Nova Scotia

Garden conches an 'unacknowledged' Nova Scotia tradition

A Halifax blogger wants Nova Scotians to embrace the "unacknowledged" tradition of using Caribbean conch shells as decorative pieces in their flower beds.

Decorative shells represent historical link with the Caribbean

Stephen Archibald says garden conches in Nova Scotia represent a traditional trade link with the Caribbean. (Stephen Archibald, Noticed in Nova Scotia)

A Halifax blogger wants Nova Scotians to embrace what he calls an "unacknowledged" tradition in this province.

"In the long list of things that make Nova Scotia special, the garden conch deserves a place," writes Stephen Archibald in his blog, Noticed in Nova Scotia.

Archibald has spent close to a decade keeping an eye out for, and digging into the history of, people using Caribbean conch shells as decorative ornaments for their flower beds. 

Trans-Atlantic journey of the conch

Archibald, who worked 35 years at the Nova Scotia Museum, first noticed the tradition of garden conches in the 1950s. He's discovered they have a long, rich history in this province. 

He said conch shells came to Nova Scotia in the 19th century on schooners transporting salt cod to the Caribbean, where conchs were harvested for food. 

Schooners returning with sugar and rum would sometimes ballast their vessels with conch shells. Archibald said those conch shells likely then found their way into Nova Scotia gardens because of the Victorians' enthusiasm for the exotic.

"I think once they arrived here people in fishing communities, like Lunenburg, realized: 'These are lovely, exotic items. Let's use them in our gardens as decorations.'"

Signs of a century-old tradition 

The earliest piece of photo evidence Archibald has found of garden conchs is a family portrait taken on the veranda of a home on Pelham Street in Lunenburg in 1890.

Conch shells outline the terraces of a house in the 1930s. Stephen Archibald says garden conchs likely first found their way into the gardens of Nova Scotia because of the Victorians’ enthusiasm for the exotic. (“Capt. W.H. Conrad’s, Vogler’s Cove, Lunenburg Co.”, Clara Dennis, photographer, 1930s; NSA, Clara D)

Another old photograph, taken by Nova Scotia travel writer Clara Dennis in the 1930s, features conch shells outlining terraces in front of the house of Captain W.H. Conrod in Vogler's Cove.

Garden plots to grave plots

Even though garden conches are more rare today than when he was growing up, Archibald said the tradition is still alive — although perhaps altered from what it once was.

He believes today's garden conches have often taken on different meaning, moving from ornamental to treasured mementos for families who've passed them down from generation to generation.

Conch shells nestled against an old tomb stone at a cemetery on Avondale Road, Hants County. (Stephen Archibald, Noticed in Nova Scotia)

He's also noticed conch shells marking not just garden plots, but grave plots.

Archibald said he's heard that volunteers working to restore gravestones in Holy Cross Cemetery in Halifax have uncovered many conches and reburied them.

Keeping the tradition alive

For Nova Scotians wanting to embrace the tradition of garden conches anew, there are a few restrictions when it comes to importing the decorative shell. 

Environment and Climate Change Canada said Queen Conch shells being imported by mail, courier or in commercial quantities need an export permit from the country from where it is being shipped.

However, a personal tourist souvenir Queen Conch shell accompanying a traveller in his or her luggage is exempted from the permit requirement.