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'Wonderful display of weird plants' in full bloom on rare, local alvar

Only 3% of the world is alvar and our region features one of the best, says local naturalist, who wants the area 'fully' protected; he'll lead a trip to the alvar on Sunday

One of the world’s rarest environments, tucked on the north-eastern edge of Simcoe County, is currently in full bloom.

Boasting rare and strange flowers, habitats for a variety of birds, insects, and more, alvars are harsh natural environments occupying thin layers of soil atop barren limestone bedrock.

Due to poor drainage, alvars are covered with a sheet of water in the spring, only to become hot, desolate and dry through the summer months – with only tough and uniquely adapted plants able to survive the extremes, said local naturalist, Bob Bowles.

“You've got to be tough to grow on an alvar because you don't have a lot of nutrients, and it's in very little soil,” Bowles said. “You've got two extremes, and you've got to be able to survive the spring floods and the summer drought to grow on an alvar, and that's where you get these tough little plants.”

Last week, a reporter from OrilliaMatters went to Bowles Alvar North — near Dalrymple Lake and the Carden Alvar — with Bowles to see what he said is an unusually colourful bloom for the area.

No longer flooded, but not yet dry, a variety of rare flowers in red, orange, white, yellow, and more are on display at Bowles Alvar North, located at the end of a bumpy drive down Concession Road 7 in Ramara.

One of the alvar’s unique flowers — the small, white Rock Sandwort — is able to grow in remarkably thin layers of soil on the limestone bedrock and withstand the blistering heat of the summer.

“It's blooming now, it'll bloom in the summer,” Bowles said. “It'll be 30 degrees, but that limestone will be about 68 to 70 degrees. The heat warms the rocks and comes back up … and this (flower) will be still blooming.”

Another, the faint purple Prairie Smoke, has a string-like flower that Bowles said resembles smoke when enough are in bloom across a field.

Last week, amid the blooming flowers, hundreds of American toad tadpoles wriggled through a remaining pool of water, with leopard frogs, garter snakes, and a variety of birds making use of the alvar habitat.

Bowles said alvar areas are indispensable habitats for a wide range of birds, like the eastern loggerhead shrike and upland sandpiper, as well as providing habitats for mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

“The alvar is so important for the eastern loggerhead shrike, a migratory bird that nests here … (and) takes everybody's attention because it's endangered in Ontario,” he said.

“I've seen bears and moose out here, but there are certain species of mammals, there are certain species of reptiles and amphibians that we get out here on the alvar, as well.”

Beyond the unique array of plants and animals, Bowles said another distinguishing feature of alvar habitats is their rarity, accounting for only three per cent of the world.

Although the alvar landscape has limited uses, Bowles stressed these areas require more protection.

“They aren't an area where there's a lot of people around, so I think that's one of the successes of the alvar — they’re in an area where there's so much limestone, you can't farm it, you can't really build houses on it,” he said.

“Limestone extraction is probably what brings most people up to alvars, but it needs better protection because it's only 3 per cent (of the world)," he explained.

“Here at Carden, we have the most biodiverse alvar, (and) we should have full protection on that area because people need to understand and enjoy those wonderful displays of weird plants.”

Bowles said the word alvar is Swedish in origin — meaning ‘barren wasteland’ — with a number of alvars located in Sweden, Estonia, parts of Russia, and elsewhere in Europe, many of which have been negatively affected by climate change, he said.

However, Bowles said the best alvars are right here in the Great Lakes region.

“We've recently discovered the best alvars in the world are in the Great Lakes of North America, so we have amazing, large alvars, and the very best are in Ontario,” he said. “We are still protected by the Great Lakes against those impacts … (so) I think that's why we have still have alvars.”

Bowles will be leading an excursion into the Carden Alvar on Sunday, June 9 with the Robert L. Bowles Nature Centre. Those interested may read more here.

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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