Opinion

Boswell: Reimagining the Rideau — a weirdly named shrub illustrates Ottawa’s natural history

The hardy, eye-high bladdernut thicket at Carleton University held a secret of its own for more than a century — until the mystery was unravelled by sleuthing Ottawa field naturalist Daniel Brunton.

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Fourth in a weekly summer series.

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Along the edge of a gravel parking lot in the southeast corner of the Carleton University campus, there’s an unremarkable bit of bush that hides a sometimes-dry, sometimes-wet frog pond a short hop from the Rideau River.

The marshy depression is thought to be the remnant of a former river channel, cut off long ago from the main flow of the Rideau. But this low-lying slough, an “alluvial flat” to geologists, is seasonally replenished by meltwater and occasional flooding that sustains a distinctive array of wetland and shoreline vegetation — including a regionally rare shrub called the American bladdernut.

The plant, normally found in more southern climes and recorded in only a handful of other locales in the Ottawa Valley, is nicknamed “rattlebox” because of its yellow-green, papery, Japanese-lantern-like seed pods. Its Latin binomial, Staphylea trifolia, highlights the fruit’s typical grape-like bunching (staphylea) and the three-leaf arrangement of its foliage.

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With multiple stalks rising two or three metres in height, all intertwined rather messily with tree branches and vines at the spot where it’s growing, the shrub is nevertheless thriving along the north slope of this secret swamp. And the hardy, eye-high bladdernut thicket held a secret of its own for more than a century — until the mystery was unravelled by sleuthing Ottawa field naturalist Daniel Brunton.

Daniel Brunton, a botanist by training, has championed countless local conservation causes over the decades.
Daniel Brunton, a botanist by training, has championed countless local conservation causes over the decades. Photo by Tony Caldwell /Postmedia

— has determined that the Carleton bladdernut is the very same one examined and recorded by the famed Canadian naturalist James Fletcher in June 1878, and possibly by the pioneering Ottawa plant collector Braddish Billings, Jr. in 1866.

Brunton, 71, a past president of the Ottawa Field-Naturalists’ Club and a prolific contributor to its local and national publications, has chronicled the story of the Carleton bladdernut in the OFNC’s latest issue of Trail and Landscape.

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And he visited the riverside site again recently to explain how extraordinary it is to trace the provenance of a shrub so far back in time — let alone to a Canadian science icon such as Fletcher, the country’s first Dominion Entomologist and Botanist.

“One of the reasons we know that this is exactly the plant James Fletcher found in 1878 is because it’s got these slightly unusual modifications you just don’t see in most examples of this species,” he says, cradling a few of the translucent seed casings in his hands.

The fruit pods of the Carleton specimen, Brunton notes, “are tiny — typically they’re about twice that size. And there’s typically about twice as many. The Fletcher specimen from 1878 is identical to these odd ones. And the location — we know that, too. But we know it’s not just the (general) location. This is the actual plant, which is so cool.”

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There’s a vintage label affixed to Fletcher’s collected bladdernut leaf sample and seed pod, still preserved in Canada’s National Collection of Vascular Plants — an invaluable, climate-controlled botanical archive, founded by Fletcher in the historic William Saunders Building at the Central Experimental Farm.

The herbarium label indicates that Fletcher gathered his rattlebox specimen from the “alluvial flat” located “below Hog’s Back” Falls, “by Whyte railway bridge over Rideau.”

The old “White Bridge” (as it was properly known) was at the same location, Brunton notes, where the present-day O-Train line — currently being rebuilt to include a pedestrian crossing between Carleton and Vincent Massey Park — spans the river just a stone’s throw from the bladdernut thicket discovered by Fletcher on June 6, 1878.

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Dr. James Fletcher Source: Library & Archives Canada MIKAN 3428487
Dr. James Fletcher Source: Library & Archives Canada MIKAN 3428487 jpg

“He was seeing what we’re seeing,” says Brunton, barely containing his excitement at the thought of such a tangible link to a man he describes as a “natural history superstar.” He adds that while it’s fairly common for specific, centuries-old trees to be known to generations of scientists, it’s extremely rare for a single, enduring shrub like the Carleton bladdernut to be traced back to a fellow naturalist more than 140 years earlier.

But it gets even better. Brunton thinks this may be the same Staphylea specimen recorded in the very first formal inventory of Ottawa plants conducted by Billings just a year after Confederation.

Part of the locally famous family who were among the earliest settlers in Bytown — their name still attached to a bridge, shopping mall and neighbourhood around where Bank Street crosses the Rideau River — Billings (1819-1871) spent the summer of 1866 gathering hundreds of plant specimens that ultimately amounted to one-quarter of all known species in the city today.

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It was an astounding achievement, says Brunton, at a time when Billings was likely guided in his studies by densely scientific, poorly illustrated textbooks. Yet in systematically documenting the Ottawa region’s plant and insect life — just as his brainy, fossil-hunting brother Elkanah laid a foundation of knowledge about the area’s geological and palaeontological features — Braddish Jr. set the stage for later naturalists, like Fletcher, to create ever-richer profiles of the capital’s biodiversity.

Brunton follows proudly in their footsteps; his tracks and fingerprints are all over the green spaces of the National Capital Region. Jewels such as the South March Highlands and dozens of other living, breathing pockets of nature in 21st-century urban Ottawa are only as protected and appreciated as they are because of Brunton’s voluminous research and writing as an environmental consultant, field naturalist and conservation advocate.

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Braddish Billings II.
Braddish Billings II. Photo by Wayne Cuddington /Postmedia

He was the co-founder 20 years ago of Ottawa Riverkeeper, the influential eco-group that defends the river’s vast watershed on both sides of the Ontario-Quebec border — including the Rideau River and its tributaries. He literally wrote the book on the wild side of Ottawa: Nature and Natural Areas of Canada’s Capital, published in 1988.

Brunton, in fact, may be Ottawa’s most gifted successor to such luminaries of natural history as Fletcher and Billings. He reads landscapes the way an art critic interprets paintings, discerning vegetation patterns and anomalies in any scene laid out before him, assessing the play of light and shadow, observing the colours and textures of nature’s handiwork.

A classic natural historian, Brunton intuitively understands context — how things came to be the way they are over time — by connecting the dots of personal observation and a lifetime’s accumulated knowledge about the characteristics, ranges and favoured habitats of certain plants, their association with other flora and fauna, their apparent adaptations to human impacts on land, water and climate.

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How attuned is Brunton to nature’s presence in the city? When the first instalment in this series on the Rideau appeared in the Citizen a few weeks ago, the article ran with a photograph of four young mergansers swimming in a row close to where the Queensway crosses the river in Sandy Hill. The picture, he informed this writer — who also snapped the photo of the birds — “constitutes documentation of a regionally rare natural history occurrence.”

Say what?

Merganser ducks on the Rideau River.
Merganser ducks on the Rideau River. Photo by Randy Boswell /jpg

“While really common in places like Algonquin Park,” Brunton explained, the common merganser “is really rare as a breeder within Ottawa proper.” The photo of the juvenile diving ducks with their spiky orange hairdos will add a dot, he noted, to the next edition of the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas.

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It was this kind of observational power and voluminous knowledge that led Brunton to his revelation about the Carleton bladdernut.

“The floodplain of the Rideau River is one of the most ecologically rich spots in Eastern Ontario,” he explains. “It floods every year – or it tries to, except for the dams – which re-nutrifies all of those lowland areas and it also transports stuff up and down, physically moving things downstream.”

That’s likely how the rattlebox made its way northward to the niche, riverside habitat where it has remained for at least 150 years — but possibly for millennia, says Brunton. While the air-tight seed pods of the bladdernut can float for months, the seeds can also be transported by animals such as raccoons or squirrels. And it’s possible that ancient Indigenous travellers, he adds, were responsible for the relocation of the bladdernut from the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes region to the Ottawa area.

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It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Brunton’s research has clinched the bladdernut’s connection to Fletcher (1852-1908). Brunton is a Fletcher expert who spearheaded the British-born scientist’s formal designation a few years ago as a Person of National Historic Significance. There’s a plaque, unveiled in 2017 by then-federal environment minister Catherine McKenna, to mark the tribute at the Experimental Farm’s namesake Fletcher Wildlife Garden.

The story of the Carleton bladdernut is hardly Brunton’s first foray into solving a mystery at the intersection of natural and human history. His knowledge of Canada’s past — scientific and otherwise — seems to be as encyclopedic as his knowledge of ecology.

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No wonder it was Brunton, during his early years as a plant scientist stationed in Algonquin Park, who first identified the exact location of the shoreline scene immortalized in legendary Canadian artist Tom Thomson’s 1916 masterpiece The Jack Pine.

Detail, handout photo of the painting THE JACK PINE, by TOM THOMSON. 1916-1917, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada.
Detail, handout photo of the painting THE JACK PINE, by TOM THOMSON. 1916-1917, Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada. jpg

Today, thanks to Brunton’s discovery, there’s a hiking trail that leads from Achray Campground to a plaque marking one of the most storied places in Canadian art history — a seedbed for the creative movement that grew into the Group of Seven.

Brunton said the Carleton bladdernut deserves similar recognition and protection.

A plaque, he said, could detail the bladdernut’s link to Fletcher, Billings and the history of Canadian botanical science. It could explain the plant’s rarity in the region, and the story of its primeval voyage down the Rideau to where it put down roots on the edge of a Carleton carpark.

“Rivers were how things got around,” says Brunton. “You can see these bulges of distribution of ‘Plant X’ coming up the Rideau. The whole nature of a place can be described in its rivers. Its history is in its rivers.”

Randy Boswell is a Carleton University journalism professor and a former Citizen reporter and editor.

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