Savannas in Ontario?
For many people "savanna" conjures up images of African plains with zebras and wildebeests grazing beneath scattered trees. Savanna is indeed the term applied to natural areas of mostly grasses with scattered open-grown trees. It comes as a surprise to many that savannas can be found in Ontario! Many of the largest and most significant of these are within the Carolinian life zone of Southwestern Ontario.
Typical savanna and prairie plant species include Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Indian Grass, and Switchgrass. Wild Bergamot, Black-eyed Susan, and Bush clover are typical non-grass species present. In areas of more moisture, sedges and ferns are present.
Savannas and prairies develop on sites which are subject to environmental stresses, typically fire, drought, spring flooding, and warmer than usual local climates. Prairie occurs where these effects are most severe, while savanna grows where these stresses are not so pronounced.
In the Carolinian region, trees which characterize savannas are the oaks and hickories, and occasionally pines. Pin Oak, Swamp White Oak, and Bur Oak dominate wetter sites. Black Oak, White Oak, and Pignut Hickory are found on intermediate sites and the dryer sites may also have White Pine or Red Pine. In very dry sites, Eastern Red Cedar may also occur with oak and pine.
Savanna sites in the Carolinian region are found mostly on very sandy soils. The largest and most significant remnants are at Windsor, Walpole Island, the Port Franks area on the Lake Huron shore, north of Turkey Point, Pelee Island in Lake Erie, and High Park in Toronto. High Park provides a good example of how savanna areas will grow into less open forests in the absence of regular disturbance
Savanna sites accessible for public exploration can be found at Ojibway Prairie in southwest Windsor (at Matchett and Titcombe roads); Pinery Provincial Park; Stone Road Alvar on Pelee Island; Turkey Point Provincial Park; and High Park in Toronto. Other publicly accessible sites exist, call your local Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources or local Conservation Authority office for specific locations.
Human development of savanna and prairie has eliminated or degraded much of these areas. Consequently, much of the flora associated with these uncommon sites is considered rare in Ontario. Some are even considered endangered (Pink Milkwort, Slender Bush Clover, and White Prairie Gentian, to name a few). The conservation of these rare species,as well as the more common ones, is dependent on the protection of their habitat. Therefore, the careful stewardship of prairie, savanna, and woodland remnants is critical.