Creating a Native and Indigenous Wildlife and Pollinator Garden at Elbow Lake

By Meghan White and Lindsay Wray

Throughout the summer of 2020, we were very fortunate to have the opportunity to work as the Outreach and Stewardship Interns at the Queen’s University Biological Station (QUBS) and Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre (ELEEC). Together with Sarah Oldenburger, the Outreach and Teaching Coordinator, the outreach team was able to take on the rewarding project of designing a wildlife and pollinator garden at ELEEC. QUBS is very fortunate to have received funding from the Helen McCrea Peacock Foundation of the Toronto Foundation to support the development of this garden. Planting a wildlife and pollinator garden is an excellent way to provide a valuable habitat for our native pollinator species. Honeybees are usually the first pollinators to come to mind, however they are not alone, nor are they native! Insects (such as native bee species, butterflies, beetles, and flies) along with some bird and bat species are crucial pollinators in the Elbow Lake region. Unfortunately, many of Ontario’s native pollinator species are currently threatened due to the loss of critical habitats, among other reasons (such as pesticide use, and food shortage).

Creating a wildlife and pollinator garden at Elbow Lake Environmental Education Centre will provide native wildlife and pollinator species with habitats where they can grow, reproduce and contribute to the recovery of local pollinator and wildlife species. In addition, this garden will be a useful resource for teaching and outreach as it will be used to educate students and the public about the importance of wildlife and pollinator gardens and how to create similar gardens in other spaces!

Monarch butterflies feeding on the nectar of milkweed plants.
Photo Credit: Mark Conboy

In May, we started researching local native pollinator plant nurseries and greenhouses, as well as native plants that would support many pollinator species. In the garden, we wanted to include a variety of colours, shapes, heights, as well as blooming times so that the garden blooms from early spring to late fall and attracts a variety of pollinators. Not only do native plants prevent the spread of invasive species, but they have co-evolved alongside native pollinators to ensure successful pollination (Corbet, et al., 2001). For instance, bee-pollinated flowers are often blue or yellow and beetle-pollinated flowers are often dull or white (Miller, Owens, & Rorslett, 2011). There are also other factors that impact the match between pollinators and flowers including the contrast between flower and leaf, symmetry, scent and tactile clues (Miller, Owens, & Rorslett, 2011). After planning our garden beds, we placed an order at a nursery that sells native plants. We also reached out to community contacts, including Lemoine Point Conservation Area and the Society for Conservation Biology at Queen’s University, who were able to provide common and butterfly milkweed plants, brown-eyed susans, cup plants, and a native seed mix for the garden. We are very thankful for the generous plant and seed donations from these organizations!

SWEP Student Meghan White plants brown-eyed susans along the back of the Nature Centre. Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

As part of the wildlife and pollinator garden project we wanted to include plants with sacred and traditional meanings to the Indigenous community. The Queen’s University Biological Station has been working closely with local elders and knowledge keepers in creating land-based learning programs, signage which includes local Indigenous language and conducting medicine walks on the property. It is important to acknowledge the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee territory that Queen’s University is situated on, understand local Indigenous history, and celebrate Indigenous ways of knowing and being. As such, we were able to work closely with Deb St. Amant, the Elder in Residence in the Aboriginal Teacher Education Program (ATEP) at the Queen’s University Faculty of Education. We met virtually with Deb and discussed the importance of Indigenous traditional plants and medicines and learned about the medicinal plants present at Elbow Lake EEC. Deb suggested planting the four medicines: tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar, and provided us with knowledge on how to take care of these plants. Deb also suggested using other medicinal plants such as berries and the three sisters (corn, beans, and squash). We’ve since incorporated tobacco plants and blueberries into the garden that were supplied by a community contact and a native pollinator plant nursery.

Many of our plants arrived in early July – right in the middle of a heat wave! They were stored in a backyard for a few days before being planted in the raised beds outside of the parking lot at ELEEC. The beds for our pollinator garden were graciously built by Adam Morcom, Elbow Lake Manager, our supervisor, Sarah Oldenburger, the Outreach and Teaching Coordinator, Aaron Zolderdo, Manager at Opinicon, and Rod Green, QUBS’ Maintenance Assistant. The six 4’x 8’ raised beds were constructed with untreated cedar rails, rebar, and lined with contractors’ paper (composed of natural materials) to keep in the soil! The beds were placed on top of a gravel base at a distance far enough apart to ensure that individuals using wheelchairs and mobility devices may access and enjoy the pollinator garden. Adam and Sarah then filled the raised beds with a high-quality soil delivered by a local gardening centre.

We chose to keep the plants together in the raised beds, because the parking lot had the best access to water to ensure the survival of the plants during the heatwave. Sarah and Adam alternated watering in response to the weather of the weeks and the plants’ water needs. Unfortunately, the wild columbine was popular for some of the local wildlife and the lower leaves were chewed. Despite this, many of the plants thrived despite the heat wave!

We also dug up the gardens beds (including the rock borders!) by the Nature Centre; the invasive tiger lilies were carefully removed by Meghan and Sarah. Next, Adam rented a sod cutter and rototiller to remove some grass and expand the beds by the Nature Centre. Adam then added the remaining soil and replaced the rocks to create a rock border to define the new and improved beds beside the Nature Centre. These beds will soon be home to sun and drought tolerant plant species!

Left: The six raised beds after flowers had been planted. Right: The bed along the Nature Centre after the soil had been cut, tilled and re-soiled. Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

Caption: The six raised beds after flowers had been planted and the bed along the Nature Centre after the soil had been cut, tilled and re-soiled.  Photo Credit: Sarah Oldenburger

Overall, this was a challenging but enjoyable experience. As our flowers and medicinal plants were planted late in the season, we likely won’t have any large blooms this summer, but we are hopeful that these plants will grow and prepare to bloom next summer. We know our garden will be an ongoing project with much left to do, and we hope that everyone will have the opportunity to observe native pollinators! We plan to continue monitoring the garden and start constructing habitats for our native pollinator bees. Learn more about pollination and creating your own pollinator garden with these resources:


  • Corbet, S. A., Bee, J., Dasmahapatra, K., Gale, S., Gorringe, E., Ferla, B. L., . . . Vorontsova, M. (2001). Native or Exotic? Double or Single? Evaluating Plants for Pollinator-friendly Gardens. Annals of Botany, 219-232.
  • Miller, R., Owens, S. J., & Rorslett, B. (2011). Plants and colour: Flowers and pollination. Optics & Laser Technology, 282-294.

Asclepias – Milkweed

by Adriana Lopez-Villalobos and Amelie Mahrt-Smith

If you’ve ever thought of planting flowers to attract pollinators to your garden, milkweed should be on top of your list – plants in the genus Asclepias are known for attracting all kinds of insects, most notably the monarch butterfly. The common milkweed, A. syriaca, is estimated to provide food to over 450 different species of insects! [3] Asclepias is a member of the Apocynaceae family, also known as the dogbane family. While they may provide adequate food for pollinators, some taxa are poisonous to animals – the family gets its colloquial name from those taxa that were historically used as dog poison [6]. The genus name, Asclepias, comes from the Greek god Asklepios the god of medicine. Milkweed has had a variety of uses in human culture over the years; medicine is just the beginning.

Common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, growing by a riverbank in Kingston, ON.

The flowers of Asclepias are morphologically distinct. They are clustered in heads called umbels, with 30-50 individual flowers in each. The image below shows a close up of several A. syriaca flowers and their characteristics. The petals (a) are reflexed downward toward the stem, and a petal-like shape is made by the corona, which is made up of five nectar-secreting hoods (b) and incurving horns (c). The floral corona helps to attract pollinators. Pollen is produced in the anther (d) and received by the stigmatic disc (e). In Asclepias, these structures are fused into a single structure called the gynostegium. Between two adjacent anthers forms the anther wings (f), which enclose a stigmatic chamber. Above this chamber is the pollinium gland (g), where pollen can be retrieved[4]. All of the flower buds in an umbel will open within 2-3 days of each other, and fade in colour and begin to shrivel shortly after being pollinated [5]. Not every flower will produce seeds, even if they have been pollinated – one stem may have 50 flowers but still only produce one or two seed pods.

LEFT: Close up of A. syriaca inflorescence, showing the different parts of the individual flower. RIGHT: Seed pods ripening on an A. syriaca individual.

Pollinators searching for nectar on the unstable flowers can get pollinia, a mass of pollen grains, stuck to the adhesive pads on their feet that help them climb. These pollen grains may be deposited on the stigmatic disc of another flower as the insect continues to forage [4]. While they are visited by bumblebees, wasps, ants, and flies as well, milkweed is most commonly associated with the butterflies that are attracted to the sweet-smelling flowers. The iconic monarch butterfly relies on milkweed for its entire life cycle. The eggs are laid on the underside of milkweed leaves, which the caterpillars eat from when they hatch. The poisonous compounds in Asclepias, chemicals called cardiac glycosides, are actually used by the caterpillars as a defence mechanism against predators. Insects like the monarch caterpillar that are adapted to feeding on Asclepias plants store these compounds in their body instead of metabolizing them, which effectively makes them poisonous to those looking for a tasty grub to snack on [1]. After metamorphosis, the monarch butterfly may eat the nectar from milkweed flowers in addition to many other species, but it will always return to milkweed to lay its eggs.

Although toxic in large quantities, the compounds in milkweed have given them traditional medicinal uses in human culture. A. syriaca, the common milkweed, was used by colonial settlers as an expectorant, an emetic, and a remedy for asthma. A related plant, A. tuberosa, has been used to induce perspiration and in the treatment of lung ailments. The milky latex produced by the plant, which can be seen oozing from the stem if one breaks off a leaf or flower, was investigated as a rubber precursor but was never profitable. The seed hair fibres were used as a wartime substitute for kapok to make life jackets [2]. Although not profitable for humans, milkweed is still a very important plant for pollinators like the monarch butterfly.

Asclepias syriaca is native to North America and is commonly found invading fields and roadsides. This specimen was collected at QUBS in 1960 by the former curator, Roland Beschel. You can find A. syriaca in flower all around QUBS from July to early August!

A specimen of A. syriaca collected at QUBS in 1960.


  1. Lewis, D.R. Iowa State University. The Milkweed Insects.,feed%20on%20the%20common%20milkweed.&text=Plants%20can%20be%20interesting%2C%20especially,seeing%20them%20eaten%20by%20insects. Downloaded on 03 August 2020.
  2. Simpson, M.G. 2010. Plant Systematics., 2nd. Ed. Academic Press, Elsevier. ISBN 9780123743800
  3. Moore, R.J. 1946. Investigations on rubber-bearing plants. V. Notes on the flower biology and pod yield of Asclepias syriaca L. Can. Field Natur. 61: 40 – 46.
  4. Macior, L.W. 1965. Insect adaptation and behavior in Asclepias pollination. Bull. Torrey Bot. Club, 92:114 – 126.
  5. Gaertner E.E. 1979. The history and use of milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.). Economic Botany 33: 119-123.
  6. Erickson, J.M. 1973. The utilization of various Asclepias species by larvae of the monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. Psyche A Journal of Entomology 80(3) DOI: 10.1155/1973/28693