Supported by the Edmonton Heritage Council
On the edge of downtown Edmonton, on the slopes of the river valley, grows a wild patch of goji berries, descended from seeds imported and tended by Edmonton’s early Chinese community. Surrounded by asphalt, the chestnut seed that Walter Holowash picked up from a sidewalk in Vienna stands forty feet tall and casts shade and life onto a back alley parking lot; slated for demolition in 1998 but saves by concerned citizens.
Heritage trees and plants are living representatives of Edmonton’s stories. What can they tell us about ourselves, early Edmonton, and the people and cultures that cultivated them? As beings whose lives can span centuries, heritage trees are intergenerational messengers, and the products of our shared cultural values, geography, and climate. We walk among a living collection of who we were, in a version of the future that we hoped to create.
Planting trees whose lives extend beyond your own is to send a message into the future. What is this message? What gives a plant heritage value, and who decides? Where are our heritage trees most often located? How do old trees escape development and damage from disease and carelessness? What connections can we draw between the cultural makeup of our heritage trees and the cultural backgrounds of early and present-day Edmontonians? Where are our indigenous heritage trees and plants, and what are the traditional and contemporary FNMI relationships to them? In what ways do heritage plants contribute to Edmonton’s cultural narratives, and how can increase their visibility protect them for the future?
For the past decade, I have been fascinated with Edmonton’s heritage plants and answering these questions. I have personally visited many plants, have dabbled in mapping their locations, have hosted two tree walks through the John Walter Museum, and applied for the Edmonton Historian Laureate positions exploring similar themes.
Mapping Edmonton’s Heritage Plants
Now, with support from the Edmonton Heritage Council and a Project Accelerator Grant, I will answer the question “What makes a heritage plant?” by researching the history, backgrounds, placement, and defining characteristics of Edmonton’s past, existing unidentified heritage plants.
In the process of answering this question, I will map individual plants, collect photographs, first-hand accounts (written, audio, and video), locations, and physical samples that, when combined, will contribute to a growing inventory of Edmonton heritage trees and plants. I will profile plants in a digital herbarium on my website and as a physical herbarium of pressed and mounted samples, could find a home as the City Archives for future public access.
What Gives a Plant “Heritage”?
In the second phase of the project, I will look for commonalities and patterns within the inventory to develop a heritage plant profile tool. I believe that such a device would be useful for identifying unrecognized plants that contain heritage value. As an example, if the profile tool reveals that many heritage plants are located on private front yards in older neighbourhoods, it would then be possible to narrow the search by asking members of mature communities to tell us about their favourite front yard trees and measuring them against the profile tool.