In the beginning, there were only plants and animals on the Earth. The Great Spirit, satisfied but bored, also wanted humans to live there, and so he sculpted them from mkazawi maahlakws, a large, straight ash tree. It was thus that the People of the East were born.
This legend from the Abenaki First Nation in Canada, retold here with permission from the Odanak Band Council in Québec, explains the deep cultural ties to trees shared by many Indigenous nations living across eastern North America. As one of the few woody species that thrives in waterlogged bogs, the ash is particularly important for its bark, which generations have prized for basket-making. By alternately heating the trunk of a fallen black ash beside a fire and beating it with a stick, you can detach the tree’s rings from its trunk one by one, rolling them into long coils before slicing them into “ash splints” ready to be woven into useful and artistic baskets.
Stefano Viola explains this process to me when I talk to him about the First Nations Garden in Montréal. Viola is head gardener for the garden, a 5-acre portion of the 185-acre horticultural tapestry Jardin Botanique, the botanical garden often referred to as the “jewel of the city.” His work exposes him to more than 22,000 plant species and cultivars that make a home on the site — at least 500 of them with known uses by the First Nations Indigenous communities in Québec. Viola seems to know them all.
“There is a cultural aspect that is unique to the First Nations Garden,” Viola says, referring me to a documentary, César et son canot d’écorce, about a 67-year-old man from the Atikamekw community of Manawan who turns a paper birch into a seafaring vessel with little more than his bare hands. When Viola talks about plants, the conversation invariably includes Indigenous traditional wisdom — and his penchant for related step-by-step videos on YouTube. He frames Native people’s relationships with forest materials around “four uses,” including for food, medicine, and spiritual practices.
Another story, particularly memorable for featuring beaver teeth (and complete with YouTube recommendations), demonstrates the fourth use: for building. The Cree fashion a famed all-purpose knife called a muuhkutaakan (“crooked knife”) from a beaver incisor. Used with a rotating movement — always toward the handler — the crooked knife trims, smooths, rounds off, polishes, and sculpts wood. You can quickly create the ribs and sheathing for canoes with it, or build the frames and crossbars of snowshoes.
It’s at this intersection between natural and cultural histories that the First Nations Garden grows, serving as the living embodiment of the region’s long, complex history and the ultimate cohabitation of nations.
A Walk Through the Garden
If you have the chance to visit the First Nations Garden, you’ll learn a great deal about Native know-how. You’ll also find yourself in one of 23 thematic gardens growing within Space for Life, the largest museum complex in Canada, which also houses a planetarium, an insectarium, and two more cultural gardens featuring Japanese and Chinese horticultural traditions. Sited farthest from a road, the First Nations Garden is the heart of the botanical garden’s complex, and, because it is largely free of traffic noise and a view of the city skyline, it may completely transport you.
The open-air pavilion is a good place to start. Rising from a path lined with conifers and maples, the modern concrete, glass, and steel structure simulates a stylized Iroquois longhouse with an undulating roofline reminiscent of ancient sinuous pathways. The building was designed as a filter between worlds, both cultural and physical, including as a separator for areas of the garden, which is constructed around four zones, each representing one of Québec’s unique biomes: the “northern territory” (which Viola calls the “Nordic zone” for its similarity to a Scandinavian taiga landscape), a hardwood forest, a conifer forest, and a peat bog.
“It’s interesting that Québec Native people gave the Sami people in Nordic nations handcrafted snowshoes,” Viola says, launching into a story about contemporary cultural exchange between Inuit communities in Canada and the Indigenous Sami of Norway that exemplifies a spirit of cooperation. “The Sami said they’d never seen snowshoes so perfect.”
Of the four zones, the northern territory can feel the most timeless. The black spruce are dwarfed, seeming to shrivel back into the earth, and the Land is dominated by shrubs and grasses. Inuit people use cottongrass (Eriophorum) from this ecosystem as wicks for oil lamps. Human-like stacks of stone called inuksuks stand ready to fulfill their traditional use, corralling the caribou for an ambush. It’s as though an ancient tundra somehow endured while a modern city grew up around it. The reality, of course, is more the opposite.
Now two decades old, the First Nations Garden is the result of meticulous planning and construction following years of extensive consultation with Indigenous experts — referred to as animateurs for their role in bringing the garden to life. In addition to Abenaki, Iroquois, and Cree, eight more First Nations share geography with the Land known today as Québec, and each has unique relationships with the ecosystems of the region. Jardin Botanique hired an ethnologist for meetings with docents to ensure accuracy of interpretation.
During one consultation, members of Inuit tribes touring the proposed site were stumped by how to build the northern territory zone. At the end of the day, as they crossed the Alpine Garden in another part of Jardin Botanique, they smelled the perfume of conifers and the minerality of the soil. “This is what we want you to build here!” Viola recalls them saying. “We go wild for most of these plants.”
Native plants aren’t easily sourced in garden stores. Arctic plants shipped by plane from Nunavik, Québec, proved challenging to keep alive for the months before the site was ready. Piles of plastic-foam boxes held northern territory plants that needed cool temperatures to stay alive. The gardening team follows strict deontological ethics when sourcing, which forbids taking from the wild unless a location is scheduled to be cleared. Viola recalls a time when a Montréal suburb had been purchased for housing development beside an ecological preserve owned by McGill University. “We were running in front of bulldozers picking up plants,” Viola says.
Transitioning from the northern reaches of the garden to the southern, you’ll encounter the greatest diversity of tree species. The hardwood forest is dominated by trees of significance to First Nations communities, particularly sugar maples, elms, and oaks. The Iroquois use tree nuts to make bread and corn mush, and the Huron-Wendat extract oil from sunflower seeds to use as hair lacquer and body lotion. Stroll through during early spring, and you might find maple sap collected in those ash-bark baskets, keeping a tradition of Québec’s Algonquin and Atikamekw Nations alive.
Viola works hard to defend the last standing old-growth American elm in the hardwood zone, a towering 150-year-old specimen fighting off a bout of Dutch elm disease, which has already claimed six old trees. These elms are important to Mohawks, who use their bark — peeled off in sheets to be flattened and dried like plywood — for longhouses and small, round boats. “It’s also the most beautiful tree in Québec,” Viola says, a sentiment that explains the hours spent treating the old elm for fungus.
The hardwood zone’s central location keeps foot traffic relatively low, offering an ideal home to wildlife, including muskrats, migratory birds, and amphibians. At one time, the hardwoods were also home to “Easter bunnies” — castaways from a period in Canada when it was fashionable to gift rabbits during Easter, and later discard them in the garden. Eighteen years ago, a fox came through and wiped out the bunny population and many of the muskrats. But you can glimpse this history in drawings of the region, which show the small cabins dotting agricultural lands where women and children hunted small mammals foraging in the fields.
Agriculture is spotlighted among the hardwoods in the De-o-há-ko Three Sisters demonstration plots. Today, the trinity of corn planted with a groundcover of squash and beans to grow up the stalks is synonymous with Indigenous growing methods. Corn is estimated to have been introduced to the region some 3,000 years ago, when Iroquois mythology holds that it first sprang from the breasts of a woman lying in her grave. During some periods of history, corn accounted for up to 65 percent of the Iroquois diet, and a single field might grow sweet, flint, popping, and starchy “bread” varieties in thousands of mounds. To get the plots right, Viola met with Steve Silverbear McComber, whom some readers may recognize from his expertise in planting with the cycles of the moon. McComber thought the Three Sisters in Québec was missing a couple of key crops, and recommended the First Nations Garden add sunflowers for oil and tobacco for its spiritual qualities. “We might call them five sisters,” says Viola, who continues to grow corn from seed McComber gave him 20 years ago.
Visitors will realize they’ve entered the conifer zone by looking up, spotting the feathery black-and-blue bows of spruce and balsam fir. But Viola prefers looking down, where his favorite plant resides. Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) forms a creeping mat of oval, leathery leaves among the pines, punctuated by porcelain-white flowers; you must kneel humbly to smell its exquisite scent. The plant likes a sandy substrate and shares the forest floor with ground lichen and sphagnum, a moss that several First Nations refer to as “the earth that grows.” Sphagnum is also something of a multitool — its absorbent properties led the Inuit and the Algonquin to use it as diapers, toilet paper, and disposable towels. The Atikamekw use sphagnum in compresses to treat illness, and the Cree use it to chink log cabins.
The softwoods of the conifer forest give rise to several storied structures. When you explore the paths, peek through the trees to try to spot a squat wigwam tent covered in papery birch bark, or a sweat lodge constructed of pole-like alder stems and once used for divination ceremonies to track caribou. Sweat lodges are still used today for personal care rites. A garden interpreter might clue you into where to find one in the region for a traditional spa day.
For the garden’s planners, water represents life, communication, and a path through history. They built a pond and a stream to offer opportunities for spiritual reflection and create a physical flow through each zone. But it’s in the peat bog where water is the predominant element. Moist and acidic, the bog was the trickiest of the ecosystems to recreate, but essential for supporting the plants used particularly by the Nemaskau Eenouch community. The approach the planners took was to dig a pond and line it with a waterproof geotextile membrane that could be filled three-quarters full with a substrate composed of 5 parts peat moss to 1 part coarse sand. They saturated the area with water that had an acidity level comparable to that in Québec’s peat bogs, and topped it off with a layer of sphagnum moss harvested from a nearby managed bog. Today, the zone supports bog laurel (Kalmia polifolia) and sheep laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), with their trumpet-shaped pink flowers, along with the carnivorous purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea), ready to lure flies into its bulbous, burgundy-veined gut.
As much as the First Nations Garden aims to educate, it also harbors secrets. After word got out that the peat bog is home to wild leek, visitors showed up with bags hoping to take home a harvest. Viola is wary of harvesters, so when he planted a particularly rare and difficult-to-transplant orchid years later, he was careful to obscure its location when he wrote about its addition in an article. Despite safeguarding, someone found and picked the orchid. Now, he shields the garden’s most precious plants from public knowledge entirely. This guardedness is mirrored on a larger scale by several First Nations communities who advocate that traditional plant wisdom must remain internal to prevent large companies from exploiting it for profit. Mystery keeps the land intact and protects Indigenous knowledge from commodification.
The Land’s Story
In her essay “Literacies of the Land,” Sandra Styres, a Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk, “People of the Chert”) scholar, writes, “Land is more than the diaphanousness of inhabited memories; Land is spiritual, emotional, and relational; Land is experiential, remembered, and storied; Land is consciousness — Land is sentient.” In short, the Land is alive and its stories are complicated. Any discussion of it must acknowledge a painful history of betrayal and Land grabs that the Canadian government perpetrated on the First Nations during various periods of the country’s colonial past.
August 4, 2021, marked 20 years since the First Nations Garden was inaugurated. The day coincided with the 300th anniversary of the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701, when 39 Native Nations and the French people agreed to end years of warfare. Today, the garden exists “in a spirit of sharing and respect for differences,” says Florent Vollant, an Innu singer-songwriter who serves as the First Nations Garden’s spokesperson. Canada is still working through a new era of reconciliation, and within this context, the garden can offer a physical acknowledgement of history while keeping tradition alive.
Vollant, Viola, and the visionaries behind the garden would no doubt be glad to see you there, becoming a part of the Land’s story and, in Vollant’s words, “breaking down the barriers of ignorance and intolerance between Native and non-Native peoples.”
Kale Roberts is a former editor for Mother Earth News who currently works to promote global biodiversity, climate resilience, and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals from New York’s Hudson Valley.