The curse of our times is that so often we don’t know what has been lost. It disappeared long ago, before we were born. We see only a faded tapestry that we accept as the tableau of life, because we’ve never seen it in full colour. Never felt its potency.
The Toronto area was once one of the richest on the continent in the variety and exuberance of its plant life. But that’s a forgotten time — a time so distant it is unknown, except to a very few, such as Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who is determined to return colour to the tapestry.
She’s the author of Bioplanning a North Temperate Garden (Quarry Press, $39.95 in paperback), and with her husband Christian has been growing heritage trees and plants at their farm near Merrickville.
Yesterday, at Canada Blooms, the garden show which continues until tomorrow at the Toronto Convention Centre, she spoke of restoring Toronto’s heritage.
Magnolias are native to Toronto, as are catalpa trees, she said in an earlier interview, and in bloom they’d enliven whole neighbourhoods.
The greatest variety of oak trees in the world used to grow around the Great Lakes, and their prime habitat was Toronto. There were 50 different varieties, and Beresford-Kroeger thinks that the Toronto zoo would be an ideal place to plant a representative collection.
There were fields of water lilies — the yellow, the white, the variegated — along shorelines and rivers, almost all gone now. And deciduous hollies, and at least half a dozen different kinds of grape vines. There was a delicious, fist-sized ground nut, called apios americana, with a wonderfully fragrant, deep maroon, pea-like blossom. It grew on the margin of lakes and ponds where land flooded in spring, and was left dry during the summer.
First Nations people used to make a a kind of tofu from nuts of shagbark hickory trees, she said, and now the shagbarks are gone. Natives crushed and boiled the nuts, and then skimmed off the « nut milk’’ that rose to the top to make the tofu.
« We assume that our relationships are only with people,’’ Beresford-Kroeger said, « but we have relationships with all these other living things too. It’s not a sterile world, but with each generation we’ve been making it more and more sterile.’’
She wants to reverse the trend. « It’ll take away from our loneliness. All the beauty will give meaning to that space between birth and death. It’s what gives grandeur to being a human being.’’
There used to be a huge fern population in the area, she said. « More than 40 different kinds.’’ And many varieties of native clematis. Now there is only one species left in Toronto, the clematis Virginiana.
White flowering iris used to grow on the margins of water. And smilax, a medicinal climbing plant with navy blue berries used to reach three metres into trees. There were acres of bittersweet, a vine with fruit for migratory birds, stretching 13 metres into trees.
Sassafras was abundant, which attracts certain butterflies, as was bladder nut (stathylea trifolia) which also supplies food for butterflies and birds. And as far as she knows, there are only 16 sweet birch (betula lenta) left in the area. They’re on the shoreline toward Hamilton.
Most intriguing for me, were the club mosses (lycopodium) which were about 25 centimetres tall. They were descendants from dinosaur times, when they grew to the size of trees. They’re gone because they won’t live if the ground is disturbed in the slightest.
For every one type of plant, she explained, there are about 40 different types of insects depending on it. And other insects that prey on them. And birds that prey on all the insects. So, restoring Toronto’s plant heritage will not only bring beauty to the city. It will bring birds and butterflies. And, if you are inclined to agree with her, it will also return lost splendour to our lives. To my mind, that’s not a bad yield from planting a few seeds.