Saskatoon Natural Grasslands
The Saskatoon Natural Grasslands is a fun place to explore. Nestled into the Silverspring neighbourhood, just a little north of the Saskatoon Forestry Farm and Zoo, you will find 34 natural acres, with footpaths criss-crossing the land, limestone with fossils, and signs of wildlife in the city.
I’ve lived steps away from the Grasslands for several years and my appreciation of this wild space has grown slowly but wholeheartedly. I teach nature art to children and the Grasslands fuels our imaginations and centres us. When we can hear the bird song and the wind rustling the grasses, we are ready to create.
It’s easy to pretend the houses are invisible, the grasslands go on forever, and the aspen trees aren’t here. You might notice some of the ‘tee-pee forts’ that local kids have built throughout the Grasslands. In Saskatoon’s early days, settlers used the rock, or greystone, to build with, this clearing the land of rocks for planting and providing building material. This greystone was used to build the earliest buildings at the University of Saskatchewan, like the Administration building and the University Faculty Club. In the Northeast Swale you can view a rock with splitting iron still in it. As you walk the Grasslands you’ll see many pits or depressions where rock was quarried or taken for building purposes.
In Minecraft your bricks may stack nicely but in the past people used mortar to keep their building stones in place. If you broke up limestone and baked it in a hot kiln for a few days, and then mixed it with water, you ended up with a natural mortar called “quicklime.” It was used to cement the greystone together, or to close gaps in sod houses, or thinned further and then painted onto houses for a bright white finish. In nearby Petursson’s Ravine there are two historical lime kilns that settlers used. These are protected by the Meewasin and covered up presently to protect them from vandalism but are an important part of Saskatoon’s story.
The limestone that the settlers’ used also has a much deeper story to tell. Millions of years ago, this whole area was covered by the sea. Limestone formed as layers of ocean-borne sediments were compressed over time. At the north edge of the Grasslands by Konihowski Road, you’ll see a big piece of limestone that contains crinoid fossils, an ancient fossil group that first appeared, about 300 million years before dinosaurs. Crinoids are commonly known as sea lilies due to their “flower-like” appearance, though they are animals, not plants. Crinoids flourished in the Palaeozoic and Mesozoic, and some survive to the present day. Their relatives include starfish and sea urchins. Crinoids can be described as upside-down starfish with a stem. The stem of a crinoid extends down from what would be the top of a starfish, leaving the mouth of the organism opening skyward, with the feathery arms splayed out. At nearby Silverspring school you’ll find limestone on the building foundation that is full of fossils too.
Millions of years later, when those seas had receded, other creatures roamed this land. Fossils including a prehistoric camel were unearthed at the Riddell Paleontological Site just down the road.
Today, over 100 different plant species and dozens of birds make their homes in Grasslands.
Every spring you’ll find prairie crocuses – ephemerals that emerge early in spring, bloom and then disappear. Other spring flowers include the western Canada violet and three-flowered avens. Summer brings Canada anemone and harebells and late summer goldenrod and asters. We see aspen here today, but this wasn’t as plentiful in the past. There are willows which tell us that the land had more wet spots in the past. Willows like to grow where it’s wet. In spring you can see the catkins or pussy willows.
There are also many bird species in the Grasslands. Some of the easiest to hear are meadowlarks, vesper sparrows and clay-coloured sparrows. You’ll recognize black-capped chickadees (“chick-a-dee-dee”) and white-throated sparrows (“oh sweet Canada”) songs. You may hear woodpeckers and see holes in old aspen trees. Cedar waxwings love the Saskatoon berries and chokecherries that grow here too. Overhead you may see a hawk circling, likely a Swainson’s hawk. Occasionally there are mallard ducks or geese looking for a nesting spot. Before the roads were built in Silverspring, the neighbourhood was pitted with pot-hole sloughs. Beavers and muskrats lived here and water birds nested here, too.
If you visit during the day you may not see much wildlife, but you will see signs of wildlife if you look for it. The trails we follow were originally white-tailed deer trails. Animals to look for include jackrabbits and Richardson’s and thirteen-lined ground squirrels. Foxes and coyotes live and visit here, too. Long- tailed weasels have been spotted, and I’ve had raccoons visit my backyard so they must live nearby.
The Grasslands provides lots of space for kids to be kids and explore. You can bicycle to the Forestry Farm or tennis courts behind St. Joseph’s Collegiate, to Evergreen, and we can access the Crocus Park, Petursson’s Ravine, and the Northeast Swale. That’s a lot of space for kids to be kids and explore. The Grasslands isn’t flashy, but it shares all of the peace of the wild prairie right here in Saskatoon. A wise neighbour once told me to try walking the Grasslands barefoot, especially when you’re feeling lost – that mindfulness is one vulnerable walk of awareness – and it’s right here waiting for us all to enjoy.
– Carmen Gilmore
Berries to look for
- Pin cherries
- Wolf willow berries
- Wild raspberries
- Saskatoon berries
When the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands was created, both Meewasin and Silverspring residents were designated guardians.
The Saskatoon Natural Grasslands covers 34 acres within Saskatoon. This natural park is home to over 150 species of plants and many wild animals that are adapting to city living like white tailed deer, foxes, raccoons, skunks and coyotes.
We Saskatchewanians like to name things for ourselves – do you own a bunnyhug?
Some of us call prairie dogs and Richardson’s ground squirrels gophers.
Plants of the Saskatoon Natural Grasslands
“By maintaining a native grassland park we have the opportunity to set an example or express a concern for a land ethic. It is a statement of values – saving the prairie is the right thing to do. It is an example of far-sightedness – it sends a signal that we are concerned with our environment and our quality of life. It will enhance our quality of life.”
(Appendix A, page 4 Conserving Prairie Fescue in the North East Section, Glen Grismer, Meewasin, 1989)