First Nations Botanical Garden

Walk through a botanical garden in Montréal to witness Indigenous history and traditions exemplified by varied landscapes and hundreds of native plant cultivars.

White spruce overlook a lush pond in the First Nations Garden.
Photo by Espace pour la vie/Michel Tremblay

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.



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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