of a tree's life cycle, as Ray put them: sapling, living, dead but standing (and still providing shelter), and fallen and rotting. We stopped at the First Nations Art Garden where Ray spoke for a couple of minutes about the staghorn sumac (pictured here). We learned of a drink that can be made from the berries of the sumac (nicknamed "Sumac-ade"). In this same area we visited a cedar, one of the "four sacred medicines" of the aboriginal peoples of Canada (the others being sage, sweetgrass and tobacco). From there we entered the Americas pavilion and spent some time—but not too much—observing the indoor plant life of the Zoo. We learned about bromeliads—in particular, epyphitic bromeliads which attach themselves to trees and rocks via their wiry roots, requiring no soil whatsoever to survive. We discussed plants from the Americas and also those in the upcoming pavilions, such as the screw pine, mostly taking the opportunity to warm up a little before attacking the long hill up to the African Rainforest pavilion. Soon enough we were back outside and moving on to other biomes at the Zoo.

Northern catalpa or "cigar tree"

Climbing the hill we passed the overgrown remnants of an old farmer's road that I had never noticed before. We saw a white oak with the clear signs of an old lightning strike down one side of its trunk. We paused at a tree which was nearly covered in burls, where Ray described them as kind of a tree "cancer" in the way they replicate cells, but unlike cancer in the fact that they virtually never cause the tree any real harm. These burls are often coveted by woodworkers who love to turn them into objets d'art; on the trees themselves they are quite unseemly, for the most part. Just at the top of the hill we came upon a northern catalpa or "cigar tree", notable for (and recognizable by) its tendril-like seed pods which often remain attached to the tree throughout the winter months and give the plant its nickname. From there we headed inside the African Rainforest pavilion to learn about plants native to that part of the world.

White Bird of Paradise (you need to look
rather closely at the middle of this)
We discussed various different types of fig trees, such as the fiddle leaf fig growing in the gorilla enclosure. The primates like to climb this and break it so there is now a wire wrapped around its trunk with a mild electrical current that has only been partially successful in discouraging the gorillas—Ngozi in particular—from causing damage. Ray told us, too, that each specific species of fig tree is so unique that they are each pollinated by one specific species of wasp which, if it was ever wiped out, it would spell the end of the line for the fig tree in question. We passed by a beautiful White Bird of Paradise plant (pictured here) which grows on the floor of the rainforest. The Nile soft-shell turtle shares its enclosure with a couple of papyrus plants, which the ancients used to make non-acidic "paper" (much of which has lasted far longer than its latter-day chemical-based cousin). We left the pavilion and headed back down the boardwalk to the orchid and pitcher plant display (at the Conservation Connection Centre building). Ray told us that orchids only provide one useful product to Man: vanilla; the pitcher plants—Newfoundland's official provincial flower—in the same display are always fascinating to me. They grow where soil is poor so they need to get their nutrients to power the photosynthesis process by "eating" insects that fall into the deep, leafy cavities that give the plant its name. Acid contained therein "digests" the hapless creatures and creates energy for the plant's life cycle. The pitchers themselves are protected from rainfall by large leaves which grow above them; each pitcher has tiny hairs within it pointing downward which traps the prey within—all, that is, save for a species of insect that has evolved to be able to enter a pitcher, scavenge what the plant cannot use and make its way back out again. Great stuff, but especially if you're in Grade Three!

Chenille plant
Then it was off to our last pavilion of the day, Indo-Malaya. As this is a particular favourite of tour guides (due to its proximity to the main gate and the Education Centre), Ray went into very extensive detail in this building. A plant that nearly every tour I've been on so far has stopped at and discussed is the screwpine. Not a pine tree at all, it's also sometimes called the pandanus palm—but it's also not a palm tree. The leaves (and lower trunk) of this plant grow in a spiral, with a thick, waxy coating to protect them from the heavy precipitation of the rainforest. Students on tours are encouraged to touch these leaves, after being given some pretty specific instructions: always run your hand down the leaf towards the trunk and never up. Each leaf has myriad little spikes on each side and along the middle of the underside; these are made out of silica and are incredibly sharp—and they will cut your hand if you handle them incorrectly (and roughly). The screwpine is quite recognizable and located not far from the entrance to the pavilion. As we moved about the rest of the interior, we viewed rubber plants (not "trees"), banana trees, fan palms, assorted figs (such as the ficus), starfruit trees, and the very beautiful Chenille plant, named in the same way the fabric was named (chenille is French for "caterpillar"). We also were shown a rare cycad plant, growing off the "beaten path" and close to the floor. Cycads as a species date back over 280 million years; some current-day cycads individually may live to be over one thousand years old. Those are awe-inspiring numbers, in my opinion. Ray also talked about a specific type of fig tree, the banyan, which looks like a grove of individual trees as it grows but is all one organism, reproducing "clonically" from the same root system. He then went on to talk about a "grove" of aspen trees in Utah (nicknamed "Pando", Latin for "to spread") which comprises a breathtaking 47,000+ individual trunks over more than 106 acres, making it likely the "largest living thing on Earth".

Close-up of a gingko leaf
We left the Indo-Malaya pavilion and headed back to the Volunteer Centre and the terminus of our tour, where I took a moment to organize my copious notes (I cannot believe how much there still is to learn!) before I ate lunch with a staff member in order to pick her brain about next week's presentation. On this final short trip, we paused briefly to observe a few more trees which are indigenous to the Core Woods of the Zoo. Well, "indigenous" isn't the right word to use there: Ray pointed out that all the trees of our Canadian forests are "introduced" or "re-introduced" species as there were no trees growing here after the glaciers receded. I don't know how long an epoch has to last before a species can once again be called "indigenous", but I didn't ask this question of Ray. In any event, we saw a gingko tree (this picture is a close-up of a gingko leaf; the first picture on this posting is of Ray similarly holding a gingko leaf for us to see), a thorny underbrush called Hercules' club which has been the bane of ultra-curious young children and their parents for years at the Zoo, a tamarack (or American larch), and some hemlocks (a type of fir which can live to be over seven hundred years old). Ray told us of his method for distinguishing a spruce from a fir: "s"pruces have "s"aggy cones (they grow down) and "s"quare needles; "f"irs have cones that grow like "f"ingers and "f"lat needles. Upon close observation, I can highly recommend this method, should the need arise for you to tell the difference between them. Say, for example, you find yourself leading a tour of Grade Three students through the Toronto Zoo.

Or maybe that's just me?


  1. It is too bad that the plants at the zoo get short shrift compared to the animals. This was a very interesting guide, thanks!

    1. Thanks, Sarah! There's one thing I forgot to mention in the body of this piece: I have been reminded many times while training to be a Volunteer that the total value in dollars of the plant life at the Zoo is far greater than the total value of the animals. There are some very expensive plants there indeed.


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