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.
This same tool would be equally useful for identifying gaps in the inventory. As an example, if it were found that plants linked to communities of European descent are disproportionately represented, I could look for systemic or cultural gaps that are preventing plants from non-European communities from being recognized. In doing so, the project could help bring visibility to the stories behind heritage plants familiar to less represented communities. As the profile tool shines light onto unmapped heritage plants, a more comprehensive view of Edmonton’s heritage plant inventory will begin to emerge. With this updated inventory, I will create and publish self-guided walking tours and host public events to share the findings from the project.
Growing Tomorrow’s Heritage Plants
In the third phase, armed with a growing heritage plant inventory and a profile tool for identifying heritage value, I will turn my attention to the future of Edmonton’s heritage plants. In the final phase of the project, I will use the heritage plant inventory and plant profile tool to create a “How to Grow a Heritage Plant” guide and list of best practices. This guide will take the lessons gleaned from the first two phases to provide practical recommendations on how best to plant a tree and preserve a story for future generations.
In parallel with the guide, I will work with City of Edmonton administration to identify opportunities to protect our living heritage resources further and develop policies to increase the survivability and knowledge of our growing inventory of heritage trees and plants.
I believe that our trees are historical and cultural landmarks within our city; long-living occupants of Edmonton’s past, present and future. With support for the Edmonton Heritage Council, I believe that researching, cataloguing, and looking for patterns within our inventory of heritage plants can create useful tools in the form of online and physical herbariums, a profiling tool, walking tours, talks, and a best practice guide, for sharing our stories and creating new ones for future generations of Edmontonians.
Project Timeline and Outcomes
Phase 1: The Past (June – October 2019)
- Curate list of existing trees identified as having heritage value.
- Research history and gather personal and cultural narratives behind individual plants
- Photograph, map locations, and gather samples for a pressed herbarium.
- Create an online herbarium to profile individual plants like “Faces of Edmonton” but for plants.
- Create a pressed herbarium of heritage plants for long-term storage and identification.
- Share online herbarium via social media, newsletters, and traditional media.
Phase 2: The Present (September 2019 – January 2020)
- Host a public talk on Edmonton’s heritage trees.
- Host heritage-tree walking tours.
- Compare and contrast heritage trees to find commonalities and create a heritage tree and Plant Profile Tool.
- Use the Profile Tool to work with the community to identify unidentified heritage plants to research and add to the heritage plant inventory.
- Create Nominate an Edmonton Heritage Tree Form
- Use the Profile Tool to identify gaps in the inventory.
- Add newly identified plants to online and offline herbarium collection
- Create a series of self-guided walking tours of Edmonton heritage plants for print or download; explore audio or podcast options.
- (extension) Explore options for signage at heritage plants, and potentially use QR codes to link specific plants to the online herbarium so that citizens can easily assess information about heritage plants.
Phase 3: The Future (January – July 2020)
- Create “How to Plant a Heritage Tree” guide with best practices for landscapers and citizens.
- Perform a policy review of how various municipalities treat and protect heritage trees and compare and contrast these strategies with the City of Edmonton.
- Work with City of Edmonton Heritage planners to formally recognized plants as heritage resources and create a heritage resource Application to Amend that takes plant material into account.
- Work with City administration to look for possible strategies to protect existing and future heritage plants; City Plan, Breathe Strategy, Zoning Bylaw Review.
Heritage Tree of Edmonton in the Media
- July 24th, 2019, – CBC Edmonton, Oumar Salifou, “A tree in downtown Edmonton needs a little love for its 100th birthday“
- October 17, 2019 – Edmonton Journal, Liane Faulder, “Tree hugging: Dustin Bajer seeks stories about Edmonton plants to root local history“