Allan Gardens – Christmas 2017

It’s beginning to look a lot like…..peacocks? That’s right. At Toronto’s Allan Gardens, it’s beginning to look a lot like a beautiful peacock feathered with colourful succulents will be ready to strut his stuff well in advance of the Christmas Season.  I was there yesterday and got a sneak peek from gardener Mikkel Schafer, who is the designer of this year’s feature topiary (see my video below)  Made of colourful flowers of Kalanchoe blossfeldiana and various echeverias…..

Allan Gardens-Succulent Peacock-Christmas 2017

…. the big bird is preening himself amongst the alocasias and bananas in the grand Palm House, the glass-domed centre of the six-glasshouse structure.

Allan Gardens-Palm House-banana

Mikkel was still working on the peacock’s neck, which is made from pine cone scales and leaves of silver dollar plant (Xerosicyos danguyi).

Allan Gardens-Succulent Peacock neck-Christmas 2017

I loved the kalanchoe ‘eyes’ in his tailfeathers, below.

Allan Gardens-Succulent Peacock-kalanchoe and echeveria eyes

In the Tropical House, below, the succulent Christmas tree was already finished and standing in its place of honour amidst the bromeliads. It will greet many visitors when this year’s edition of the Allan Gardens Christmas Flower show opens on Sunday December 3rd, with seasonal music from noon to 4 pm. The floral displays will be in place through the holiday season daily from 10 am to 5 pm until January 7, 2018.

Allan Gardens-Succulent Tree-Christmas 2017

Look at the detailed work here…..

Allan Gardens-Succulent Tree-echeveries and kalanchoes

Mikkel posed with his topiary moose in the Temperate House.  Its antlers are encrusted with mosses and lichens.

Mikkel Schafer-Allan Gardens-Topiary Moose

This mossy tree in the Temperate house…..


….is hung with decorations, like these cool silvery ornaments made from the velvety leaves of lambs’ ears (Stachys byzantina).

Allan Gardens-Lambs Ears Christmas ornament

This one is fashioned from the dark seedheads of blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’).

Allan Gardens-Rudbeckia seedhead Christmas ornament

Spiced orange pomander balls deck this topiary tree made from the leaves of red oak (Quercus rubra).

Allan Gardens-Red oak leaf & spiced orange pomander ball topiary tree

The pool in the Temperate House is a favourite destination for many, especially little kids counting the goldfish. It’s edged with azaleas this week.

Allan Gardens-Pool & Fountain

Head down into the Tropical Landscape House where…..

Tropical Lanscape House-Allan Gardens

….. apart from the usual gorgeous blossoms like hibiscus….

Hibiscus-Allan Gardens

….. there is a trio of Cryptanthus-adorned topiary trees under the magnificent cycad.


The Arid House will look like a sparkly yuletide desert by early December, when the lights are in place amidst the spectacular collection of succulents and cacti. (This photo is from a previous Christmas).

Allan Gardens-Arid House-Christmastime

I made a short video to whet your appetite for a seasonal visit to Toronto’s wonderful Allan Gardens this holiday season.  Please note, the show runs from December 3 to January 7th.

But rest assured, if you miss seeing all the beautiful Christmas touches, like this lovely wreath in the Tropical House…..

Allan Gardens- Christmas Wreath-2017

…Allan Gardens Conservatory is a cozy, leafy oasis throughout Toronto’s long winter months when a parade of flowering bulbs, tropical blossoms and spring bulb flowers beckons. Do make a date to go!

Allan Gardens-Tropical Array

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’.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello

In 1768, when the young lawyer Thomas Jefferson began building his home atop the “little mountain” (literally monticello, in Italian) that he had inherited from his father, there were no gardens. The land was rich red soil – known as “Davidson Clay” – overlooking Virginia’s Piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains – a tobacco plantation, part of 5000 acres he had inherited from his father. In time, however, Jefferson would establish gardens here where he could experiment with all manner of plants, both edible and ornamental, and the meticulous garden records that he would make contribute to our current understanding of American “heritage plants”.


Born in 1743 in Shadwell VA, just down the road (now the expressway) from Charlottesville, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson was one of six children born to the cartographer Peter Jefferson, who mapped the route through the Appalachian Valley that would become the ‘Great Waggon Road’ connecting Philadelphia to the colonies of the American South.  Home tutored at first, he then attended school where he learned several languages. He attended William & Mary University in Williamsburg, VA in 1760, studying philosophy for two years. While there, he was greatly influenced by one teacher. “It was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life that Dr. William Small of Scotland was then professor of mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct & gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged & liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me & made me his daily companion when not engaged in school; and from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science & of the system of things in which we are placed.”  He then read law for five years, and was was called to the Virginia bar in 1767; he practised circuit law for five years.

In 1772 he married his 3rd cousin Martha Wayles Skelton, a widow, and brought her to his new home at Monticello, where they spent 10 years together and had 6 children, only two of whom survived childhood. When her father John Wayles died in 1773, Martha Jefferson inherited his slaves, among them a woman named Betty Hemings and her six children, all of whom were half-siblings of Martha’s, since they were fathered by her own father. Betty’s youngest child was Sally Hemings. (More on Sally later.)

In 1775, Thomas Jefferson was a Virginia delegate to the second Continental Congrass, and distinguished himself by publishing his paper A Summary View of the Rights of British North America.  The achievement for which he is most renowned, of course, is the Declaration of Independence, America’s founding document. In the 1818 painting by John Trumbull, below, 33-year old Thomas Jefferson – at 6-feet 2-½ inches – is depicted as the tallest of the “Committee of Five”, i.e. the five men in the drafting committee, seen standing below as they present their draft to Congress on July 4, 1776.  From left, they are John Adams, Roger Sherman, Robert Livingston, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin.

Declaration of Independence-John Trumbull-1818

In 1779-81, Thomas Jefferson was Governor of Virginia. In 1782, four months after the birth of their sixth child, Martha Jefferson died. Jefferson was devastated and spent weeks isolated from his family. As his eldest daughter recalled later: “When at last he left his room he rode out and from that time he was incessantly on horseback rambling about the mountain in the least frequented roads and just as often through the woods; in those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion, a solitary witness to many violent bursts of grief.”  Jefferson had promised Martha that he would never remarry.

From 1784 to 1789, Jefferson served as U.S. Minister to France under President John Adams. It was during this appointment that he developed a deep love of art and music and toured many English pleasure gardens, nurturing a taste for landscape designs based on the picturesque style of 18th century landscape painters and also the ornamental farm (ferme ornée).  It was while he was in Paris that he began an intimate relationship with the teenaged slave Sally Hemings, (his late wife’s half-sister) who accompanied Jefferson’s 9-year old daughter Polly to France when her sister died of whooping cough.

Mather Brown-Thomas Jefferson-1786

Thomas Jefferson became the third president of the United States after George Washington and John Adams, serving two terms between 1801 and 1809. At the time, the journey by carriage from Monticello to the White House took 4 days and 3 nights. (We make this journey by car in 2-1/2 hours). Jefferson’s most significant achievement occurred during his first term when he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase with France, acquiring a vast swathe of the middle of North America (827,000 square miles) from the French, for a total of $15M (US).  In 1803, he commissioned the Lewis & Clark expedition (1804-06) to the American west, a journey that became the source of many Indian artifacts originally displayed in the house, but later lost. It also provided the president with new Western native plants to be grown at Monticello, such as narrow-leaved coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia), below.

Echinacea angustifolia-Lewis & Clark Expedition-Monticello

Visiting Monticello, a United Nations World Heritage Site, in June 2017, we begin our tour in the house. Close to its end, a sudden thunderstorm means we must take shelter in the basement, along with several other tour groups. Here we find ourselves huddled outside Thomas Jefferson’s wine cellar. When we are finally able to leave the shelter of the house, we head out under the dripping willow oaks (Quercus phellos) and begin our tour of the flower garden.

Willow oak-Quercus phellos

But it is not possible to talk about the gardens at Monticello without prefacing my tour with a look at how this Virginia plantation functioned under Thomas Jefferson.


That slavery runs through the story of Thomas Jefferson and Monticello is part of the paradox of this man, who began his law practice defending seven slaves and later attempted to use his co-authorship of American’s founding document to legislate against the practice. According to the Library of Congress: “Thomas Jefferson first tried to condemn slavery in America with the Declaration of Independence. Although his original draft of the Declaration contained a condemnation of slavery, the southern states were adamantly opposed to the idea, and the clause was dropped from the final document. In 1784, he again tried to limit slavery, suggesting in a report on America’s new western territory that “after the year 1800 of the Christian era, there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States..’ Again, due largely to the resistance of the southern states, the proposal was rejected. In frustration, the Virginian later commented: “South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia voted against it…The voice of a single individual of the State which was divided, or of one of those which were of the negative, would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the new country…[I]t is to be hoped…that the friends to the rights of human nature will in the end prevail.’ “

It was Madison Hemings, listed by Thomas Jefferson as Sally Hemings’s 5-year old in the 1810 Slave Roll below, (middle, first column) who helped uncover the true story of Jefferson’s relationship with his mother, something that had been whispered loudly by the president’s political enemies, but denied by the Jefferson family for more than a century.

Slave Roll-1810-Sally Hemings-Monticello

In 1873, in a series entitled “Life Among the Lowly” in the Pike County Republican, (parts of which are shown below), Madison Hemings, by then a freed slave living in Ross County in the free state of Ohio, wrote that his mother Sally, who was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson and a household slave of Thomas Jefferson, gave birth to five* children by him.  Their relationship began in Paris, when Sally travelled there with Polly, Jefferson’s youngest daughter, after her sister died of whooping cough. Madison Hemings’s memoir was part of a PBS documentary.But during that time my mother became Mr. Jefferson’s concubine, and when he was called back home she was enceinte by him. He desired to bring my mother back to Virginia with him but she demurred. She was just beginning to understand the French language well, and in France she was free, while if she returned to Virginia she would be re-enslaved. So she refused to return with him. To induce her to do so he promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promise, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia. Soon after their arrival, she gave birth to a child, of whom Thomas Jefferson was the father. It lived but a short time. She gave birth to four others, and Jefferson was the father of all of them. Their names were Beverly, Harriet, Madison (myself), and Eston–three sons and one daughter. We all became free agreeably to the treaty entered into by our parents before we were born. We all married and have raised families”.  Madison said he had been named by Dolly Madison, who was visiting Monticello with her husband and Thomas Jefferson’s good friend, President James Madison, at the time the baby was born. It would take a 1998 DNA test to prove that what Madison Hemings had written was accurate: he and siblings were Thomas Jefferson’s children. In 2000, following their own scholarly investigation, the Monticello/ Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, Inc, issued this statement: “The best evidence available suggests the strong likelihood that Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings had a relationship over time that led to the birth of one, and perhaps all, of the known children of Sally Hemings.” (*most sources say 6 children, but their first child died soon after birth)

Madison Hemings-references to Thomas Jefferson-1873-Pike County Republican-text

You can read about Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson in this Washington Post article, which describes Monticello’s recent efforts to situate the reality of Monticello’s enslaved people within the heroic history of Thomas Jefferson. It’s part of The Mountaintop Project, the current thrust at Monticello to tell the stories of its people, including the slaves, as described in the interpretive sign below.

Interpretive Sign-Mountaintop Project-Monticello

Yet while they have included the “Hemings Family tour” in their ticket lineup, Monticello still seems reluctant to clearly state the nature of the Hemings-Jefferson relationship in the description.

And I loved this touching NPR story, featuring modern-day descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s slave children, concerning the formation of Monticello Community for “all the descendants of workmen, artisans and slave, free, family, whatever, at Monticello”.

Though we like to view history through the prism of our enlightened moral standards, (and there was spirited defence of Jefferson by scholars before the DNA test results were announced), it is worth noting that 12 of the first 18 presidents owned slaves, including George Washington. It would be the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, who would finally succeed in ending slavery through the 13th Amendment, though it would take a bloody civil war and 620,000 deaths to accomplish that end. These are the words we saw just two days before visiting Monticello, on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial on Washington’s National Mall. They form part of Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address in 1865:

Abraham Lincoln-2nd Inaugural Address-Slavery

So, acknowledging that today’s Monticello owes its place in history thanks as much to the labour of its enslaved residents as to the creative scientific genius of Thomas Jefferson, let’s begin our tour just outside the main house in the flower garden.


Jefferson maintained meticulous records of all his biological observations. He kept a Weather Memorandum Book, in which he recorded precipitation, wind, temperature. And he noted details of his garden purchases and plans in his garden diary, printed as Thomas Jefferson’s Garden Book in 1944. Below is his page from 1794, a century-and-a-half earlier; showing his painstaking attention to detail (presumably his shopping list for the season): peas, beans, spinach, curly endive, Jerusalem artichoke, ‘garlick’, white mustard, ‘camomile’, lavender, wormwood, mint, thyme, balm, rosemary, marsh mallow, strawberries, gooseberries, figs, hops, lilac, red maple, Kentucky coffee tree, Lombardy poplar, weeping willow, willow oak, among many others. As the authors say in Thomas Jefferson’s Flower Garden at Monticello (1986, 3rd edition), “No early American gardens were as well documented as those at Monticello, which became an experimental station, a botanic garden of new and unusual plants from around the world.”

Thomas Jefferson Garden List-1794

In 1808, around the main house, Jefferson built a series of flower gardens as well as a “winding walk”, its borders planted in 10-foot sections with an assortment of exotic and native flowers. As he wrote to his 16-year-old granddaughter Ann Carey Randolph in 1807, “I find that the limited number of our flower beds will too much restrain the variety of flowers in which we might wish to indulge, & therefore I have resumed an idea … of a winding walk … with a narrow border of flowers on each side. this would give us abundant room for a great variety”. But after his death, the flower gardens fell to ruin. In 1939-41, the Garden Club of Virginia….

Winding Walk-Garden Club of Virginia-Monticello-1940

….restored the walk and fish pond as a gift to Monticello. In order to determine the walk’s original shape, researchers parked their cars on the West Lawn and shone their headlights over it. The old outline appeared.  Here we see lavender and sweet william (Dianthus barbatus), both plants recorded by Jefferson.

Winding Walk flower garden-Monticello

Here we are outside the main house, looking back through night-scented tobacco (Nicotiana). Jefferson preferred to have fragrant plants along the winding walk.


We see plants that were grown by him, including common mallow (Malva sylvestris).

Malva sylvestris-Monticello

Jefferson was proud of the native plants of Virginia – in fact 25 percent of his plants at Monticello were native – so it’s not a surprise to see butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) mixed in with blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) and rose campion (Lychnis coronaria).

Mixed flowers-Monticello


When Jefferson spoke about his ‘garden’, he was referring to his vegetable garden. As he noted in 1819: “I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that … as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet.” After the decision was made in the late 1970s to recreate Monticello’s 1000-foot long by 80-foot wide, 2-acre vegetable garden….

Vegetable Garden-Monticello

…the process began in 1979 with a 2-year archaeological dig to corroborate the written history.  The dig turned up parts of the garden’s stone wall and the foundation of the pretty garden pavilion seen below, which was a favourite place for Thomas Jefferson to read.

Garden Pavilion2-Monticello

As the story goes, the garden pavilion – framed here by mulberry leaves — fell over soon after Jefferson’s died in 1826. It was restored in 1984.

Mulberry & Garden Pavilion-Monticello

Those mulberry leaves tell their own story, for they are part of Mulberry Row, the plantation lane at Monticello with 20 dwellings that formed the “center of work and domestic life for dozens of people – free whites, indentured servants, and enslaved people.” Here were the blacksmiths, carpenters, house joiners, stablemen, tinsmiths, weavers and spinners and domestic servants.

Mulberry Row2-Monticello

Parts of Mulberry Row have been restored, including this blacksmith & iron shop. Jefferson launched a nailery at Monticello, hoping to make it a thriving commercial enterprise. Young boys were destined to be nailers, as he wrote in his farm book: “Children till 10. years old to serve as nurses. From 10. to 16. the boys make nails, the girls spin. At 16. go into the ground or learn trades.”


This is a slave cabin on Mulberry Row.

Mulberry Row-Slave House-Monticello

I’m delighted to see bluebirds flying and perching along Mulberry Row. My first ever bluebird!


Going down the stairs to the vegetable garden, we begin our tour at the far end where a healthy crop of wheat is planted with sunflowers. When Jefferson inherited the plantation from his father, it was planted in tobacco. Following the American Revolution, Virginia ceased to be the dominant player in tobacco trade and the Napoleonic wars had also shifted the balance of agriculture in Europe. Tobacco cultivation also depleted the soil significantly. So when Jefferson returned to Monticello in 1793, he switched tobacco for wheat.

Wheat & Sunflowers-Monticello

Corn is just ripening. Jefferson grew Indian corn in his garden in Paris when he served in the French legation.


This ‘Tennis Ball’ lettuce (Latuca sativa) is bolting, as it must when heritage seed is being saved. Thomas Jefferson said of this variety, which is one of the parents of buttery Boston lettuce: “it does not require so much care and attention.”

Tennis Ball Lettuce-Monticello

Leeks (Allium ameloprasum) are looking lovely – and are possibly the same Musselburgh leeks that Jefferson grew.


Jefferson loved sea kale (Crambe maritima) and blanched it under special terracotta cloches to produce tender leaves. According to Monticello, “Jefferson was probably inspired to grow sea kale after reading Bernard McMahon’s The American Gardener’s Calendar, 1806, sometimes called his “Bible” of horticulture.” 

Crambe maritima-sea kale-Monticello

Peanuts catch my eye. In Andrew Smith’s book Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea, the author wrote “In his ‘Notes on the State of Virginia’, Thomas Jefferson wrote that peanuts grew in Virginia in 1781. Subsequently Jefferson planted sixty-five hills of ‘peendars’ which yielded 16-1/2 pounds ‘weighted green out of the ground which is ¼ pound each.’ While president, he reported that peanuts were very sweet.”

Peanuts-Arachis hypogaea-Monticello

Here is chamomile (Anthemis nobilis).


Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) were one of the first vegetables Jefferson grew in his garden at Monticello in 1770, and successfully harvested in 13 of 22 years. “Artichoke” was also the keyword in the secret cipher code used in his communications with Meriweather Lewis of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.Artichoke-1808-Monticello

Though they were still a somewhat new fashion in Virginia, Jefferson enjoyed his “tomatas”, the planting of which he recorded in his garden book from 1809 to 1824.


From the vegetable garden, I look down on the south orchard, where Jefferson once planted 1,031 fruit trees.

Monticello Orchard

I see peaches ripening here. This succulent fruit was perhaps Jefferson’s most prized crop, and in 1794 he even grew 900 peach trees as field dividers at Monticello and another farm. He wrote to a friend: “I am endeavoring to make a collection of the choicest kinds of peaches for Monticello“. Of the 38 varieties he grew, he purchased many from American nurseries and was given Italian introductions by his Tuscan–born friend Philip Mazzei, whom he’d met in London and encouraged to emigrate to Virginia in 1755.

Peaches-Monticello Fruitery

There’s a recreation of the Old Fruit Nursery here as well…..

Old Nursery-Monticello

… and the vineyards, below, all of which were part of what Jefferson called his “fruitery”.

Grape Vines-2Monticello

In the distance, we see Montalto (the “high mountain”). It’s on this mountain where the descendants of Philip Mazzei will soon be harvesting grapes to make fine wine in a joint project with Monticello….


…under the guidance of longtime Virginia winemaker, Gabriele Rausse – whose vintage we pick up in the gift shop later.

Gabriele Rause Wine-Monticello Gift Shop

I walk through the bean arbor, the scarlet runners just getting started, and head out of Monticello’s garden. It’s time to go down the mountain.

Bean Pergola-Monticello


Near the top is the family graveyard where Thomas Jefferson and his descendants (except for those of Sally Hemings) are buried.

Graveyard-Monticello2-Thomas Jefferson Tombstone

The woods on the slope are cool and beautiful; trees tall and towering, the understory filled with redbuds (Cercis canadensis). A notable lover of trees, Jefferson allegedly once said:  “I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, beautiful trees that are daily falling sacrifice to the cupidity of their owners, or the necessity of the poor. . . .The unnecessary felling of a tree, perhaps the growth of centuries, seems to me a crime little short of murder.” 


I’m enchanted by the birdsong echoing in the trees and make a short video. Have a listen….

We arrive back at the Visitor Center where we lunched earlier.  The grounds are nicely landscaped…..

Monticello Visitor Center

…… and the gift shop with its garden center is fabulous!

Garden Center-Monticello

I say my farewell to Thomas Jefferson, noting the 10-1/2 inch difference in our heights. I thank him for his enterprising spirit, his love of nature, his gardens. He says nothing.

Thomas Jefferson & Janet


Though it’s not open to the public except by appointment or for special posted events through the year, the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants (CHP) is a fundamental part of Monticello, maintaining many of the historic plants and providing them for the gift shop . It’s located below Monticello at Tufton Farm, part of the original Monticello estate – and a short distance down the road from our own Arcady Vineyard Bed & Breakfast, also part of the original Monticello estate.  I make a phone call, explain that I’m in Virginia to begin a Blogger’s Fling in a few days, and would love to visit. A short time later, I’m met by Jessica Bryars, acting manager at CHP (whose other job is to manage the fruitery at Monticello).

Jessica Bryars-Monticello Center for Historic Plants

We tour the farm, beginning in the nursery filled with young herbaceous plants.

Center for Historic Plants-Monticello-Greenhouse

Shrubs and roses are in hoop beds outside.

Shrub beds-Center for Historic Plants-Monticello

There are many beehives here, protected from honey-loving black bears by electric fences.

Center for Historic Plants-Monticello-Bee Hives

The garden, its grass pathway flanked by flower borders is lovely. Though most of the plants are historic, a few, like annual purple Verbena bonariensis are included…..

Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants-Borders

….making the pipevine swallowtail happy.

Pipevine Swallowtail-Battus philenor-Verbena bonariensis-CHP-Monticello

I spot Lilium superbum, the lovely native Turks-cap lily.

Center for Historic Plants-Monticello-Lilium superbum

Here’s a little taste of a pretty corner at CHP (and yes, there are hummingbirds as well as bluebirds at Monticello).

Monticello’s future contains plans for a ‘21st century farm’ on the Tufton farm site, a notion that I think would bring a great deal of young tourism to this part of Virginia, including people who aren’t much drawn to historic recreations of 200-year old presidential gardens.  And I suspect the great experimenter Thomas Jefferson, whose own namesake plant twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) grows here and flowers in spring, would agree.

Jeffersonia diphylla-Monticello Center for Historic Plants


In order to round out our understanding of Thomas Jefferson’s influence on the region, we visit the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which is most definitely a ‘university town’. As the historic plaque below says, it was founded by Jefferson in 1817 in the presence of his two good friends, James Madison and sitting president James Monroe.

UVA-historic sign

Jefferson designed UVA as an ‘Academical Village’, with a beautiful rotunda at one end of ‘The Lawn’ flanked by pavilons containing lecture halls and undergraduate and faculty apartments. This is an 1826 Peter Maverick engraving of Jefferson’s original plan.

University of Virginia Maverick Engraving

Jeffferson’s rotunda was Palladian in design, similar to that of his home at Monticello.  It was inspired by the Pantheon in Rome and housed a library, rather than a church, as was then common in universities.  This reflected Thomas Jefferson’s personal secular beliefs, which were moral without being religious. (In 1820, he reworked his own bible, carefully cutting out all the parts he disdained and leaving in an 80-page version he published as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.)   Sadly, Jefferson’s rotunda burned down in 1895.

UVA-Rotunda Fire

Today’s rotunda is an historically-correct modification of the Stanford White recreation.


The beautiful pavilions below are original. This is what Jefferson wrote in 1817 to William Thornton, the architect of the U.S. Capitol, as he was researching his design.  “What we wish is that these pavilions, as they will show themselves above the dormitories, shall be models of taste and good architecture, and of a variety of appearance, no two alike, so as to serve as specimens for the architectural lecturer. Will you set your imagination to work, and sketch some designs for us, no matter how loosely with the pen, without the trouble of referring to scale or rule, for we want nothing but the outline of the architecture, as the internal must be arranged according to local convenience? A few sketches, such as may not take you a minute, will greatly oblige us.


As we stroll the campus in the heat of a June afternoon, we listen to UVA undergrads addressing small groups of high school students and their parents on their pre-college selection tours. In the shade of tall trees on The Lawn, one co-ed laughingly tells her group about Halloween dress-up traditions on campus. Near Cabell Hall, another warns the students that the UVA basketball team is so popular and the stadium so small, a lottery system has been devised to distribute tickets equitably.  One can only imagine Thomas Jefferson standing nearby listening, perhaps striding forward to join the young people. Perhaps offering this …. “Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much can be done if we are always doing.” 

Thomas Jefferson-Rembrandt Peale

Indeed, it is wonderful how much can be done.