Herbaria – Pressing Thoughts

The lovely flowers embarrass me. They make me regret I am not a bee.

Emily Dickinson

Have you ever picked a perfect flower, weed, or leaf and pressed it carefully between paper?  I remember doing this as a child – may have been using wax paper and leaves, or maybe dandelions. Growing up in Montreal North, I distinctly remember placing Red Maple leaves – Acer rubrum – between pages of the telephone book, or was it the Yellow Pages Book or the Eaton’s catalogue? We’re talking about documenting the green world around us – creating an herbarium (plural: herbaria).  Even the sound of it trips off the tongue and tantalizes the mind. It’s a tangible chronology of nature – observing and documenting that which surrounds us at a specific time, saved for easy reference with related notes. And isn’t a pandemic a perfect time to pursue something new to help get us through? 

If you do, you’re not alone. For me, it was that 19th century Canadian pioneer, amateur botanist, and writer, Catherine Parr-Traill, who found that documenting the plants around her helped her to navigate this new world, “…for I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest…They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.”  Or think of the wife of Lociq de Lobel, whose name seems lost to time, who created the very first herbarium of the Klondike Gold Rush to distract herself from the daily challenges of northern realities. Or what about Emily Dickinson whose interest in botany had her creating her own herbarium, now digitized, and sharing pressed flowers with friends, then plants in poetry.

Cultural treasure: one of Catherine Parr-Traill’s scrapbooks

It was Catherine, or rather, her scrapbooks, that led me to discover the National Herbarium of Canada.

What a find – a national herbarium created in 1882 – a library of plants not books, but books and shelves of, well, plants. The National Herbarium of Canada, part of the Canadian Museum of Nature, was created when the plant collections of the Geological and Natural History Survey of Canada were officially incorporated into a museum department. The herbarium holds four plant collections of vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens, and algae – over one million plant specimens, comprising one of Canada’s largest plant collections. It also means they hold the biggest and best archive of Canadian arctic plants in the world and special cultural collections like that of Traill, the author, in 1885, of Studies of Plant Life in Canada. Who knew? 

Jennifer Doubt – Curator of Botany

There was so much going on when I visited – I was curious to know more. What better way than a chat with the Curator of Botany, Jennifer Doubt.

With degrees in Botany from Guelph University (1995) and in Bryophyte Ecology from the University of Alberta (2001), Jennifer transformed an early interest in the great outdoors and biology, notably founded on growing up and exploring in Deep River, into a series of summer jobs working in botany. First working as a consultant, she would eventually land a curatorial role at the Royal Alberta Museum given her familiarity with herbaria for research and eventually, as Curator of Botany at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. 

Herbarium collections of plant life

The herbarium, located across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, is an extremely busy place and the best part of the work is the camaraderie and scope of people involved both internationally and at home.  “There’s a wonderful dynamic with daily work, research, ongoing visits and emails – we’re exposed to so many new projects and the people behind them. Remember, there are specimens dating back to the 1700’s which gives rise to fascinating stories about individuals who were on those explorations and what happened after.  Yes, we have specimens from the Franklin expeditions but also so many others,” says Jennifer.  With museum staff; active field and lab researchers working on a range of topics; new specimen contributions coming in from all over needing to be processed and stored; students and the public of varying interests coming to the collections to learn; committed volunteers supporting the work of mounting specimens – well, dynamic indeed!

That documentation is critical as it tells a viewer who collected the plant, where it was collected and what they collected. Jennifer speaks highly of those who volunteer, “The volunteers love plants, or a certain geographical area – in many cases it provides a different focus than their formal work life.  The work is valuable beyond imagining.”

Capturing nature – specimens from Catherine Parr-Traill’s scrapbooks

But you just can’t rest on your laurels. “Understand that this work is never complete” says Jennifer. “At a fundamental level, the collection grows through time showing what changes and trends are happening with plants and in specific geographic ranges.  It’s even possible to analyse the genetic make-up of samples.  The value of the collection is broader than just to botanists. Many of the people researching are not botanists, they could be historians interested in specific events/timeframes/expeditions; or artists looking for sources of botanical accuracy; special interest groups like women studies groups or those interested in what insects were impacting plants.” Or those like me interested in being close to a historical personality and their formative work.

For you and for me, Jennifer sees that “a personal herbarium can answer to a love of plants and understanding a geographical area more intimately…it means time well spent”, much as those early pioneers and poets did. Interestingly, on a local level, documenting botanical material can also contribute to environmental impact assessments and how policy decisions are ultimately made.

Hmmm. I wish I still had that desiccated maple leaf from my youth – it might bring back that beloved backyard in a very tangible way.  But there is a tree, two or three, outside now and I know the land holds so much life to be discovered once the snow is gone.  Heather’s herbarium – thou just may be mine!

What wonders wait under the snow?

“This little work on the flowers and native plants of Central Canada is offered to the Canadian public with the hope that it may prove a means of awakening a love for the natural productions of the country…The aim of the writer is simply to show the real pleasure that may be obtained from a habit of observing what is offered to the eye of the traveller,—whether by the wayside path, among the trees of the forest, in the fields, or on the shores of lake and river.”

Catherine Parr-Traill, 1885, Studies of Plant Life in Canada

Betwixt and Between

“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn

It’s an odd time isn’t it?  Deep worry about COVID yet hopeful about vaccines, the power of masks and distancing; hopeful about politics yet anxious about delayed transitions; transitioning to winter but staring at the green grass through the windows.  It’s a liminal time, a betwixt and between time – a pause requiring study through windows and without.

Interestingly, in this unique time there are new tools that allow a peek into someone else’s lived experience, for the view from a home window.  Window Swap and View from my Window evolved during lockdown on various platforms. My day inevitably starts with a long look out the dining room window, and as I’m as anxious as everyone else, I can understand the strange, voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing what others see daily.  In an odd way, these tools worked to elevate what could become mundane in isolation – affirming that we are still here and oh look, we’re not alone.  With travel severely limited, this might just provide a release of sorts and your carbon footprint is so much smaller too – OMG a double hit! 

So what’s beyond my window?  Well, you might not always see the beauty in this transition season but I think it might be another chance to use the word sublime -’cause, why wouldn’t you? 

We’ve woken to first snows here in eastern Ontario although nary a flake has stayed more than a few hours – yet.  Outside one window, not far from the computer screen that clamours for attention, I look outside and watch a ground ballet – flocks of robins and starlings, neatly spaced, pecking their way across the snowy lawn.  A hunt for seed and insects to help them on their way south no doubt.  And yes, the waves of geese continue above.   It expands the definition of the garden to encompass seasonal change, the ongoing work and migration of beasts and birds, the beauty of those plants now pausing. It is not about surrender and demise, it is about preparation for change.

An ongoing debate was whether or not to cut down the Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum, to tidy the space.  But honestly, tidy is not all it’s cracked up to be – let nature behave as it should. It demands a rethink, of paying attention to leaving organic materials in place both as shelter for bugs, food for squirrels and birds, and as ultimate nourishment for future plant growth.  For all kinds of good stewardship reasons, the plants will stay and desiccate over the winter providing shelter for all sorts of wee beings. For now, oh the colour that has been introduced is wonderful – somewhat like an impressionist brush heavy with yellow ochre. 

I notice the structure of the garden more – the solidity of the green frame in place that cradles us in trying times. Take note – when looking through the window or walking about though, fight the inclination to unendingly list all the projects for next year but rather slow down and notice the details today.

And there’s something wonderful about how plants hold each other in autumn. See the multiple mounds – even if I only planted three to start – of Blue Fescue, Festuca glauca, as they nudge up against Hens and chicks, Sempervivums; how the newly planted Red Osier Dogwood, Cornus stolonifera, sketches out a ruby web against the sky while it sheds green leaves; how the winter creeper, Euonymus fortunei, snuggles up against the Spirea while sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, prepares to die back under the leaves. Sure, the planting was mine but the poetry, well, plants have expression of their own don’t they?

A leaf on the grass

I’m thinking of a quote from Lorraine Johnstone in Tending the Earth – A Gardener’s Manifesto: “While each of us may be changing the world on coneflower at a time, the world of the garden is doings its own crucial work of changing us.”  This happens everyday, every season.  We have a plan and then suddenly, the garden shows us something unexpected, a movement, an unexpected beauty – a teaching. 

Hope quietly informs the day as I fall into this late season with all its trials and tribulations.  The next season will come soon enough but for now, breathe and just be betwixt and between. And with multiple windows at hand and online?  Well, all the better to understand the scope of the garden – yours, mine, ours.

The structure of a garden exposed

On Knowing a Thing – Now and Then

“Even to know the common name of a flower or fern is something added to our stock of knowledge, and inclines us to wish to know something beyond the mere name. Curiosity is awakened…”
Catherine Parr-Traill, 1885, Studies of Plant Life in Canada

Apologies to my neighbours but I really must inspect my Hypericum perforatum and don’t forget the Silene vulgaris.  That’s right – I discovered a botanical paradise!  It’s really wild!  And it’s on my leaching field … or thereabouts!

It really explains why a quick look into our yard from the street may result in a vision of a woman with book in hand and camera at the ready, mouthing tongue-tied words familiar yet strange and decidedly Latin. A pagan ritual perhaps?  No, not an incantation to the powers that be (although not a bad idea all-in-all) but a need, a quest to ignore the news of the day and focus down to the ground.

Today in November, I’m back outside in t-shirt and cut-offs as the strange unseasonly warm weather continues. There are however strong rumours of snow later this week which is at distinct odds with the last tomatoes that I’m roasting this morning.  Go figure. 

This particular pandemic pleasure stemmed from the mid-year. July was tough on the land and on us.  We watched the clouds come and go, performed our rain dances and mourned as grass disappeared and leaves began to fall from our Silver Maples, Acer saccharinum. Barrels emptied and decisions were made to only water veg beds as needed. It was hard to watch and hard on one’s mood…everyday. 

And then.  I stopped cringing and looked, really looked at what was growing.  And growing well in this desiccating landscape.  Nature as always, was finding a way to declare itself and it was in the form of wildflowers.  And what are these but an invitation to learn?  Armed with an Ontario Wildflowers book, and a need to focus on what was popping up everywhere, I went to work. Who knew I would also go back in time?

Arriving in 1832, Catherine Parr-Traill, an early pioneer and writer, found green explorations as a means to hang onto her very being in this new world. As she points out in Studies of Plant Life in Canada, 1885, “…I soon found beauties in my woodland wanderings, in the unknown trees and plants of the forest. These things became a great resource, and every flower and shrub and forest tree awakened an interest in my mind, so that I began to thirst for a more intimate knowledge of them. They became like dear friends, soothing and cheering, by their sweet unconscious influence, hours of loneliness and hours of sorrow and suffering.” She was onto something – a marvelous distraction – and just what I needed.

I knew there would be some wilding happening as on the roadside I could see Queen Anne’s Lace, Daucus carota, which easily could provide a shady, lacy umbrella for chipmunk or rabbit or fairy, springing up alongside beautiful blue Chicory, Cichorium intybus, which tempted me to indulge in a coffee – or at least in this coffee substitute.

The garden already had already showcased Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca, to entice the Monarchs to land and transform; the long pointers of Great Mullein, Verbascum Thapsus, that when dried and dipped in tallow became a torch in days gone by; and the ever present Orange Daylily, Hemerocallis fulva, that shared space with purply Creeping Bellflowers, Campanula rapunculoides. A riot of plants right where we didn’t plant them! Amazing.

Now that I think of it, what a perfect summer moment and one I’ll revisit during upcoming winter days.  They are also intimately tied to the memories of childhood and running free to pick bouquets to be jammed into mason jars on a windowsill and admired. Move over African violet – we picked this! I remember the succinct pop of the Bladder Campion, Silene vulgaris, as my brother and I popped their full blooms against the back of our hands. And the Common Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, which meant sitting down in the grass and blowing the seeds that seemed like fairies flying on the breeze.  Haven’t done that in ages although I have thought of dandelion summer wine and crisp greens with odd shapes in salad bowls.

All this to say, I have now strategically added a new list of things to explore in this pandemic winter. Green explorations and those women who have taken it to different levels – a penultimate pandemic pastime to link today and yesterday. Among other things. According to the dictates of the day.

Botanic treasures found this year (so far):

Black eyed Susans blooming.
  • Black-eyed Susan – Rudbeckia hirta
  • Bladder Campion – Silene vulgaris
  • Chicory – Cichorium intybus
  • Common Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
  • Common Milkweed – Asclepias syriaca
  • Common St. John’s Wort – Hypericum perforatum
  • Creeping Bellflowers – Campanula rapunculoides
  • Great Mullein – Verbascum Thapsus
  • Orange Daylily – Hemerocallis fulva
  • Orange Hawkweed – Hieracium aurantiacum
  • Oxeye Daisy – Leucanthemum vulgare
  • Philadelphia Fleabane – Erigeron philadelphicus
  • Pineapple Weed – Matricaria dissoidea
  • Scentless Chamomile – Tripleurospermum perforata
  • Queen Anne’s Lace – Daucus carota

October Rising

Anne reveled in the world of colour about her. “Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908

Do you feel it? The change is here – a frisson at the edge of the breeze, a turning of the leaf from green to red to gold, from lush to dry. Pumpkins running amok in fields and offered up on trailers at the side of a rural road.  Woodsmoke. A seasonal move from cotton to wool. Knitting needles. Socks. Autumn. Really big birds.

Honestly, this is one of my favourite seasons – ok, there are three more and that about covers them all. Autumn in eastern Ontario (let’s not call it The Fall – not this year of all years!) is when no permission is needed to be in awe of the beauty of plants, of pending change, of story. 

We begin to bundle up in familar ways to face the cooling days. This year however, COVID has added another layer to the ones we put on and it’s a difficult fit.  It feels like the freedom some of us had in working in a garden, spending time in the fresh air, will be severely limited with the swing of the weather vane and the north wind. 

North wind, eh?  Moving along, I’ll focus on the time being right for splitting plants and spinning tales. I like the botanical conversations that will continue from our space to another. The trail of a story about what the thing is, where it came from, how it got there, where it might go.

Dwarf irises, Iris pumila, came to us from a small acreage on a nearby rural route ten years ago.  A very full garden tempted us to walk in when we saw a sign, Perennials for sale – well! Pots were filled and instructions told – this is what worked here, it will work there and how.  Much appreciated.  Recently I divided the rhizomes as they had spread nicely on the edge of a bed and needed to find new homes.  They became part of a boxful of splits that ended up on a table at the local horticultural society plant sale recently – an exchange of plants in the company of others. A gleeful moment when my broad smile hid behind yet another new mask donned for the occasion.

Last week as the peonies went dormant, the garden fork came out again and after a quick split of tangled Peony rhizomes, Paeonia, voila – five potted plants for sharing with friends. A little bit of Mrs. B. went with them. Now, now, nothing suspect here, I meant her spirit. Mrs. B. was the head gardener in the family who lived here before we moved in and must have planted the peony at least five years before – now a mature plant about 25 years old!  I love the flamboyant blooms in late Spring and the dramatic drop of flowers and petals with the first rain – appeals to my romantic inclination. And so the new progeny travelled to the big city, to a local shop owner, to friends – a story continues. I’m eyeing the line of browning foliage now of peonies that need their annual haircut – a pruning back before the, gulp, snow.

Visitors always know they just may leave with something green when they come by for a conversation on the deck or a dinner in the garden (yes, yes, even now at an appropriate distance and peeking over a mask edge.)  Native Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum pubescens, were started here 15 years ago – a mere three wild plants had been removed from a roadside that was slated for development.  Now they gracefully circle two maple trees and in the spring a riot of white pendules bob from each plant – over a hundred of them.  An impressive growth habit for this beautiful structural, arching plant. Always fun to see them nodding through a back window of a car as it heads home from our driveway.  Note to self: always ask if the plants being so willingly given away, do they spread well?  Bugleweed, Ajuga, anyone? Here, this particular chapter of a story is always shared from gifter to giftee.

But today I stare at the fading beauties of this season through my east-facing window.  Down a stone path, far from the vegie beds, the last Oscar Peterson roses play a jazzy tune against Japanese Anemones, Anemone hupehensis, that stand tall on the breeze.  The purple and yellow audacity of a much-too-tropical Coleus brushes against the green boxwood, Buxus, as if to say “good-bye” after sharing space all season.  Annuals can make you downright emotional at the beginning of autumn don’t you think? Say no more.

I take the time to look up. High above this place, I see the great birds, Canada Geese in a distinct V formation – they rise with feathers beating against the chilling air.  They wheel and honk, lifted and drawn southwards by some ancient rite acting along their nerve endings.  Some may fall with a well placed shot.  But in the greatest triumph those flying highest and determined, divide the clouds and continue.

The overpowering feeling is farewell and fare well.

I split the plants, plant the bulbs and wonder.  Green will come again in its time and the feathers beating against the warming air will welcome in spring. I hope there are no more threats, I hope we all rise high and find a place to soar. Fare well.

Photo by TheOther Kev on Pexels.com

Simply Sempervivum

“In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” Aristotle, 384–322 BC

Life is about the details – around us, above us and often, below us.  There’s something about a walk, say in a garden, where you just might question if it’s in the inherent physics of plants to make us stoop over a leaf or bloom and for an instant, get lost in the wonder of a growing thing.  We just may need to find wonder more and more these days – a fascination in the smallest of things or the value someone else puts on them. 

Case in point, I now have an obsession with Sempervivums.

Sempervivum!  Imagine a dirt encrusted guerilla gardener holding a trowel high overhead, balancing a few green gems in her other hand, and marching towards a drying landscape, a pot, or a boot. Ok, maybe too dramatic but this plant is a survivor – I like that.

There is such beauty in the structure of these botanic stars. Makes you think of geometric symmetries, Fibonacci sequencing, abstract art – plants often have a great way of distracting you from the everyday and I know we need that from time-to-time.

Naturally, there is a story. I grew up listening to my mum talking affectionately about “hens and chicks” and considered this a decidedly strange term, an oddity of another gardening generation. But when we found our home, there they were, succulent green stars tucked between stones – not quite twinkling but definitely in a northern universe of their own.  I was forever hooked. I now know that mum was enchanted by them too – obviously genetic.

Sempervivum means “always living”, so poetic isn’t it? The botanical name is the fundamental hint that these plants are survivors.  Also known as houseleeks, they’re succulents in that they hold water and will work well in sites that are drier than most and freely drain – hence the use in rockeries, among others. And if you really love them, you can even pot them up for indoor enjoyment.

One interesting history of the plant, and a possible source for the houseleek nomenclature, was a traditional use of tucking them between roof shingles to prevent lightning strikes, fires – apparently all things risky. Hmmm – have you read the news these daze? Might check to see if there is room on the roof for one or two or….?

Sempervivium insists that you slow your pace, that you bend down low and admire the myriad designs the rosettes make. There you can see how the chicks, or offsets, grow from the edges to form a mat or, when broken off, start a new planting on their own.

Offsets in the offing – and so the garden grows.

Like most plants, people seem either to love them or hate them. Did you guess I’m in the love camp?

There’s another perspective however. I know this as a former colleague once lamented about how her husband would pull them out of their garden and toss the small botanic packages over the fence . His goal? To remove their very offensive presence. Hmmm. Lucky neighbour methinks.

The flipside of this view was evident a few years back when we visited Enlgand. A friend and I, having not realized that Vita Sackville West’s garden was closed that day (note to self – check before  you wander), were redirected and headed to Great Dixter in Rye, East Sussex. Gobsmacked by the story of the place and the creative gardening influence of Christopher Lloyd, we wandered for hours – that magic pull of gardens and plants again! Eventually we stumbled on two young gardeners, maybe students, kneeling on a stone patio delicately placing what must have been hundreds of these garden stars as a planned design element of the garden.  It was magic, the interplay of soft colours making a living quilt in the slanted sunshine. And it didn’t end there, Sempervivums also popped up in crockery and between the roof tiles. 

Here, on a late summer day this year, I visited a local farm to buy a perfect bouquet from a gal who had adapted her retail activity when COVID limited the use of market stalls, to her floral enticements being offered up in a weathered barn. Around the edge of the building and along a path, there were the succulent beauties brimming out of an old boot, further down out of a shoe.  Magic again and oh-so-appropriate for hens and chicks.

Later this week, I’ll share a coffee with a local Lanark County Master Gardener who is known for her specialisation in succulents.  Friendships can form over green pursuits if you let them, and in so doing add yet another invaluable dimension to the scope of a garden. We’ll chat, compare pandemic pastimes no doubt, then root the conversation in tales about hens and chicks, stones and boots.

A small thing. A beautiful thing. Keep looking – maybe that’s just what we need now and anytime.

A harvest of crabby delight

You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

Like most of us in this pandemic year, we look for new pastimes – a means to find moments of joy in difficult times.  With the cooling of the season and yes, the turning of the first leaves to autumn gold and red, it means embracing a sense of adventure – one that mingles community with taste!

Case in point – crab apples, Malus.  This town, on the edge of wild, is home to many a crab apple tree.  Many are beloved. Most of the year, after the riot of spectacular spring blooms have faded, you wouldn’t even notice them but come September, well.  Red and yellow fruit brighten against the green leaves in private yards, lining streets, and on the edges of woodlands where their perfume bounces on the breeze.  A scent of – is it cider? – wafts down the streets and tempts passersby. You just know there could be orchards of goodness out there waiting for the child in you to come out to play.

The immediate result here? We played! And right there, on our back deck, beside the painted red rocking chair, a large basket brimming with fruit from two crab apple trees, Malus ‘Dolgo’.

We hadn’t really noticed them until a gardening friend (thanks Allan!) sent an email suggesting we enjoy the bounty from trees he had planted in the community.  Sounded like a fine idea and we wandered over one afternoon eager for a harvest – although honestly unsure what the ultimate result would be.  

Did I mention we were new to this?

Must confess, we didn’t realize we were looking at apple trees at all.  In fact, we were convinced that the apple tree that we were looking for must be hidden behind these plum trees – so thick they were with small fruit.  It only took one bite to push plums out of our minds and to recognize the small, sweet-tart rounds of luscious crab apples! Fast forward – the basket on the deck.

Within the course of a few days, and a well-placed Facebook post, suggestions gleefully flowed for pies, dried fruit, applesauce, apple butter, apple jelly – all shared with the excitement of well practiced tastes.  This was rapidly followed by offers of hand cranked food processors, jelly jars and in one case, of an actual taste tester. The generosity of garden folk was so appreciated when we realized that this simple act of apple transformation into imagined winter delights was going to take some learning.

Now, somewhere in the depths of the pantry we had stored a box of canning jars. The idea had entered our minds years ago but over time the jars had become candles holders, impromptu vases, dust collectors. However, we did have a large pot, a hand crank food processor, and new lids. There was also the seemingly infinite reams of advice on the web, in cookbooks and through the freely shared experiences of friends pulled into kitchens by harvest delights.

These common apples, as they were once known, could have become so many things from jams to pies. But for us, through the shared experiences of those who succumb to the temptations of apples – move over Eve – we washed and we boiled, we strained and we canned. It was the best of times – who knew?

Now we smile to think that downstairs, on shelves tucked against a wall, the dark shadows obscure the rich red of crab apple sauce and crab apple jelly that wait to help us make it through winter, then spring. Once there, the lovely trees will bloom again, a cycle of green, and of friendship, leading us forward to the delights of new days – embracing the bitter and the sweet.