Collecting – and not collecting – plants with Canada C3: new perspectives by the hour!

by Jennifer Doubt

As Curator of Botany at the Canadian Museum of Nature, I was looking forward to being a member of Canada C3’s science team on the leg from Charlottetown to St. John’s, and particularly to surveying and collecting coastal terrestrial plants.

“Plants” was just one of twelve active science projects on C3 leg 4 and I’m pleased to report that over 300 plant and lichen samples have been collected so far! But some of the tremendous value in C3 is in the plants we didn’t collect. Truth and reconciliation, diversity and inclusion, and youth engagement are also key goals. There was, in every sense, a lot going on.

In Miawpukek, Newfoundland, for example, we were invited to a pow wow. You can’t really run off and collect plants next to the celebration at which you are privileged to be a guest—even if you can resist the drumming, the dancing, the artisans, and the food. There were plants, there, it’s true. Honoured with the guidance of Chief Saqamaw Mi’sel Joe, we tasted the bitter inner bark and tender shoots of trees and shrubs, some of us learning for the first time to seek healing in the forest. Those samples went into my blood, not into the plant press.

The plants we saw at Eskasoni, Nova Scotia were used for things such as making baskets (ash strips) and sealing seams between sheets of birch bark (spruce gum). The sticky sap surrounded us in a cloud of conifer perfume and gummed up our fingers for hours, prolonging our connection with the woods, the things we had learned there, and our generous hosts.

The entire hillside town of François, Newfoundland (population 80) welcomed us like family for an enormous meal. With about an hour to go before dinner and a twinkly-eyed warning to “stay out of the wife’s garden”, I joined fellow expeditioner Emmalee Agnew from Whitehorse to gather plant samples as quickly as we could. We collected maybe 50 out of literally hundreds of species growing between the church and the school alone, before joining in the celebration and fun, enlightening conversations in the community hall.

Back on the ship, I found botany to be quite different from the way it is on land: turns out that a warm, windowless, recently-painted lab encased in the bow of a boat that is being rocked by waves on a windy ocean can be a bit harder to stomach than our spacious, stable museum digs! Luckily, I did not have so many plants to press that I could not wait for calm seas.

So it went: new plants, new places, new people, new perspectives by the hour. Over the course of 150 days, a few samples from each of 15 legs will add up to a beautiful representation of Canada’s three magnificent coasts, on the 150th anniversary of its Confederation. And between the lines on the labels, where I’ve learned to look for an interesting back story, will be tales of an incredible voyage for all Canadians that marked a turning point in our history. Pure gold.