Identifying trees, shrubs, grasses and sedges made easy

Plant identification can be tricky: is that tree a red pine, or a jack pine? Is that a grass, or a sedge? And, is the plant edible? Does it have medicinal properties? Or, is it poisonous?

Solving such puzzles is made a little easier when you have a handy identification book accompanying your walk in the countryside.

“Forest Plants of Northeastern Ontario” is just such a reference. Published by Lone Pine, and written by three authors from Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, the book is full of excellent photographs and is an ideal size for putting in your backpack or jacket pocket.

Don’t be dismayed by the title not including Québec. Our region of West Québec fits nicely into what the authors describe as the boreal forest.

“The northeast region of Ontario has a mosaic of forest ecosystems, coniferous treed wetlands on deep peats, upland mixed forests on bedrock-controlled terrain, extensive jack pine forests on sandy soils, sphagnum-black spruce bogs with acid-loving plants, rich fens and cedar swamps. It extends from the Ontario-Québec border west to the Manitouwadge area. ... The species described in this guide grow outside of these administrative boundaries, but this is the area referred to in the text as ‘our region.’”

You’ll find extremely familiar plants in this book. The tree section includes, for example, the large tooth aspen, a species that I’m particularly familiar with as it grows around our home. As well, there’s the larch (or tamarack, our only deciduous evergreen); white and black spruce; balsam fir; jack, red, white pines; and the white cedar.

Each species is well identified. A close-up colour photograph of the leaf is accompanied by a pen-and-ink line drawing of the leaf structure and, in the case of the evergreens, the cone. Another good identification clue is an artist’s drawing of a typical silhouette of each tree species.

This combined approach greatly assists positive identification of the subject. Each species is given a complete page divided into like elements: a general description followed by a section on leaves, flowers, fruit, habitat and notes.

The latter is my favourite section and where you can find particularly intriguing aspects of the species.

For example, the notes section for the larch tells us that “Larch wood is somewhat hard, heavy and oily and is considered decay-resistant even in water. It has been used to make railway ties, poles, fence posts and crates, and the curved roots have been used in shipbuilding. Spruce grouse feed on expanding buds. Chickadees, crossbars, the red-breasted nuthatch and red squirrels eat the seeds, and larch provides browse for the snowshoe hare and porcupine.”

Interesting... and reading this made me wonder how the entry for the white cedar differs. I didn’t know that the larch has water-resistant properties similar to cedar. Let’s look at what the book says about cedar.

“The soft wood is light and not overly strong, but it is somewhat decay-resistant and has been used for items such as posts, pole sand shingles, and in canoe- and boat-building. The cedar boughs were used as brooms, and the sweeping action deodorized the house with cedar fragrance. Cedar swamps are habitat for many songbirds, including the Canada warbler and golden-crowned kingly. In winter, white-tailed deer ‘yard up’ in cedar swamps and porcupines chew through the outer bark to eat the inner bark.”

By the sounds of this book, the larch would make better posts than cedar, in swampy ground.

The notes section also advises about whether the plant or parts are edible. This is a particularly important topic as many people are becoming increasingly skeptical about pharmaceutical drugs.

Be careful. Be wise. Many of the pharmaceuticals we depend upon are derived from plants. And, many plants are poisonous.

Not only should you be absolutely sure that you can identify poison ivy in all seasons so that you don’t get its horrible rash externally (or, horror of horrors, internally).

But you should be careful about eating plants. Be advised by this note about the cedar, for instance. “If cedar oil is ingested in quantity, it can cause abnormally low blood pressure, convulsions and death. Cedar has historically been taken internally as a diuretic and used externally for skin diseases and as an insect repellent.”

This cautionary note brought to mind Eric’s and my recent press trip to a pow-wow. Before attending this colorful, exciting event, we were invited to drink cedar tea made with an infusion of hot water, cedar leaves and lemon. It was delicious, and we evidently didn’t drink “too much.”

But what is “too much”? What I can tolerate won’t necessarily be the same as someone else. And, if you already have low blood pressure, one’s tolerance could be far less and you might put yourself at risk.

I don’t intend to be alarmist, but it is prudent to remember, always, that just because something is “natural” does not mean that it is safe for you to eat.

When Eric and I were in British Columbia last year, we went on a medicinal plant walk with a First Nation’s guide who blithely identified what plants she could. I say “blithely” because the enthusiastic young woman was not always accurate: in other words, she didn’t exactly inspire confidence. When you couple this enthusiasm with her words of encouragement about eating some of the plants, such as the cow parsnip, you just have to wonder.

The cow parsnip is a tricky plant to identify as it resembles the extremely poisonous water hemlock. In addition, some people are very allergic to the cow parsnip: contact with the plant can result in painful, weeping blisters. Indeed, just after I had started writing this column, a reader called to ask what the blisters on her body could be. I’d never heard of cow parsnip producing such a rash, but that’s what it turned out to be.

So, books such as this one are useful for more than one reason.

Forest Plants of Northeastern Ontario is published by Lone Pine. ISBN 1-55105-064-1. Authors: Karen Legasy, Shayna LaBelle-Beadman, Brenda Chambers. $24.95.


Bird talk: No you’re not seeing things! Bald eagles do live here, as do Golden eagles. Erwin Mohr has spied bald-headed eagles soaring along the Eardley Escarpment. Here at our feeder we now have a female and male pine grosbeak regularly. Has anyone seen any special birds? Let me know!


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer who telecommutes from her Quyon home. Contact her at