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Carolinian Canada Indicator Species

Carolinian Canada is a unique ecosystem zone found in southern Ontario. The term 'Carolinian' refers to its similarity to the forests found in North and South Carolina in the southern United States. The Carolinian zone in Canada is extremely rich in both plant and animal species. Even though this region includes examples of sand dunes, marshes, and tall-grass prairies, it is the southern-type deciduous forests which characterize this unique Canadian ecosystem.

Trees that are common to these deciduous forests are species such as sugar maple, beech, oak, basswood, and ash. However, these forests also include several rare and uncommon species or trees and shrubs such as those in the list below.



Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)
Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
Butternut (Juglans cinerea)
Sweet chestnut (Castanea dentata)
Wild crab (Pyrus serotina)
Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus dioica)
Bitternut Hickory (Carya cordiformis)
Mockernut (Carya tomentosa)
Cherry birch (Betula lenta)
Swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor)
Black oak (Quercus velutina)
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Hop tree (Ptelea trifoliata)
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
Black walnut (Juglans nigra)
Red mulberry (Morus rubra)
Honey locust (Gleditsia triacoanthos)
Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Shagbark hickory (Carya ovata)
Pignut (Carya glabra)
White oak (Quercus alba)
Chestnut oak (Quercus muehlenbergii)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
Prickly ash (Xanthoxylum americanum)
Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
Dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia)
Witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Burning bush (Euonymus atropupurea)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Certain typical or 'indicator species' that are characteristic of the Carolinian zone can help you appreciate the uniqueness of Carolinian ecosystems and your own land. This factsheet lists some of the species of plants and animals that are commonly described as 'Carolinian species'.

Tree Species

Tulip tree flower: © Dave's Garden

Tulip-tree (Liriodendron tulipifera):

The tulip-tree is one of two wild magnolia species found in Canada, and probably one of the most common `Carolinian Canada' symbols. The tulip-tree is eastern North America's tallest hardwood, commonly reaching 75 feet in height. This tree possesses a tall, straight trunk, a large crown, a distinctive four-lobed leaf, and large green and orange cup-shaped flowers. It is found in several locations in the region, including some ornamental plantings. You can see a mature stand of tulip-trees in Backus Woods near Long Point.

Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

The unusual bark of the sycamore is one of the most distinctive among trees. Smooth and unridged, it is light coloured, with patches of darker, reddish or brown papery bark especially on the lower parts of the trunk. The tree has a unique patchwork appearance as a result. The leaf is somewhat like a maple, but larger, and with less noticeable indentations. The fruit is an unusual ball about one inch in diameter, easy to recognize during the winter.

Chestnut: Natural Resources Canada

Chestnut (Castenea dentata)

The American, or sweet chestnut tree was once a major component of forests in eastern North America, until it was wiped out by the chestnut blight earlier this century. Not to be confused with the Horse Chestnut planted in urban areas, the native chestnut has a long, oval leaf with distinctive teeth, and a fruit that looks like a giant spiky burr. Only a few blight-resistant specimens survive today.

Photo: Dave's Garden

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum):

Also classified as either a tall shrub or small tree, the Sassafras is known for it's unique leaf that looks like a mitten, with a thumb on one side. This species has a distinct spicy fragrance which is emitted from the leaves, branches and bark when crushed. The sassafras prefers rich, sandy loam soil and due to its shade tolerance can be found growing beneath other hardwood trees in the Carolinian zone.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida):

The flowering dogwood can either take the form of an erect shrub around 3 or 4 metres in height, or a small tree up to 9 metres in height. The white "flowers" on this shrub make it one of the more easily identified Carolinian species. Acid soils, located on the edge of sandy or wet woodlands, are the preferred growing conditions for this shrub.

Herbaceous Plant Species

There are numerous herbaceous plant species which are indicative of the Carolinian life zone. These include the green dragon, pale jewelweed, butterfly weed, the harbinger of spring and wild ginseng.

Green Dragon:P. Allen Woodliffe

Green Dragon (Arisaema dracontium)

The green dragon is a close relative of the Jack-in-the-pulpit, with a very similar flower. It inhabits rich floodplain woods. With 8-12 leaflets rather than three, it stands about a foot high. The "jack' in this species extends out like a long tongue from the narrow, clasping "pulpit".

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

The butterfly weed is a milkweed species, but one without milky stems. It is most noted for its bright orange coloured flowers.

Animal Species

Opossum: Mary Gartshore


Although this unique animal is a traditional inhabitant of the southeastern United States, recent observations indicate that this slow moving animal is now becoming well established within the Carolinian zone and even beyond in Canada. The opossum is a marsupial which means that although the young are born live, they continue to develop in the mother's pouch after their birth. The diet of an opossum varies and can include small mammals, birds, eggs, insects, and fruit. The opossum can usually be found in wooded areas, swamps, along streams or lakeshores, and like the flying squirrel, often makes its home in hollow trees or logs.

Southern Flying Squirrel: Mark Stabb

Southern Flying Squirrel

This nocturnal, small mammal gets its name from the gliding technique that it uses to parachute between trees. It is found in limited numbers along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario, and occasionally throughout southern Quebec. These squirrels depend largely on nut bearing trees for their food supply, and the existence of snags (free standing, dead trees) for nesting sites. The large, mature hardwood forests, characteristic of the Carolinian zone, appear to be the last vestige of its required habitat within Canada.

Red Bellied Woodpecker

The red bellied woodpecker does not have a red belly, but is the only woodpecker with black and white bars all the way across its back, and a large red cap on its head. In appearance it resembles a small flicker.

Carolina Wren

This furtive little bird is probably best known for its loud, musical song. Like the House Wren, its tail perks vertically upwards, but the Carolina Wren has a distinctive white eye-stripe, and is a rustier red colour.

Eastern Hognose Snake

One of the most interesting snakes in Ontario, the hognose snake is also known as the puff adder. It can provide a display like a cobra, raising and flattening its head, striking and hissing when disturbed. However, if this does not successfully frighten the intruder, the snake simply rolls over and 'plays dead'. Its colour is variable, but tends to be brown and patchy rather than striped.

Softshell Turtle: John Mitchell

Eastern Spiny Softshell Turtle

Most turtles have hard shells, but the softshell turtle has a pliable, leathery skin. Brown in colour, it lives in streams, marshes, and larger rivers along Lake Erie. This species has sharp 'spines' on the front edges of its shell. In profile it is thinner and flatter than most turtles, giving it a pancake like appearance.

For Further Information:

Allen, G.M., P.F.J. Eagles, and S.D. Price. 1990. Conserving Carolinian Canada: Conservation Biology in the Deciduous Forest Region. University of Waterloo Press, Waterloo, Ontario. 346pp.

Federation of Ontario Naturalists. 1985. Seasons - A Special Issue Celebrating Carolinian Canada. Summer 1985. FON, Don Mills, Ontario.

Hickman, P.M. 1992. Carolinian Canada - Teacher's Guide. Federation of Ontario Naturalists, Don Mills, Ontario.

Hosie R.C. 1979. Native Trees of Canada. Environment Canada, Ottawa. 380pp.

Jonckheere, F. (ed). 1990. Rare, threatened, or endangered trees in Haldimand-Norfolk. Norfolk Field Naturalists, Simcoe, Ontario.

Soper, J.H. and M.L. Heimburger. 1981. Shrubs of Ontario. Royal Ontario Museum, Miscellaneous Publication, Toronto.

See also the Peterson, and Audubon Society Field Guide Series on:

Mammals, Birds, Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs and Reptiles and Amphibians.

Produced by:

The Centre for Land and Water Stewardship, University of Guelph, June, 1994

Funding for the development of this factsheet was provided by the Carolinian Canada Program. Agencies involved include: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Ontario Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Recreation, Ontario Heritage Foundation, Association of Conservation Authorities of Ontario, Wildlife Habitat Canada, World Wildlife Fund, Canadian Botanical Association, Nature Conservancy of Canada, Federation of Ontario Naturalists, and Parks Canada.