by Heather Phaneuf

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

Emily Dickinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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