While digging in Toronto’s Port Lands to make way for a new mouth for the Don River, construction crews were confused when spider-like plants, unlike any other in the area, began growing at the excavation site.
These plants, to the surprise of crews and researchers, come from seeds that have been lying under fill soil and moss for over 100 years.
“The whole team was pretty excited when we realized what we had found,” said Shannon Baker, director of parks and public realm at Waterfront Toronto, the organization responsible for revitalizing the downtown waterfront area.
Before there was the Port Lands, there was Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh, an ecologically diverse wetland supporting a vast range of species. A century ago, and after years of sewage being dumped into the marsh, it was filled with the interest of creating an active port for Toronto. That never really materialized, explained Baker.
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Now, Waterfront Toronto is digging a one-kilometre mouth for the Don River through the Port Lands as part of the Port Lands Flood Protection project, a landscape infrastructure project meant to provide flood protection for the downtown core.
In early 2021, crews began to dig down seven meters into the century-old soil and the original peaty moss, just far enough to expose the seeds to water and sunlight. This was enough for the seeds to spring to life.
It is not uncommon to see shrubs growing in the Port Lands area, but these plants caught the eyes of the construction crews because they resembled those that grow in wetlands. Baker said so far, they have been able to identify two different types of plants, the Hard Stem Bulrush and Cattails.
“The discovery of these seeds is really an amazing testament to the regenerative power of nature,” said Baker.
To salvage the plants and preserve the seeds, the team transplanted them to nearby Tommy Thompson Park where they will remain and continue to grow as part of the marsh system there. They also collected 50 buckets of soil from the area and samples of the peat moss material where the seeds were growing and gave them to labs in the University of Toronto’s Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Department to see if any more species could germinate.
“This is a really interesting connection to the landscape that was originally there,” said Baker. “To restore the mouth of the Don River, provide a landscape that is resilient, and have some of the plants that were originally there reintroduced is phenomenal.”
As part of the Port Lands project, over 1.5 million cubic meters of soil are being excavated, which is enough to fill up the Roger’s Centre, said Baker. There is the possibility that even more seeds are hiding in the ground and could be unearthed.
While the purpose of the project is not to build the same ecosystem that was once there, being able to introduce plants that once flourished in the area will not harm the ecological diversity of the Port Lands area.
Throughout the excavation of the area, crews have come across other long-lost items in the old marsh’s soil. They’ve found bottles donning the trademark squirrel of Charles Wilson soda pop, newspaper clippings with ads for Toronto-based Bredin Best Bread and many household items including shoes, spoons and toothbrushes.