-colonial landscape of the Toronto area was densely forested, this forest was also punctuated by large areas of savanna in the sandier soils immediately north of Lake Ontario. Savanna is characterized by relatively sparse, discontinuous tree cover and tall grasslands and in Ontario is home to dozens of rare flora such as bluestem and Indian tall-grasses, cylindrical blazing star, hairy bush clover, woodland fern leaf, wild lupine and cup plant. Black Oak savanna, so named for its predominantly Black Oak tree cover, is particularly ecologically significant in Ontario because Black Oak is at its northern limit among the Great Lakes of southwestern Ontario.
Unfortunately, although savanna was once a relatively common part of Toronto’s ecology, it is currently an exceptionally rare and threatened ecosystem here. Because these areas were relatively free of trees, they were frequently the first to be cleared and developed by European colonists for settlement and agriculture. Furthermore, savanna is a transitional ecosystem between more open prairie and denser forest environments and is always in the process of becoming a forest. Natural or anthropogenic fire is required to maintain an area as savanna, but European settlement led to the suppression of fire across southern Ontario which furthered the decline of savanna lands simply by allowing them to naturally succeed to forest. Remaining savanna environments continue to be undermined by excessive human interference and the presence of intrusive plant species that tend to overtake savanna flora. The cumulative effect of these disturbances is that less than .5% of the pre-colonial prairie and savanna in Ontario remains intact today.
High Park, a large park in the city’s west end, contains the last remnants of a once extensive Black Oak savanna which covered much of Toronto’s west end, approximately from Roncesvalles Ave. to Royal York Rd. and from the lakeshore as far north as Lawrence Ave.. High Park’s Black Oak savanna is approximately 4000 years old and although it only remains in about 1/3 of the park’s 161 hectares, it is nevertheless the most significant portion remaining in the Toronto area and one of the most significant portions remaining in Ontario. The integrity of High Park’s Black Oak savanna is partly due to the initiative of the previous owner of the park lands, John George Howard, who transferred ownership of the land to the city in 1873 in return for an annual pension and several conditions including a guarantee that the park would remain “for the free use, benefit and enjoyment of the citizens of the City of Toronto for Ever”. High Park has thus managed to escape significant development as the city grew around it.
First Nations people in the Toronto knew of and were almost certainly involved in the maintenance of High Park’s savanna. High Park is just east of the Toronto Carrying Place Trail which had been traversed by Indigenous people for millennia before European settlement and First Nations corn fields were also noted to have been growing within the savanna lands of High Park. The pre-colonial presence and integrity of savanna lands, and particularly High Park’s Black Oak savanna, is almost certainly due to First Nations efforts, but these efforts are not well-- Bobiwash (Eds.), The Meeting Place: Aboriginal Life in Toronto (pp. 5–24). Toronto: The Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. Cajete, G. (1994). Look to the Mountain: An Ecology of Indigenous Education. Skyland, NC: Kivaki Press. Chant, D. A., Heidenreich, C. E., & Roots, B. I. (1999). Special Places: The Changing Ecosystems of the Toronto Region. Vancouver: UBC Press. Dean, W. G. (1994). The Ontario Landscape, circa A.D. 1600. In E. S. Rogers & D. Smith (Eds.), Aboriginal Ontario: Historical Perspectives on the First Nations (pp. 3–20). Toronto: Dundurn Press. Dey, D. C., & Guyette, R. P. (2000). Anthropogenic fire history and red oak forests in south-central Ontario. The Forestry Chronicle, 76(2), 339–347. Douglas, K. (2010). Ancient Trade Route to Queen Street. Muskrat Magazine. Retrieved May 20, 2012, from http://www.muskratmagazine.com/issue1/muskrat-features/ancient-trade-route-to-queen-