Monkshood & Snakeroot for a Fall Finale

What a luscious October afternoon! I looked out my back window and was drawn, as I always am this time in autumn, to the furthest corner of the garden, where a little fall scene unfolds that I treasure more because it’s a secret. Want to see it?  Let’s take a little stroll past the messy pots on the deck with their various sedums and swishing sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula) out into the garden past the table and chairs that haven’t been used since… when? August?

Janet Davis-garden-autumn

Keep going to where the lovely chartreuse Tiger Eyes sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Bailtiger’) is currently doing its Hollywood star thing in brilliant apricot…..

Tiger Eye Sumac-Rhus typhina 'Bailtiger'-fall color

But what’s this scene, just behind it?

Tiger Eye Sumac-snakeroot-monkshood-Janet Davis

Yes, two stalwarts of the autumn garden – and I mean autumn, fall, October!  Autumn monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’) and autumn snakeroot (Actaea simplex), aka fall bugbane. Each year, they flower at the same time, and enjoy identical conditions in my garden, i.e. the most moisture-retentive soil (lowest corner of the garden by a few inches), with reasonable midday sunshine but dappled shade a good portion of the day. The fragrance of the snakeroot is fabulous, something a little soft and incense-like, or reminiscent of talcum powder (in the nicest way).  Colour-wise, I love blue and white, from the earliest anemones-with-scilla in April to this shimmering, assertive finale.

Janet Davis-Actaea simplex & Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

And did I mention pollinators? As in bumble bees of different species, honey bees……

Pollinators-autumn garden-fall snakeroot & monkshood-

(WHO has the beehives near my house? I’d love to know)…..

Honey bees-Apis mellifera-Actaea simplex-fall snaekroot

……hover flies…..

Hover-fly on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

….and paper wasps, below, as well as ants and cucumber beetles.

Paper wasp on fall snakeroot-Actaea simplex

Monkshood is deadly poisonous, but its pollen seems to be an attraction for bumble bees and honey bees once the asters have finished up.

Bombus-Fall Monkshood-Aconitum carmichaelii 'Arendsii'

Finally, do note that the snakeroot is not any of those fancy-schmancy dark-leaved cultivars like ‘Brunette’, but the straight species with plain-Jane-green-foliage,. And that it used to be called Cimicifuga, but the gene sequencers have now moved it into Actaea.  It is a lovely plant and should be used much, much more.

A Visit to Idaho Botanical Garden

Before the bloom is off the rose, I’d like to take you on a tour of the Idaho Botanical Garden. This has been sitting in my to-do pile for a year, the delightful culmination of a trip we made to the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone National Park and Sun Valley, Idaho last September. That morning, we’d driven down from Sun Valley, elevation 5945 feet, with its ski runs visible, below…..

Sun Valley Idaho-summer

….to Boise, 2730 feet.The late summer scenery on the 160-mile drive down was at first sage-dominated high rangeland (ecologically termed “sagebrush steppe”) flanking the Sawtooth National Forest….

Rangeland-Sawtooth National Forest

….and later, as we descended towards Highway 84 near Mountain Home, Idaho, gold and green farm grasses and picturesque grain silos against a backdrop of the indigo-shaded mountains of the Sawtooth Range.

Grain silo-Sawtooth Range-Idaho

How I would love to have been on this road in spring – an entire camas prairie!

Camas Prairie-Centennial Marsh

After making the turn onto Highway 84, we headed northwest into Boise where I had arranged to meet my garden writing colleague Mary Ann Newcomer, author and host of Dirt Diva on Boise radio. (If you’ve got a few minutes, listen to this excellent interview with her on North State Public Radio.) She kindly picked us up at our hotel after lunch and chauffeured us to the botanical garden where she spent 10 years as a board member and continues her relationship today as the garden updates certain sections.

Janet Davis & Mary-Ann Newcomer (2)

We entered via the newly-installed, Franz Witte-designed Entrance Garden.

Entrance garden-Idaho Botanical Garden-Boise

Coming in we passed a display of annuals that was as beautifully-maintained as it was colourful!

Annuals - Idaho Botanical Garden

There was a wedding reception going on in the English garden when we arrived, but we asked permission to sneak in.

English garden terrace-Idaho Botanical

Mary Ann continues to be particularly involved in the English garden, now undergoing a design update to accommodate the increased shade of trees that were tiny sticks when installed years ago, like the lovely katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) below…

Katsura tree-Idaho Botanical

I liked the unobtrusive shrub support for this clematis.

Clematis-English Garden-Idaho Botanical

Iron gates created a lovely flow through this garden.

Gate-English garden-Idaho Botanical

Late summer perennials, shrubs and grasses were in their glory, like the blue mist bush (Caryopteris x clandonensis) with feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’) below.

Caryopteris & Calamagrostis-Idaho Botanical Garden

There were some sweet surprises, too, like this miniature pumpkin vine climbing the upright stems of fernleaf elderberry (Sambucus canadensis ‘Laciniata’).

Fernleaf elderberry & pumpkin vine-Idaho Botanical

We were chatting so much, I didn’t pay close attention to our meander into other areas, including the Rose Garden. Looking up through rose blossoms at a former prison watchtower, this is when you understand that the Idaho Botanical Garden is situated on the former site of the Idaho Penitentiary.  And though all the buildings now house botanical garden administration offices, etc., it’s a remarkable use of historic property.

Watchtower-Idaho Botanical

We passed some fun metal sculptures.

Sculptures-Idaho Botanical Garden

I loved this little inset border of colourful annuals beside the Meditation Garden.

Meditation garden-Idaho Botanical

In the Children’s Garden was a fabulous display of carnivorous plants. What a great teaching opportunity this is. (And yes, that’s native annual sunflower behind!)

Carnivorous plants-Children's Adventure Garden-Idaho Botanical Garden

And this looked like great fun for kids.

Children's Adventure-Garden-Idaho Botanical

For this high desert climate (Boise is classified as USDA Zone 7, but frequent, sustained winter lows have persuaded Mary Ann that it’s safer to buy plants for Zone 5), Idaho Botanical Garden features an important garden, the Plant Select® Demonstration Garden.  Based on a program developed by Denver Botanic Garden and Colorado State University, these are plants that are adapted to Boise’s hot, dry summers.  I loved this combination of Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ and Wright’s buckwheat (Eriogonum wrightii var. wrightii).

Bouteloua 'Blonde Ambition' & Eriogonum wrightii var. wrightii-Idaho Botanical

And this little firecracker has become a new “it” plant: ‘Marian Sampson’ hummingbird mint (Monardella macrantha).

Monardella macrantha 'Marian Sampson'-Plant Select

What about this gorgeous Mojave sage, Salvia pachyphylla?

Salvia pachyphylla-Mountain Desesrt Sage-Idaho Botanical

As we left the Plant Select® garden, I stopped to admire a little sagebrush lizard.

Sagebrush Lizard-Idaho Botanical Garden

We passed by the beautiful Herb Garden….

Herb Garden-Idaho Botanical

…. but stopped for a bit in the Vegetable Garden.

Vegetable garden-Idaho Botanical

Check out the cages on those berries! That’s the way to outsmart birds and rodents.

Vegetable garden-protective cages-Idaho Botanical

You can grow grapes in the high desert!

Grapes-Idaho Botanical

Then it was on to the Summer Succulent Garden.

Summer Succulent Garden-Idaho Botanical

I could have spent a lot of time studying the various opuntias and cylindropuntias…..Summer Succulent Garden-Cactus-Idaho Botanical

But we were heading up to another of Mary Ann’s favourite areas: the Lewis & Clark Native Garden. The garden celebrates a score of native plants, including many that were recorded for the first time by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery during their President Thomas Jefferson-commissioned 1803-05 expedition west through the Louisiana Territory to the Pacific.


For me, this fabulous garden represents what botanical gardens should be doing everywhere: celebrating locally indigenous plants according to their geographical and ecological niches, and showing visitors the rich diversity of flora native to their region. Here the stone marker is appropriately flanked with snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), a plant observed by Lewis near Missoula, Montana on August 13, 1805.

Lewis & Clark Native Plant Garden-snowberry-Idaho Botanical

I saw plants I’d never heard of before on this path, like fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium), with its big, bee-friendly panicles……

Fernbush-Chamaebatiaria millefolium

…..  and cascara buckthorn (Rhamnus purshiana), whose dried bark was used as a laxative by the Native Americans of the Pacific northwest, then by colonialists. (I even recall cascara being in medicine cabinets when I was a girl!)

Rhamnus purshiana-Cascara buckthorn

In the Western Waterwise Garden…..

Western Waterwise Garden-Idaho Botanical

….. I found beautiful creeping hummingbird trumpet (Zauschneria garrettii ‘Orange Carpet’)….

Zauschneria garrettii 'Orange Carpet'

In the Wetlands Garden….

Wetlands Garden-Idaho-Botanical

…. there was familiar Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium)….

Mahonia aquefolium-Oregon grape

…. and unfamiliar black or Douglas hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii), ultimately named for David Douglas, who later collected the seed in his explorations of the west….

Crataegus douglasii-Douglas hawthorn

…. and lovely streambank wild hollyhock (Iliamnia rivularis).

Iliamna rivularis-Streambank wild hollyhock-Idaho Botanical

Then I was exploring Plants of the Canyons. I loved this creative way of showing off Idaho natives!

Plants of the Canyons-Idaho Botanical

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) was collected by Lewis & Clark on June 15, 1806, on the Lolo Trail in Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains. Clearly, young plants are a favourite of hungry herbivores up here!

Xerophyllum tenax-beargrass-Lewis & Clark-Idaho Botanical

Here is beautiful western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), recorded by the explorers the very next day, June 16th.

Aquilegia formosa-western columbine

Nine days later, on June 25, 1806, they found scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) on the Lolo Trail.

Ipomopsis aggregata-Scarlet gilia-Lewis & Clark-Idaho Botanical

Look at the beautiful markings of scarlet gilia, which show stripes typical of the colour shift that occurs in some populations of this species later in the season.  According to the USDA: “Red-flowered races of scarlet gilia tend to be pollinated mostly by hummingbirds, which are especially attracted to the color red because of their outstanding vision. White flowers are more attractive to moths that visit the gilia flowers at dusk or nighttime and are drawn by the flower’s unpleasant scent. Scarlet gilia blooms over much of the summer and in some populations blossoms that emerge from May to July are red and hummingbird pollinated, while flowers that mature later in July and August are white and pollinated by moths. This color shift can even be observed among different flowers on the same plant.

Ipomopsis aggregata-closeup-Scarlet gilia

To treat his fever and intestinal condition, Lewis made a dark tea of chokecherry bark (Prunus virginiana), shown in fruit below, collected May 29, 1806 near present day Kamiah, Idaho.

Prunus virginiana-Chokecherry-Lewis & Clark

Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor) was noted on the same day.

Holodiscus discolor-Oceanspray-Lewis & Clark-Idaho Botanical

Nootka rose (R. nutkana) had already formed hips. It was observed in flower on the Wieppe Prairie by Lewis & Clark on June 10, 1806.

Rosa nutkana-Nootka rose-hips-Lewis & Clark

In the grasses grew annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus), so elegant and simple – unlike the big, multi-coloured forms produced by hybridizers over the past two centuries. Its height was impressive to Sgt. John Ordway, who referred to it as “weedy” on August 13, 1804. He wrote: “we crossed the North branch and proceded along the South branch which was verry fatigueing for the high Grass Sunflowers & thistles &C all of which were above 10 feet high


Annual great blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) was observed by the expedition in what is now Lewis & Clark County (Helena), Montana, on July 7, 1806.

Gaillardia aristata-Great blanketflower-Lewis & Clark

On February 2, 1806, the Lewis & Clark expedition was at Fort Clatsop, Oregon, when blue elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) was collected.

Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea-Blue elderberry-Lewis & Clark

Prickly pear (Opuntia polyacantha) was observed on September 19, 1804 in Lower Butte, South Dakota, but its effects were regularly felt by the Corps of Discovery. Wrote Clark: “… as the thorns very readily perce the foot through the Mockerson; they are so numerous that it requires one half the traveler’s attention to avoid them.”

Opuntia polyacantha-Prickly pear-Lewis & Clark

Ponderosa pine, of course, is the predominant conifer in this region. When Clark was preparing to navigate the Columbia River in the fall of 1805 and his men were ill and weak, he felled ponderosas and hollowed them out by burning so they could serve as canoes. The seeds are edible, and the pitch from the tree could be used to waterproof the canoes, but it was also used as chewing gum and as a glue to fix arrowheads to the shafts.

Pinus ponderosa-Lewis & Clark

I finally reached the top and saw a small garden devoted to Sacajawea (c. 1787-1812). As a child in the Shoshone nation, she had been kidnapped and raised by the Haditsa tribe before being sold in 1804 to French-Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau.  However unsavory her husband (nine years earlier, he had been stabbed by an old Saultier woman in Manitoba for raping her daughter, and he was already married to a Shoshone when he married Sacajawea), Clark valued Sacajawea immensely for her knowledge of the Shoshone language and arranged for her, Charbonneau (who spoke Haditsa) and his other wife, Otter Woman, to accompany the expedition as translators. In February 1805, Sacajawea’s son Jean Baptiste was born on the trail.


Not only did Sacajawea find food for the expedition from the land, including hog peanuts (Amphicarpa bracteata) and Indian breadroot (Pediomelum esculentum), she provided valuable information on the navigability of the Missouri River, in Montana, having recognized it from her childhood with the Shoshone. On August 17, 1805, Clark  watched as she was reunited with her brother Cameahwait, the Shoshone chief.  She and Otter woman then translated communications from the Shoshone to the Haditsa language, which Charbonneau was then able to translate into English for Clark and Lewis. After the gruelling 3-week trek through the Bitterroot Mountains they finally reached a tributary of the Columbia River.  The painting below by famed Montana artist Charles Marian Russell was made in 1905, exactly 100 years later, titled “Lewis & Clark on the Lower Columbia”, and shows Sacajawea gesturing to unidentified Indians of a West Coast tribe.Charles Marion Russell-1905-Lewis & Clark on the Lower Columbia

In early winter, Clark and Lewis reached the Pacific Ocean. When a trip was arranged to procure whale meat, Clark wrote of Sacajawea: “She observed that She had traveled a long way with us to See the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, She thought it verry hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocian).”  She and Charbonneau were allowed to go. They began the return trip in late spring, Jean Baptiste, and the Charbonneau family stayed with the expedition until August, 1806, when Clark offered to set them up in St. Louis and oversee the education of Jean Baptiste, whom he had nicknamed “Pompey”, his version of the Shoshone word for “firstborn”.  Though Charbonneau refused initially, in September 1809 he bought land from Clark and tried his hand at farming for 18 months, before quitting and departing with Sacajawea, leaving behind their 5-year old son to be raised by Clark. Sacajawea would die of typhus a few years later, four months after giving birth to their daughter Lisette. Eventually, the guardianship of both children would be transferred to Clark.

Sacajawea-sign-Idaho Botanical

It would have been wonderful to visit Sacajawea’s garden in spring, when the camas is in bloom.

Camassia quamash-Camas lily

As it was, I had to content myself with enjoying this sculpture by Rusty Talbot called Camas Lily/Sacajawea.


Standing at the Promontory, I was able to look down at the old prison buildings below through two more common sage steppe plants mentioned by Lewis & Clark, green rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus) with yellow flowers in the foreground, and rubber rabbitbrush or chamisa (Ericameria nauseosa) with glaucous leaves beyond.

Promontory view-Idaho Botanical

I could have dallied for hours more, but it was time to make the trek back down. Thank you, Mary Ann Newcomer, for introducing me to your special garden. I learned so much!

Festival Theatre Garden – Stratford

For the first time in more than 20 years, I spent a few days this month at Ontario’s venerable Stratford Festival. (For the record, we saw Guys & Dolls – highly recommended; HMS Pinafore – fun Gilbert & Sullivan; and The Changeling – read a story précis before seeing!).  We walked along the Avon River on our way to the first play, and I thought for the thousandth time how lovely our native wildflowers look in early autumn. This is heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) with lots of bees!

Symphyotrichum ericoides-Heath aster-Avon River-Stratford

The entire countryside around Stratford is gorgeous in September, with rows of tall corn and nearly-ripe pumpkins filling the fields near Highway 7 as you drive in. In fact, it’s one of the beautiful farms in the area that renowned singer Loreena McKennitt calls home. I interviewed her in Stratford for a story I proposed and wrote for Chatelaine Gardens! magazine some 21 years ago.

Loreena McKennitt-1997-Chatelaine Gardens

A few summers later, I visited Stratford to photograph the new garden at the Festival Theatre for a story I proposed and wrote for Landscape Trades Magazine.  Having opened in 1997, it was under the expert care of Stratford Festival head gardener Harry Jongerden, who is now Executive Director of the Toronto Botanical Garden.

Landscape Trades-1999-Festival Theatre Garden

Returning to Stratford this month, I was excited to see how the garden had weathered over the past few decades and, especially, to see what was in bloom in the first week of autumn.  Since my magazine story was published such a long time ago, I’ll take the liberty of quoting it from time to time here, as we tour the plants – like this lovely Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida ‘Whirlwind’).

Anemone x hybrida 'Whirlwind' - Festival Theatre


Two hours west of Toronto, on a hill overlooking the Avon River, sits the Festival Theatre, main stage and head office for Canada’s renowned Stratford Festival. Since its first production in 1953, a play directed by Tyrone Guthrie, starting Alec Guinness and mounted under a canvas tent, the Festival has enjoyed wide critical acclaim, and Stratford has become a mecca for theatre lovers — and garden lovers. Isn’t this swamp hibiscus (H. moscheutos) spectacular?

Hibiscus moscheutos-Swamp hibiscus-Festival Theatre Garden

In 1997, the Festival Theatre (one of three in Stratford used by the festival) underwent a major renewal under the direction of Toronto architect Thomas Payne, then of KPMB Architects, now with Thomas Payne Architect.  Trained at Yale and Princeton and one-time protégé of Barton Myers, Payne’s work includes the ethereal Fields Institute for Mathematics at the University of Toronto, a new home for the National Ballet of Canada, the much celebrated Tanenbaum Sculpture Gallery at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), the restoration of the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the Young Theatre for the Performing Arts (Soulpepper). His work at Stratford involved indoor renovations such as changing the rake of the theatre floor to create more spacious seating; adding technical gutters and an acoustical canopy; and renovating the lobby.  And with the collaboration of Toronto landscape designer Neil Turnbull, Payne created The Arthur Meighen Gardens, named for Canada’s ninth prime minister and funded, in large part, by the Meighen family foundation. It  was a new garden that was as rich in theatrical allusion as it was in stone and plants.

Arthur Meighen Gardens-Festival Theatre

A horseshoe-shaped entrance driveway lined with concrete arbor columns, each one draped with a clematis in early summer – or morning glories in late summer — encircles the garden.  “At night,” Payne told me then, they look like Noguchi lamps.”

Anemone x hybrida & Festival Theatre Lights

The columns, each dedicated to a local benefactor, are clothed in a sock of inexpensive, water-repellent canvas symbolizing the canvas roof of the first performance tent.

Ipomoea tricolor-Morning glory-Festival Theatre

The garden is a fragrant, romantic tumble of perennials, designed to be in bloom as the curtain rises in mid-April, and still have something in flower for October’s final curtain call.  In late September, ligularia and blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’) are still providing colour as the ornamental grasses begin to flower.

Ligularia & rudbeckia-Festival Theatre Garden
Of the garden’s hard structure, Thom Payne said:  “We wanted a great stone wall with greenery growing on it.  The concept is quite mathematical. It’s a cribbage – a series of limestone terraces – that fall away on a grid toward the lowest point.”  Typical of Mr. Payne’s tendency to use the landscape to hint at what can be found indoors, the main path travels through the garden and over the bridge above the formal lily pond – all on the axis of Aisle 2 Entrance Lobby.  “It plays a prominent role in delivering people to the front door.”

Festival Theatre Garden walkway

In creating the cribbing for the terraces, Payne was mindful of his budget but still wanted the natural appearance of stone.  He used pigmented, specially-finished, architectural concrete as an inexpensive foundation for the walls.  He then capped it with 6-inch split-faced Eramosa limestone from local quarries.  “There are a lot of things,” he says, “that are extremely cost-effective, yet I think the overall effect is one of richness, theatricality and permanence.”  Below is a sturdy, gold yarrow (Achillea filipendulina) with a deep red swamp hibiscus.

Yarrow-Achillea filipendulina-Festival Theatre

When it came time to plan the 32 terrace beds, Neil Turnbull drew on a long career as one of the country’s most inspired plantsmen and landscape designers.  In seeking a theme, he hit upon another powerful symbol of early Shakespeare theatre, its festival banners and ribbons.  “I decided to create three ribbons of thyme that flow like curving rivers through the beds,” he explained. (The thyme is evident in the magazine cover above but I suspect other perennials have overwhelmed it somewhat over the years.)  Below is Japanese anemone with blue leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides).

Anemone x hybrida & Ceratostigma plumbaginoides-Festival Theatre Garden

Known for solving geometry on the drafting table but aesthetics on-site, Turnbull reasoned that the garden’s strength would be in the sheer massiveness of its plantings.  He had 21,000 plants expressly grown, and then placed them in recurring combinations throughout the beds.  In late summer, some of our wonderful natives provide spectacular colour, like goldenrod (Solidago sp.) and magenta-purple New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) below.

New England asters-&-goldenrod-Festival Theatre Garden

Lots of fall asters have been used at the theatre, like ‘Andenken an Alma Pötschke’, below, with a honey bee nectaring….

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae 'Alma Potschke'

…. and a dwarf lavender-purple aster paired with ‘Rosy Jane’ gaura (Oenothera lindheimerii), below.

Gaura & asters-Festival Theatre Garden

This summer has seen an extraordinary amount of rain and below-average temperatures until September, when we had a heat wave. So some plants had already begun to undergo a foliage change, like spring-flowering Euphorbia griffithi ‘Fireglow’, below.

Euphorbia griffithi 'Fireglow'-fall colour

As visitors reach the top of the planting beds on their way into the theatre, they cross a bridge over a formal rectangular pool…

Water Garden-Festival Theatre-Stratford

…..featuring the splash of a steel fountain.

Bridge & water garden-Festival Theatre Garden

The pool spans nearly the width of the garden….

Pool-Festival Theatre Garden

….and features aquatic plants like canna lily…..

Canna lily-Festival Theatre Garden

……water lilies,….

Nymphaea-Water lily

…. and unusual aquatics like rain lily (Zephyranthes candida).

Zephyranthes candida-Rain lily

As I left the garden, I noted all kind of pollinators flitting about. I saw bumble bees foraging deep in the yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata)…..

Bumble bee-Kirengeshoma palmata

….a carpenter bee nectar-robbing on obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana)….

Xylocopa virginica-carpenter bee-Physostegia-virginiana 'Variegata'

….and a hover-fly getting lost in the throat of a morning glory (Ipomoea tricolor).

Hoverfly-Morning Glory

Almost twenty years after my first visit, it was good to see the garden still looking gorgeous and being enjoyed by thousands of theatre-goers annually — plus untold numbers of tiny buzzing and fluttering visitors, too.

The Festival Theatre gardens are located at 55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario.  The Festival is open from mid-April to the end of October; for more information visit the Stratford Festival website.

Adapted from an article that appeared originally in Landscape Trades magazine

Wanuskewin – Finding Peace of Mind

For thousands of years, the Plains Cree peoples called the place I was born Kaminasaskwatominaskwak, “the place where many saskatoon berry bushes grow”. It was named for the native shrub Amelanchier alnifolia, below, found throughout the Canadian prairies and called “misaskwatomin” by the Cree, for whom saskatoon berries were essential to their diet and often incorporated into the protein-rich meat-fat mixture (traditionally made with bison) called “pemmican”. My birth certificate says I was born in Saskatoon – a less tongue-twisting word for non-natives, beginning with English fur trader Henry Kelsey, the first European to arrive in the area in 1690.

Amelanchier alnifolia-Saskatoon berry

My parents left Saskatchewan for Victoria, British Columbia when I was just 6 weeks old, so I never really gave much thought to the etymology of my home town’s name. When I was a little girl, my dad called our summer vacations to my Irish-born grandpa’s house in Saskatoon trips to “Saskabush” – and it would be decades before I knew there really was a ‘bush’ there, a special bush with a cloud of white flowers in spring and succulent reddish-blue summer fruit.

Saskatoonberry-Amelanchier alnifolia

If, as some philosophers believe, your birthplace imprints itself in your subconscious, I suppose it’s no surprise that I have always been drawn to prairie, whether the tallgrass of the American Central Plains or our own mixed-grass Northern Plains. So when I was in Saskatoon earlier in September for a family funeral, I paid two visits to Wanuskewin Heritage Park. The last time I saw it was the last time I was in Saskatoon in 1996, 4 years after its opening. It has evidently weathered some institutional gales in its 25 years, but has found smoother seas now and is the recent recipient of generous funding that will see its facilities improved and its mandate increased. It has also applied for UNESCO designation.

This is farming country and Wanuskewin is in the midst of it.

Google earth-Wanuskewin

Across the road from the park is a wheat field and, in the distance, the big grain elevators of Richardson Pioneer Ltd.

Wheatfield near Wanuskewin

Though Wanuskewin boasts myriad pre-contact archaeological sites representing 6000 years of Plains First Nations occupation, the land is not virgin prairie. In the early 1900s, it was homesteaded by the Penner family, whose name is still on the road sign nearby. They sold it in 1934 to the Vitkowski family, who farmed parts of it for almost a half-century before selling it in 1982 to the City of Saskatoon, which three years earlier had commissioned a 100-year master plan for the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) from Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama.  Saskatoon transferred it to the MVA the following year and it was named a Provincial Heritage Property.   In 1987, Queen Elizabeth visited Wanuskewin, designating it a National Historic Site; the interpretive centre and trails were opened in 1992.  It is working now to fulfil the necessary criteria to receive the UNESCO World Heritage designation.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Wanuskewin is Cree for “seeking peace of mind” and it was with this gentle objective on my first visit that I drove my rental car down the driveway to the entrance.


I walked around the handsome Visitors’ Centre, a “Northern Plains Indians cultural interpretive centre” covering the seven First Nations in this part of Saskatchewan. I saw displays of clothing on the wall,…..

Plains Indians-clothing-Wanuskewin

…a display case explaining the relationship of spring-flowering prairie crocus (Anemone patens) or “mostos otci” to the bison in First Nations natural history.

Mostos otci-Prairie crocus-Anemone patens-Wanuskewin

A tipi had been set up in the presentation lounge, just one of many interpretive programs, lessons and tours offered at Wanuskewin.

Tipi-Wanuskewin Visitors Centre

There was an impressive gathering of iconic bison nearby.  A little boy visiting felt a tail and declared it “so soft!”

Bison-Wanuskewin Visitors Centre

I read that a small bison herd is going to be returning to Wanuskewin soon – and are invoked in the park’s recent $40 million fundraising initiative #thunderingahead. Having been to the Nature Conservancy’s Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Osage Nation of northeast Oklahoma a decade ago, I know the powerful symbolism of these magnificent beasts, especially to the indigenous peoples whose ancestors co-existed with them, venerating them as they harvested them for food, shelter and clothing. The bison below, part of an introduced herd of 2500, was standing in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), one of the keystone species of tallgrass prairie.

Bison-Oklahoma Tallgrass Prairie-Nature Conservancy

Wanuskewin’s reintroduced bison, on the other hand, will ultimately find a diet of mixed native prairie grasses (many newly introduced to meet the animals’ needs) and a few invasive interlopers, like smooth brome grass (Bromus inermis). They will find 240 hectares (600 acres) of plains and valley hugging the west bank of the winding South Saskatchewan River, about 5 kilometres north of Saskatoon. And they will share the prairie with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year who, like me, set out on a trek of discovery.

Wanueskewin Trail Map

Out I went into the late summer prairie heat, taking a trail that led past the recreation of an ancient buffalo pound once located at this spot….

Buffalo pound-Wanuskewin

……down into the valley to the Tipi Village in a grove of trembling aspens..


I carried on up the hill behind the tipis, passing a few vivid painted reminders of the Plains people who might have camped here at one time…..


…… or planted crops and gathered grain.

Gathering food-Wanuskewin

From the top of the hill, I looked back at the Visitors’ Centre. Designed by the architecture farm aodbt, Its roof peaks are intended to suggest tipis.

Wanuskewin-Visitors' Centre-Roof peaks

And up here, I had my first glimpse of one of the distinctive plants of the Central Plains: wolf willow (Eleaegnus commutata).  Some people call this suckering shrub ‘silverberry’ for the fruit that follows the small, fragrant, yellow flowers.  It feeds grouse and songbirds, but it has also fed the imagination of artists and writers.

Elaeagnus commutata-Wolf willow

I am currently reading Wallace Stegner’s classic Wolf Willow (1955), centred on the Tom Sawyer-like years of his childhood spent in the town of Whitemud (Eastend) in Saskatchewan’s western Cypress Hills where his parents had a small home in the village and homesteaded a 320-acre wheat farm near the Montana border. I love Stegner’s thoughtful prose (he became head of the Creative Writing department at Stanford and a respected author of books about the American west) and while the multi-faceted literary approach he uses in Wolf Willow in exploring his own evolution as a person is brilliant and has generated a trove of critical analysis, what he failed to find in digging into his past — though he traces the history of the Métis masterfully — is what Wanuskewin is all about. It is here to tell a great story about the people Stegner barely noticed, other than the little Métis boys he played with, the people who can trace their lineage on the prairie for thousands of years before Europeans arrived to raise cattle and grow wheat.

From the high vantage point, I gazed down onto Opimihaw Creek through a leafy bouquet of Saskatoon berry already taking on its tired autumn hues of rose and gold. Flowing through the valley from the mighty South Saskatchewan river nearby, Opimihaw has given sustenance to this place and its people and wildlife for millennia.

Opimihaw Creek -Wanuskewin

As I walked along the rise, I saw lichen-spangled rocks nestled in the tawny prairie grasses like sculpture.

Rocks with lichen-Wanuskewin

Rock, of course, was an essential part of life for Plains Indians, who used basalt, granite and schist to fashion the implements that have been found in archaeological digs at Wanuskewin and nearby, as shown in these donated artifacts in the Visitors’ Centre.

Rock tools-Wanuskewin

I climbed back down into the valley, surprising a great blue heron that had been fishing in the creek.

Great Blue Heron-Wanuskewin

I looked up and saw robins conferring noisily in the branches of a dead tree.


In the damp valley near the creek were sandbar willow (Salix interior)…..

Sandbar Willow-Salix interior-Wanuskewin

….. and snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) which is one of the dominant shrubs at Wanuskewin in both damp and dry places.

Symphoricarpos albus-Snowberry-Wanuskewin

There were lots of rose hips; these are likely from Rosa acicularis, but low prairie rose (R. arkansana) and Woods’ rose (R. woodsii) also grow here.

Rose hips-Wanuskewin

I gazed back at the Visitors’ Centre through the changing fall leaves of Manitoba maple or box elder (Acer negundo), one of the principal tree species in the valley….

Acer negundo-Manitoba maple-Wanuskewin

…. and past the crimson fruit of firebelly hawthorn (Crataegus chrysocarpa)…

Crataegus chrysocarpa-Firebelly Hawthorn-Wanuskewin

…. and silver buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea).  Like wolf willow, this shrub is a member of the Oleaster family, Elaeagnaceae.

Shepherdia argentea-Buffalo-berry-Wanuskewin

The Saskatchewan prairie, like the rest of North America, has not escaped the invasion of buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica), which was introduced from Europe in the early 19th century.

Rhamnus cathartica-invasive buckthorn-Wanuskewin

I climbed back up the rise onto the dry prairie and looked out through a scrim of fall-coloured shrubs and trees at the South Saskatchewan River flowing away from me.  It flows 1392 kilometres (865 miles), originating at the confluence of the Bow and Oldman Rivers in Alberta with their Rocky Mountain glacial water. It flows under multiple bridges in Saskatoon, beneath Wanuskewin’s tall bluffs and eventually joins with the North Saskatchewan River about 40 miles east of Prince Albert to form the Saskatchewan River.

South Saskatchewan-River view-Wanuskewin

I was now on the ancient Trail of the Bison, and though ‘civilization’ lay just across the river, I marveled at the ‘bigness’ and ’emptiness’ of the prairie behind me.  I turned and looked the other way down the river towards Saskatoon, at the undulating bluffs and the grassy floodplain flats on the shore. South Saskatchewan-River-Bluffs-Wanuskewin

It had been a hot summer and the vegetation was parched, but here and there I saw the odd wildflower, like spotted blazing star (Liatris punctata)….

Liatris punctata-spotted blazing star-Wanuskewin

….and prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)…

Ratibida columnifera-Prairie coneflower-Wanuskewin

….and tiny rush-pink (Stephanomeria runcinata) with its wiry stems.

Rush-pink-Stephanomeria runcinata-Wanuskewin

I saw the cottony seedheads of long-fruited thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica).

Anemone cylindrica-long-fruited thimbleweed

But it had been a long day, beginning with my 4:30 am wakeup in Toronto, the flight to Saskatoon, and three hours tramping the prairie. I was tiring and ready to head to the hotel. As l made my way down the trail to the Opimihaw Valley and back towards the Visitors’ Centre, I was careful not to step off the path, because those red leaves with the telltale “three leaves let it be” were the prairie variety of poison ivy (Rhus radicans var. rydbergii).

Poison ivy-Rhus radicans var. rydbergii-Wanuskewin

I was sad not to have seen the famous Medicine Wheel, but vowed to try to return after the weekend.  As I was leaving, a staff member came up and told me there was about to be a hoop dance performance. I met young Lawrence Roy Jr., below, in the Visitors’ Centre lobby and decided to head out to the amphitheatre to watch him.

Lawrence Roy Jr-hoop dancer-Wanuskewin

This is my video of Lawrence’s performance (with a little wind interference – it’s hard to capture sound at Wanuskewin without the relentless wind):

And then it was back to the hotel and family.

Monday September 11, 2017:

When I returned to Wanuskewin, the wind was whipping the prairie so fiercely, I put my sun hat back in the car for fear it would fly away.  Fortunately, it wasn’t sunny as I set out on the Circle of Harmony trail towards the Medicine Wheel. What you cannot appreciate from the photo below is how that expanse of grass was rippling like a storm-tossed ocean, and the sound of it was violent and thrilling at the same time. (If you read my blog to the end, you can view a video I made to try to capture the rhythmic movement of the grasses.)

Circle of Harmony Trail-Wanuskewin

As I walked along a steep embankment with a spectacular view of the Opimihaw Valley (sometimes spelled Opamihaw) and the high point opposite where I’d stood a few days earlier overlooking the river, I realized I was standing on the site of the ancient buffalo jump.

Buffalo Jump-Opimihaw Valley-Wanuskewin

Can you imagine, some 2300 years ago, being somewhere nearby as young ‘buffalo runners’, who had channelled herds of these massive animals along ‘drive lines’ of rocks and brush (the driveway into Wanuskewin is situated on the drive line), often for a mile or more, aiming the terrified animals at this cliff where they stampeded them over its edge into the valley?  Other members of the band waited in a clearing below to kill those bison that had not died in the crush of the fall, before skinning them to utilize the hide, meat and bones. Life at Wanuskewin revolved around the bison.

Buffalo Jump-interpretive sign-Wanuskewin

Before long, I came upon the ancient Sunburn Tipi Rings site, with its magnificent 360-degree views.

Sunburn Tipi Rings-Wanuskewin

As the interpretive sign says, it was an excellent place for a summer encampment, its position on the plateau offering cooling winds in summer and a commanding view of the river.

Sunburn Tipi Rings-Interpretive Sign-Wanuskewin

Not far away was the Medicine Wheel, arguably the most important archaeological find at Wanuskewin. This arrangement of boulders has been dated to more than 1500 B.P. and is one of just 70 documented medicine wheels in the northern U.S. and southern Canada (and considered to be the most northerly wheel in existence).

Medicine Wheel-Wanuskewin

Each  is different, some with a single hoop arrangement of boulders; others with a double hoop or spokes emanating from the centre. Some refer to astronomy (like Wyoming’s Medicine Mountain wheel which measures the 28 days of the lunar cycle); others attach different symbolic meaning to the four directional quadrants. Wanuskewin’s Medicine Wheel, whose boulders (below) were mapped c. 1964 , is still used for sacred ceremonial gatherings.

Medicine Wheel-Detail-Wanuskewin

Wanuskewin has benefited from the work of Saskatoon archaeologist Dr. Ernie Walker, who has supervised digs here since the early 1980s.

I decided to walk down the trail to the valley, through the aspen forest and along the river. Damning of the South Saskatchewan over the decades has lowered the water level, so that some of the sandbars are now permanent.

Sandbar-South Saskatchewan River-Wanuskewin

With my telephoto lens I could see the wind-whipped whitecaps as the river curved under the bluffs.


The view of the Visitors’ Centre from the valley was spectacular. I realized I was hungry, and decided it was time to head back there again.

Wanuskewin-Visitors Centre

I was windswept, sunburnt and happy – time for a photo to remember the mood! And I was very ready for some lunch!

Janet Davis-Wanuskewin

As I approached the centre, I decided to pay a visit to the adjacent 7 Sisters Garden.

Wanuskewin-7 Sisters Garden

An interpretive display in the centre explains the identity of the seven sisters….

7 Sisters-Wanuskewin

….which I’ve arranged in a montage below. Clockwise from upper left, 1) sunroot (Jerusalem artichoke); 2) corn; 3) beans; 4) tobacco; 5) sunflower; 6) squash; and 7) as the young woman in the centre said to me: “Us!”  (I’ve taken the liberty of using the painted figure near the Tipi Village to illustrate ‘Us!’.)

Seven Sisters-Wanuskewin

Out in the garden itself, I was interested in the traditional 3 Sisters method of planting: using a combination of dent corn, beans and squash.  Given its modern iteration, the heat and drought meant that a sprinkler was watering the tall corn. Goldfinches darted from sunflower to sunflower, eating the seeds that had started to ripen.

Three Sisters-Corn-Beans-Squash-Wanuskewin

Cornstalk as a bean trellis! Isn’t this a wonderful idea?

Beans climbing cornstalk-3 Sisters gardening-Wanuskewin

Inside, I ate a delicious lunch of chicken & rice soup with bannock and a steaming cup of Saskatoon berry tea.


As I finished, I heard jingling bells and walked to the presentation lounge to watch T.J. Warren, originally from Arizona’s Diné nation, now working as an ambassador for First Nations culture in Saskatoon, perform a traditional Prairie Chicken Dance.

T.J. Warren-Wanuskewin

This is the video I made of T.J. dancing and talking about the components of his regalia.

And, finally, this is my video incorporating elements of both days at Wanuskewin. I hope that if you visit Saskatoon, you will find the time to walk its plains and valley. I promise it will bring you ‘peace of mind’.

Peg Bier’s Leafy Virginia Oasis

I first met Peg Bier this June at the opening party of our Garden Bloggers’ Fling at Willowsford Farm in Ashburn, Virginia. She looked lovely! It was fun to think we were going to be seeing Peg’s garden a few days later – the Fling write-up called her a “local gardening legend”.

Peg Bier-Willowsford Farm

Later in the tour, I spotted her chatting animatedly with another Fling attendee, Gryphon Corpus, soaking up the garden vibes at Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, VA.

Peg Bier & Gryphon Corpus-Meadowlark Botanical Garden

But the best sighting of Peg Bier was in the driveway of her own home in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, where her large, 2.5 acre woodland garden appeared a leafy oasis in a neighbourhood of neat and tidy lawns.

Peg Bier

Even in the driveway, there were clues that this was not just the domain of a gardener, but a collector and artist as well.

Peg Bier-Succulent Display

Peg has lived in this pretty house for 58 years, raising four children with her late architect husband Richard and teaching her twelve grandchildren the fine art of gardening.

Peg Bier-House

As for that “local gardening legend” billing, for 25 years (1990-2015) Peggy had been a television personality on the show Merrifield’s Gardening Advisor produced by Merrifield’s Garden Center, (which we visited on the Fling, below), where she continues to work part-time as a garden specialist.  Imagine having this as your plant source…….

Merrifield Garden Center-plants

…. and this as your outdoor furnishings resource! (I could have spent a lot of $$ here, but contented myself with a sweet purple birdhouse and some windchimes.)

Merrifield Garden Center-decor

P.S. – A big thank you to Merrifield Garden Centers for hosting the garden bloggers.

Merrifield Garden Center-Garden Bloggers Fling

Here’s a little taste of Peg on the show, chatting with host Debbie Warhurst Capp about shade plants inspired by her own garden, which she calls a ‘nature preserve’ with its foxes and opossums.

Back to our tour.  As we moved into the back garden, I gazed up and saw a canopy of mature oak trees….

Oak canopy-Peg Bier

….and some tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera) as well.  Keep in mind that this miniature forest is a literal ‘island of wild’ in a ‘desert of tame’. Residential development swallowed the land surrounding the Bier home, but Peg held on under her big trees.

Tulip tree-Liriodendron tulipifera-Peg Bier

Immediately behind the house is a roomy deck with a table big enough to seat a lot of family. And I loved the deck boards placed on the diagonal.

Peg Bier-Table & sundeck

And a comfy chaise for reading and relaxing.

Peg Bier-green chaise

If you took some time to watch the video above, you’ll know that Peg has hewn lots of paths out of the shade-dappled understory. This is her favourite path material: crushed ‘red stone” on top of landscape fabric. And look at that textural shade planting!

Peg Bier-Crushed red stone path

But it’s not all about the plants. Over the years, Peg has created little sitting areas out of the woodland. This is one I loved, atop a flagstone patio.

Peg Bier-patio

Much of her seasonal colour comes courtesy of inspired container combinations. Look at these cobalt-blue accents – and of course, the perfect complementary colour contrast in the orange Bolivian and Rieger begonias!

Peg Bier-Blue glazed accents

And I loved this little vignette, with French bistro table and chairs painted aquamarine. What a lovely place to have lunch!

Peg Bier-Aquamarine bistro table

With such a large property to tend, I wonder if Peg ever has time to sit in one of these lovely Adirondack chairs?

Peg Bier-Red Adirondack chairs

Another sitting area featured bricks laid around a mature tree.  The understory in the woodland includes natives like redbud (Cercis canadensis), fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and dogwood (Cornus florida), as well as shrubs and small trees Peg has planted including aucuba, mahonia, camellia, nandina, sweet box (Sarcococca), Japanese maples (many grown by Peg from seed), hydrangea and boxwood everywhere.

Peg Bier-circular brick patio

Everywhere there were containers of tropicals mixed with luscious shade plants.  And more of those lovely orbs!

Peg Bier-Alocasia & tropicals

And loads of grasses! Variegated Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’) is a particular favourite of Peg’s.

Carex morrowii 'Ice Dance'-Peg Bier

Speaking of grasses, she loves dwarf mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus), too – and what a spectacular use of it, below.

Peg Bier-Mondo Grass-triangle

At the far end of the property, in the sunniest spot, there was a deer-proof enclosed garden filled with sun-loving perennials, vegetables and herbs, all mulched with pine needles.

Peg Bier-Deeproof veggie garden

Tomatoes are grown in containers here.

Peg Bier-Tomato-in pot

And there’s even the odd rooster.

Peg Bier-Rooster Art

I wanted to walk every path, but time was running out!  How beautiful is this?  Imagine those hellebores in early spring.

Peg Bier-Flagstone path

I found a bathtub with a spouting frog….

Peg Bier-Bathtub Fountain

…. and a few fairies. (Peg loves fairy gardens.)

Fairies-Peg Bier garden

This pretty path was near the front of the property…..

Stepping stone path-Peg Bie

…. where I found concrete stepping stones embossed with the handprints of all Peg’s grandchildren. Isn’t that lovely?

Grandchildren steppingstone-handprint-Peg Bier

At the very front where the neighbours can see them was a glorious profusion of sun-loving perennials…..

Sun perennials-Peg Bier

…. as if celebrating colour and fragrance on the edge of this shady forest…..

Colourful perennials-Peg Bier

…..and the grace of bees.

Bumble bee on echinacea-Peg Bier

The bus was loading and I made my way along a split-rail fence, sniffing this luscious trumpet lily as I took a last look at Peg’s garden.

Trumpet lily-Peg Bier

But as I was climbing up the bus steps, I heard her cry, “Oh, no. I forgot to show everyone my special garden.”  I wondered where that could be, since every part of this big garden had seemed “special” to me.  I thought it wouldn’t hurt to run back for two minutes, so I followed her back into the woodland. And there it was, her beautiful little memorial garden to her late husband.

Memorial garden-Richard Bier

Having spent time with Peg, talking with her and learning a little about her, I thought how special that marriage must have been, and how his presence must still be so strong in this lovely garden where family is cherished above all.

Memorial stone-Richard Bier

And then it really was time to go.