Our Fabulous Flora

May 1, 1998 by Marla Fletcher

Probably every Canadian has heard, maybe even hummed, the 1956 Woody Guthrie folk classic “This Land is Your Land”–preferably the Canadian version. As a child, I had a vivid image of the phrase: “As I was walking that ribbon of highway/I saw above me that endless skyway…”

I could picture a vast land mass, like the pink-toned map of Canada that used to hang at the front of my school classroom, brought to life by a shiny satin ribbon constantly changing color as it snaked across the country. Azure sky flapped above and rivers flashed below, accentuated by dark evergreen forests. A fanciful vision, perhaps, but one that leaps to life each year as the growing season unfolds.

From spring through fall, the flowers and shrubs that represent Canada’s 10 provinces and two–soon to be three–territories weave a glowing tapestry over the land. From the glowing whites of trillium and dogwood to the fiery red of the prairie lily to the velvety purples of crocus and violet, our floral symbols bring welcome depth and vivacity to the country’s ever-changing face. The brilliant maple towers over them all, a crowning touch.

“I don’t know if anybody really puts much stock in these things,” sighs Erich Haber, viewing with the scientist’s natural scepticism plant symbolism. An independent botanical consultant and chairman of the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife In Canada (COSEWIC), Haber doubts the provincial and territorial floral emblems are well known or given much thought. None are officially rare or endangered, he says, but acknowledges some are being affected by dwindling habitat. “We’ve obviously lost a high percentage of our forested land,” he states. “In southwestern Ontario…there’s only something like 10 per cent of the forest left. That has an obvious impact–you lose not only the trees but also several woodland plants.”

Other highly urbanized areas of concern are southwestern British Columbia and the southern part of Vancouver Island.

Even protective legislation can fail the plants it is designed to safeguard. Provincial laws that ban the collection of a certain plant’s seeds, for example, mean little when just outside that province’s borders they can be gathered with impunity, as with Saskatchewan’s Western Red Lily. And an act that sets a maximum $25 fine for collecting or disturbing the Pacific Dogwood on some lands in B.C. “is no protection at all,” says George Douglas, program botanist for the Conservation Data Centre in Victoria. A mature dogwood shrub might cost that much or more at a nursery, he adds. Far better that people learn about the plants and come to appreciate them in their natural environment.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy the full floral effect would be to travel throughout the country, with appropriately timed trips north so you could see all the plants showing their true colors. In that spirit, then, Canada’s floral emblems are presented here in the order in which they bloom–from earliest spring to nippy late fall.

Nova Scotia

The floral road trip could start here, where the lingering, spicy-sweet scent of Mayflower evokes for Nova Scotians and New Englanders alike warm thoughts of spring. The lovely, ground-hugging plant forms mats of delicate white or pink blossoms that open as early as April–even through lingering snow.

Officially adopted as Nova Scotia’s official flower in 1901, the Mayflower was featured on both coins and stamps before Confederation. It is said to have been named by Pilgrims arriving in North America. Reportedly the first posy they saw, the little star-shaped flower reminded them of their triumph in surviving the hardships of travel aboard their ship, the Mayflower. The botanical name, Epigaea repens, describes how the plant “creep(s) on the earth.” Trailing Arbutus is another popular name.

The Mayflower was first the emblem of the charitable Nova Scotia Philanthropic Society formed in 1834, and later graced the influential provincial newspaper, The Novascotian. It soon became a recognized local symbol.

This woodland plant has rounded, leathery leaves that are almost heart-shaped, with stiff hairs on the prominently veined surface. The flowers grow in clusters of white, pale pink or deep rose. Like many other wildflowers, it does not transplant well but can be seen in pink profusion along shady forest edges.

Manitoba

Manitobans can thank schoolchildren for voting in a poll to make one of the province’s first harbingers of spring a sanctioned part of the landscape.

Anemone patens, often called the Pasque Flower because it blooms around Easter, was the second flower to be distinguished as a Canadian provincial symbol. The appropriate legislation was passed in 1906. The plant, also widely known as Prairie Crocus, isn’t really a crocus at all but a member of the buttercup family. (The true crocus belongs with the irises.) There are similarities: the Prairie Crocus’s chalice-shaped white or lavender blossom does resemble that of the crocus, and both plants are likely to poke through late snow cover to prove better weather’s on the way.

The word “anemone” comes from the Greek “anemos;” it means wind, and well describes the Prairie Crocus’s preferred dry, breezy grassland habitat. An outer covering of minute white hairs helps protect the plant from the sudden climate changes that an early prairie spring can bring. The 38-centimetre-tall plant has finely cut, long-stalked leaves that appear after flowering; because of their downy surface, they seem to glisten.

The Prairie Crocus has an extensive North American range, stretching from Alaska and the Yukon south to Texas. It is closely related to–and sometimes confused with–a species native to Europe and Asia called Anemone pulsatilla.

British Columbia

There aren’t many places where you can see a copse of Pacific Dogwood. The British Columbia floral emblem, Cornus nuttallii, grows only in the southwestern corner of the province, and is a short-lived tree easily affected by leaf blight. Human settlement has also been steadily narrowing its natural range.

The dainty white blossom chosen as the floral emblem in 1956 is deceiving: the flowers are less-than-inspiring purple and green petals packed into a cluster the size of a thumbnail. But a halo of white, leaflike bracts surrounding the flower head get all the attention, bursting into bloom once in early spring and, occasionally, again in September.

This emblem survived stormy dispute to win recognition. After WW II, many argued against its adoption because its Canadian spread was so restricted. (It also grows along the U.S. west coast.) But Women’s Institutes backed the plant, since one of their own had first presented the symbol as a lapel pin she had modelled on the dogwood blossom. She was raising money to buy comforts for local soldiers fighting overseas. Once the Women’s Institute members had proved that other dogwood varieties grew all across the province, the plant’s symbolic status was assured.

Whether as a shrub or a tree that can reach 20 metres, the Pacific Dogwood can be a forest-edge plant or grow beneath coniferous trees. It is loosely protected by provincial law, but these days is likely most easily seen in quantity at botanical gardens such as those at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and at Butchart Gardens in Victoria, or along the provincial highway cutting north-south through Vancouver Island.

Ontario

It’s hard to imagine that anything other than the familiar maple leaf etched on a Canadian soldier’s gravestone could signify the homeland left behind. But in WW I there was a time when the gentle White Trillium was being proffered for planting on graves for just that symbolic purpose. The idea was raised by the Ottawa Horticultural Society, but never pursued. In 1937, however, the plant did gain recognition when it was adopted as Ontario’s provincial flower.

The trillium is a classic study in threes: three elliptical petals emerge in a triangular blossom above three stalkless oval leaves similarly arranged. Known botanically as Trillium grandiflorum, the plant has no scent, but a carpet of the pearly spring flowers has been described as “majestic.” The petals turn pink as they mature and die.

A plant of deciduous woodlands, the White Trillium is frequently a victim of deforestation and urban sprawl. It needs shade, plenty of undisturbed space and rich, acidic soil. Picking the solitary flower usually kills the plant, ultimately, because its leaves and stems are essential until well after blooming; they help make food for the plant to ensure future growth. But these are invariably removed along with any blossom picked. It can take years for the plant to become strong enough to flower again and meanwhile, all that opportunity for seed production has been lost. Trilliums don’t transplant well, either–that’s why many of us have been warned since childhood never to pick them. The flower is not protected by legislation, though, except in provincial parks where disturbing any flora or fauna is forbidden. Two places to savor dense stands of them are the Royal Botanical Gardens in Hamilton, and in Ontario’s Algonquin Park.

New Brunswick

“The phrase Shrinking Violet is really an overworked oxymoron,” wrote botanist Peter Bernhardt in his 1989 book, Wily Violets and Underground Orchids. Well, yes, it seems New Brunswick’s official flower is everywhere in late April or May. A 1982 magazine article was not flattering in its portrayal of the bluish-purple marshland charmer: “…it can even become a garden nuisance, taking over entire lawns.”

No particular species was cited in 1936 when the violet was designated as provincial flower, but it has since been widely assumed to be Viola cucullata. Also known as Bog Violet or Marsh Blue Violet, it is one of several types that bloom throughout Atlantic Canada and the eastern U.S. It was adopted at the urging of schoolchildren and Women’s Institutes in the province.

Related to the familiar garden pansy, this violet prefers wet meadows, woodlands, bogs and moist, shaded areas. The eight- to 13-centimetre plant has heart-shaped leaves, long flower stalks and five-petalled, asymmetrical blossoms. At least two of the upper petals are covered with a fine down. The flower ranges in color from white/pale lilac to rosy pink or deep violet-blue. A rampant self-sower, it will cross-breed readily with other violet species nearby.

Prince Edward Island

It’s a wonder anyone knows Prince Edward Island’s floral representative–it has changed names three times since its adoption in 1947! Nevertheless, a Lady’s Slipper it was and a Lady’s Slipper it remains.

This retiring pale pink–or occasionally white–member of the orchid family is one of 10 species native to North America. It keeps to shady, moist woodlands, blooming in late spring and early summer. The delicate bloom is pouchlike, prompting another of its common names–Moccasin Flower. That’s a nice reminder of the Island’s native history.

The delicate Pink Lady’s Slipper has just two wide leaves emerging from its base, with two pointed upper petals that twist away from the drooping “slipper.” The flower is pollinated when bees scrambling in and out of the lower sac brush against pollen.

This flower likes acidic soil and is hard to establish, so it is not wise to transplant it to a home garden. It probably wouldn’t survive, and the seeds for potential new plants would be lost to the natural setting. There are two prime spots for viewing the flower at its best, naturalist Kate MacQuarrie reports. One is in the south part of Charlottetown, directly opposite the Queen Elizabeth Hospital; the other is at Basin Head sand dunes near Red Point Provincial Park on the east side of the Island.

While Cypripedium reginae, the original Showy Lady’s Slipper chosen as emblem in 1947 by a local naturalist, remains a rare find, MacQuarrie says there’s no problem spotting the one that now holds the honor. “Cypripedium acaule is quite common, found in many woodlots throughout the province,” says the executive director of the Island Nature Trust. She notes that when people complained the first official flower was too hard to find, the province selected an alternate species and called it Cypripedium hirsutum–a name that doesn’t exist in science. The necessary change to provincial legislation had been made by 1965.

Newfoundland

Not many plants can live in a bog, where life-giving nitrogen is in short supply, so a cluster of the nodding purple-red Pitcher Plants such as you’ll find in Gros Morne National Park really stands out. Newfoundland’s distinctive five-petalled provincial flower is unique in another way, too–it’s carnivorous.

Each leaf growing around the plant’s base forms a long, hollow green tube, or “pitcher,” that holds rainwater. When the leaf secretes a sweet substance, insects are attracted to venture inside–but once there, they’re prevented from leaving by fine, downward-pointing hairs on the tube’s inner surface. The insects drown in the watery trap, and enzymes in the liquid hasten decomposition to supply nutrients to the hungry plant.

The summer-blooming Pitcher Plant boasts many intriguing nicknames–Huntsman’s Cup, Frog’s Britches and Side-saddle Flower–and has been recognized on this continent since at least colonial times. North American Indians used the plant to effectively treat smallpox, hence the moniker Indian Cup. Pitcher Plant is resilient, appearing in bogs and wetlands in northeastern B.C. and much of Eastern Canada and the U.S.

Queen Victoria chose the plant in 1865 to be used on Newfoundland’s new penny, and it remained in circulation there until 1938. After Newfoundland became Canada’s 10th province, in 1949, the Pitcher Plant was made its floral emblem in 1954. The plant’s botanical name, Sarracenia purpurea, honors the 17th-century French physician and botanist who discovered it. Michel Sarrazin came to this country in 1685, and was appointed surgeon-major of colonial troops the next year. In later years, he frequently sent seeds and plant material he had collected in his new home to Paris for the gardens of the royal science academy located there.

Quebec

Quebec’s new floral emblem is the eastern blue flag, Iris versicolour. It replaces the non-native Madonna Lily or white lily that was adopted amid controversy in 1963. The Madonna Lily replaced the Wild Iris, which had been used unofficially for years to represent Quebec.

With the recent adoption of the eastern blue flag as the new provincial floral emblem, the Quebec National Assembly has recognized the province’s natural heritage, although the white fleur-de-lys will continue to be used on Quebec’s provincial flag as a symbol of that province’s French heritage.

For more than 36 years, botanists had argued that the Madonna Lily–a native from the Mediterranean–was inappropriate as a floral emblem for Quebec.

The eastern blue flag is quite common throughout more than half of Quebec, from the St. Lawrence River Valley to the shores of James Bay.

Northwest Territories

A low carpet of warm cream makes a restful early summer statement amid drab gravel flats and rocky terrain in Canada’s north. It is Mountain Avens, an alpine plant from the rose family that covers much of the world’s Arctic region.

Dryas integrifolia became the Northwest Territories flower in 1957, chosen by the late Dr. A.E. Porsild. The distinguished botanist and Arctic explorer is believed to have selected the Mountain Avens because it is widely known and grows in such abundance.

A single, white blossom shaped like a tiny saucer flutters over small, shiny green leaves grouped at its base. The leaves are fuzzy underneath and curl inward to help the plant retain moisture in a windy, harsh environment where growing days are few. Long tap-roots hold the Mountain Avens in place, and its leaves remain green all winter.

Full sun is essential, and this plant needs a spot that drains rapidly. It thrives when there’s calcium present in the soil. Mountain Avens can be bought commercially but it won’t stand competition from other garden plants, and may take several years to flower when grown from seed. Like many of the provincial plant representatives, it is best viewed in the wild.

Saskatchewan

The Western Red Lily once grew profusely in Saskatchewan; whole fields seemed to turn red in early summer. Today it’s a different story. Agriculture and urban development have eliminated many of the dry, open woods and grassy fields this provincial plant needs. Overpicking and transplanting have also reduced the population.

The so-called Prairie Lily, Lilium philadelphicum var. andinum, was widely favored as a provincial emblem in a survey conducted in the 1930s by the Regina Natural History Society. Officially named in 1941, it is now protected by law from removal of seed pods, digging up or other disturbance.

Large, showy red-orange flowers freckled with purple-black spots make this exuberant lily memorable. The plant can grow to 60 centimetres tall, and has long, straight leaves that alternate on the stem until several whorls appear just below the blossoms.

Alberta

Midsummer belongs to the tantalizing Alberta Rose, with its wide pink blooms and delicious scent. This hardy plant covers a huge range reaching to New Brunswick, throughout the northern U.S. and parts of Mongolia and Japan. Arctic Rose is one nickname, testament to its ability to withstand harsh winters. It is also called the Prickly Wild Rose.

Again, schoolchildren were responsible for choosing the provincial flower. They selected Rosa acicularis as the floral emblem in 1930.

The Alberta Rose is a prickly shrub with many weak thorns and small, toothed compound leaves. About a metre in height, it has bright red fruits, called “hips,” that are attractive fall accents which provide food for birds. The shrub likes sandy, well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. It spreads easily to form dense thickets–hence, the many references to Alberta as Wild Rose Country.

Yukon

Despite its evocative name, there’s nothing fiery about Fireweed. The long pink or magenta flowering spikes of this plant transform large open areas into ripples of pastel persuasion.

In northern Canada, Fireweed–or Epilobium angustifolium–is in evidence all summer long. In 1957, it became the 11th floral emblem when it was named the official flower representing the Yukon Territory. In the Yukon, as elsewhere in the upper reaches of North America and Eurasia, Fireweed is among the first plants to spring up on disturbed, cleared or burned-out land. It’s an invasive wildflower that spreads rapidly through both creeping stems and numerous seeds that disperse from long pods easily on silken plumes.

Fireweed is a sun-lover that grows from 60 centimetres to almost two metres high. It has many long, narrow leaves, and four-petalled blossoms that open from bottom to top of a tall stalk. Bees make a tasty honey from this plant, which is sometimes called Willow Herb or Rosebay. Look for Fireweed waving along any major northern highway or rail bed.

Canada

Our tour of floral emblems could end on a high note almost anywhere southeast of Lake Superior. This might be considered cheating, since the impressive tree that is the universally recognized symbol of Canada actually flowers in early spring. But few people notice the yellow-green clusters of Sugar Maple flowers, bereft of petals, that droop from naked twigs each April or May. This native tree is instead best remembered for the breathtaking display of red, orange and yellow as its leaves die off in autumn.

There are records of native peoples extracting sweet syrup from the Sugar Maple as early as 1684, and the Quebec Gazette called it “the emblem of Canada” in 1805. By 1869, Queen Victoria had approved coats of arms for Ontario and Quebec that included maple leaves, and Alexander Muir had immortalized the tree in his unofficial anthem The Maple Leaf Forever. Located throughout the Great Lakes, Acadian and St. Lawrence forest regions, this is a valued timber tree and the source of the country’s maple syrup industry.

Heights of 27 to 49 metres are common for Acer saccharum, a shade-tolerant tree that needs deep, fertile soils that are both moist and well-drained. Inside the forest, the tree will remain small until a break in the canopy gives increased sunlight and room to expand. The tree can be recognized by horseshoe-shaped pairs of winged seeds that spin down in fall, and by leaves that are eight to 15 centimetres long with three to five fingers, or lobes, with wide rounded cavities in between.

Though there were three maple leaves on the red and white Canadian coat of arms approved in 1921, the present flag–the Maple Leaf–was only adopted in 1965 after years of design proposals and debate. No particular species was indicated for its solitary, stylized maple leaf, but it was intended that “(u)nder average wind conditions the leaf should resemble the…sugar maple leaf,” one of the flag’s proposers wrote.

* * *

If we Canadians don’t know our floral symbols, we should. They spring up on licence plates and stationery, in calendars, on official coats of arms and on some provincial flags. The territorial and provincial emblems were featured on five-cent stamps between 1964 and 1966, and a sprig of maple leaves defined a 25-cent stamp in 1977. There have been maple leaves on Canadian soldiers’ uniforms since 1860, and on various coins dating from 1876.

Soon there’ll be another floral emblem to celebrate. When the new territory of Nunavut is established next April 1 in the eastern part of the present Northwest Territories, a flower will be proposed to the new legislature for adoption. No details were available at press time, but spokesmen for the Nunavut Implementation Commission said a well-known northern flower was to be introduced for consideration during Ottawa’s Tulip Festival in May. Then, it will be up to the people of the new two-million-square-kilometre territory–and their legislators–to voice opinions and follow up with official designation.

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