Saskatchewan in bloom: Iconic, beloved plants and historical gardens of the province

Saskatchewan has a long history of gardeners, food gathering practices and non-native plants. For a special spring treat, CBC's virtual road trip series 'Land of Living Stories' take us to some little known horticulture gems across the province.

CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores hidden gems across Saskatchewan

Sara Williams has spent 40 years creating her very own forest. (Don Somers/CBC)

CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories explores the hidden gems across Saskatchewan. 

Stories of contemporary and historical gardeners, gardens and plant life are plentiful in Saskatchewan. They're a reminder that connection with nature can be inspiring and restorative. 

Imagine that the year is 1923. You and your family have come to Canada from Europe to start a new life as farmers on the Prairies. As a passenger on the Canadian Pacific Railway, you are bound for Saskatchewan. 

Looking out the window, you see what seems to be an endless scene of dry and often harsh Prairie land. Maybe you think, 'How do I cultivate this land and provide from my family?" You search for comfort. 

Land of Living Stories: Gardening Edition

2 years ago
Duration 4:58
From endangered trees to expansive, historical gardens and plants from all over the world Saskatchewan is home to some passionate gardeners.

Finally, you arrive at the Moose Jaw railway terminal and find the comfort you have been looking for. You are greeted by a lush, ornate garden filled with greenery and blooming flowers.

This is one of the Canadian Pacific Railway's railway station gardens. 

To encourage additional settlement on the Prairies, the federal government decided to bring symbols of eastern and European civilization to the west. According to researchers, gardens represented success and civilization to immigrants of the period.

The CPR railway garden in Regina. Photo taken between 1900 and 1925. (Albertype Company/Library and Archives Canada)
The Moose Jaw railway gardens. Photo taken between 1900 and 1910. (John Woodruff/Library and Archives Canada)

These railway gardens operated from the late 1800s until just after the Second World War, according to Stephanie Bellissimo, a heritage researcher at the Lincoln Museum and Cultural Centre in Beamsville, Ont., who has spent years researching gardens in Saskatchewan. 

"When people would be on the trains coming through, new people settling in the area stopping at this point of entry ... it was a way of making a good first impression," said Bellissimo. 

"There were actually the railway gardens themselves and then the nurseries that were company-run from CPR that would supply these places with the plants. So they would actually send the plants down the railway line, stopping at each place."

(CBC News)
Stephanie Bellissimo studies gardens and works as a heritage researcher. (Submitted by Stephanie Bellissimo)

The Canadian Pacific Railway had gardens at a handful of Saskatchewan stations, including Kennedy, Broadview, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Regina. The Saskatoon station grew potatoes during war time to feed people in the CPR dining cars. Many other stations grew vegetables during the war as well. 

"At that time, gardens were created more with civic and moral betterment in mind. They felt these gardens could instill good moral values and civic pride in people and help make better citizens," said Bellissimo. 

Any trace of the railway gardens is now long gone. 

"People from rural communities were starting to feel the lure of the city, starting to work in factories. The economy was changing," Bellissimo said. 

"And, of course, at that time period people travelled more by car and plane. So railways weren't used as the same point of entry that they were used for before."

The railway gardens may no longer be around, but Saskatchewan residents continue to fill their backyards and cities with beautiful and nostalgic plants. It's a perfect reminder for us to take time and smell the flowers. 

Listen to the latest Land of Living Stories road trip here on The Morning Edition:

Manoomin, wild rice 

There is, of course, a dark side to all the early land cultivation that occurred throughout the 1900s. As settlers arrived in Saskatchewan, food systems Indigenous people relied on, like the buffalo, had been largely demolished. 

Philip Brass, an Indigenous advisor for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, said 92 per cent of southern Saskatchewan has been turned into mono crops such as canola.

"Southern Saskatchewan is the most altered ecosystem on the planet anywhere," said Brass. 

"All of the native plant diversity came into being over 11,000 years with the two key species interacting on it, which were Indigenous peoples and buffalo ... Indigenous peoples following and moving the buffalo, which grazed Prairie grasses in a way that allowed them to flourish and grow ever-deeper root systems."

Map of some of the province's most notable plants and gardens.
(CBC News)

Brass said the monetization of the land obliterated Indigenous culture, language and food sovereignty, among many other things. 

But in Northern Saskatchewan, there are still some examples of historic Indigenous food gathering. Wild rice is a tall aquatic grass with grain that can be harvested. It is often compared to oats and other cereal grains. 

Philip Brass is a Indigenous consultant from the Peepeekisis Cree Nation. (Michelle Hugli Brass )

The plant grows best in shallow water in small lakes and slow-flowing streams. Indigenous people of the north would traditionally harvest wild rice using canoes. 

The Ojibwa and Saulteaux term for wild rice is manoomin, which has multiple meanings. One meaning is more spiritual than others. 

"It's the same thing as Manitoba [which] is from the same root. Manoomin is the Creator's food. God's food. Manitoba is the Creator's country. God's country," said Brass.

"So you can just understand how valuable of a staple it was for our Indigenous peoples in the regions where it was abundant."

This nutritious food is still being harvested and distributed today near La Ronge by Northern Lights Foods.

Several Indigenous cultures, such as the Ojibwa, still consider wild rice to be a sacred component of their culture.

The Ojibwa and Saulteaux term for wild rice is 'manoomin.' (Ron Desmoulins/CBC)

The legacy of Saskatoon's memorial elms 

When you walk by a tree, do you consider how long it has been there? Do you think about the life it had before you were even born?   

Lyndon Penner is a professional gardener, author and botanical guide currently based in Saskatoon. 

Lyndon Penner is a firm believer in hugging trees. This particular hug-recipient is a douglas fir. (Submitted by Lyndon Penner)

A few years ago, Penner went to guest lecture at Olds College in Alberta. One day a distinguished guest visited the college — an elderly retired botanist from the Chicago Botanical Gardens. The man wanted to see noteworthy and unusual trees. So Penner and a colleague took him to Calgary.

They showed him bristle cone pines and elderly fruit trees, but it was the large elm trees that stopped the botanist in his tracks. 

"We went down a little side street in a little residential area and he was absolutely agog. And he got out of our vehicle and he openly wept and was just looking up at this canopy of elms in astonishment with tears running down his face. Because, he said, 'I haven't seen an elm-lined street since I was a very young man," Penner said.

When the man was growing up in Chicago, the downtown streets were lined with elms. But they all died.

"So this elderly man was just entirely overwhelmed and just beside himself that there were still places in the world where there are elm-lined streets. It was very moving," said Penner. 

Back in Saskatoon, the true magic of mature American elms is on display in the Woodlawn Cemetery. 

The trees are memorial elms lined with plaques honouring fallen soldiers of the First World War. Elms were chosen for this purpose all across Canada because they are strong, easy to maintain, beautiful and can live up to 400 years old.

In the 1900s, millions of elms across North America were wiped out by the Dutch Elm Disease. Saskatchewan, however, was able to mitigate the disaster. 

As a result, the memorial elms at the Woodlawn Cemetery are the last remaining memorial elms on all of Canada. 

"We were able to actually essentially do for the trees what we've been doing for COVID, where we have to understand patient zero and how things spread and how it moves. So they did all of that and we kept Dutch disease out," Penner said.

"We don't realize how incredibly rare it is and how how proud we should be ... I sometimes have to hug an elm just to say, 'Thank you for being here. We love you.' I think trees grow better if they feel loved."

Lyndon Penner in a field of lupin. (Lyndon Penner)

Patterson Arboretum and homemade forests

For those unfamiliar with Saskatchewan, driving through the Prairies and then hitting Saskatoon can be a real shock. The city is packed with a variety of tree species and vibrant gardens. It's a stark contrast to the flatlands that lead to the city limits. 

At the University of Saskatchewan is the Patterson Arboretum. There you can find the fantastically shaped Dragon Spruce Tree. 

"It's a very rare tree in nature," said Alan Weninger, gardener and arborist for Patterson Arboretum since 2006.

"In China, it has a very limited range and there aren't too many of the trees left. So it's listed as an endangered tree. And somehow we ended up with one way back in 1966 when the arboretum was first planted."

Alan Weninger has worked as a gardener and arborist for Patterson Arboretum since 2006. (Don Somers/CBC )

Meanwhile, not far outside of Saskatoon is the community of Grasswood, where retired horticulture specialist Sara Williams has turned her backyard into an actual forest. 

Williams grew up near the Appalachian Mountains in Maryland, U.S. 

"My first impression when I came here was, 'Oh my gosh, there are no trees!' And I think I went through a tree withdrawal," said Williams. 

"About 40 years ago, I moved to an acreage and at that time it wasn't Prairie, it was bromegrass pasture, which is horrible. Bromerass is a really tough grass, but it wasn't native Prairie at all and had not been for many, many decades."

Williams planted multiple species like Colorado spruce, Manitoba maple and Scots pine. At the time, they were only about six to 12 inches tall.

"The criteria for trees was it had to be drought tolerant once established and hardy. And I was willing to take a chance with the hardiness," Williams said. 

"At that time, I just was planting trees. I had no idea what what would happen or how long it would take."

This, of course, took decades. There are now dozens of gorgeous adult trees on Williams' five acres. It definitely holds a bit of magic. 

(CBC News)

Bert Porter

The story of Bert Porter of Parkside, Sask., is largely a love letter to lilies. 

Porter was born in 1911 in Guilford, England. His family eventually moved to the Parkside district and homesteaded, according to Judy Harley, bookkeeper and vice president of the volunteer board of directors of Honeywood Heritage Nursery in Parkside.

In the 1930s, Porter was a teacher. To supplement his income, Porter became an area salesman for Prairie Nurseries out of Estevan — selling nursery stock to his neighbours.

"When he brought the stock in to deliver, a lot of the people in his neighbourhood didn't have the funds because it was the Dirty Thirties and they needed to put their money into crops first," said Harley. 

"So instead of paying to have the nursery stock sent back, he planted it out."

Burt Porter spent much of his life working with lilies. (Sara Williams)

That planting was the start of what would become Honeywood Heritage Nursery.

At the time, Porter's focus was on developing hearty fruits that could survive in the harsh Prairie climate, like strawberries and raspberries. Honeywood had a "you pick" business in the 1940s that generated the majority of its income.

The 1940s was also the decade when Porter began his lifelong love affair with lilies.

A friend introduced him to the flower, giving Porter a box of bulbs and seeds, which he promptly planted at Honeywood. 

"It is very sandy soil there and the lilies absolutely loved it," said Harley, who managed Honeywood for 20 years.

She said Porter was attracted to the lily's beauty and the ease with which it could be grown.

"Throughout the years, Bert developed a number of varieties of lilies that he shipped all over the world by the thousands of bulbs. He became known worldwide for that."

Porter shipped to Japan, Siberia, Russia, Iceland, Australia, South America and more.

A gorgeous firewheel daylily. (Lyndon Penner)
Bert Porter
The Bert Porter Memorial Garden in Parkside. (Judy Harley)

Porter spent his life caring for Honeywood, judging lilies at horticultural shows across Saskatchewan, serving as president and secretary for the Saskatchewan Horticulture Association, and being a founding member of groups like the Canadian Prairie Lilies Society and the Fruit Growers Association.

Porter died just six months short of his 100th birthday in 2000. Today, he is memorialized by his beloved Honeywood Heritage Nursery and the lilies that live there. 


Laura Sciarpelletti

Journalist & Radio Columnist

Laura is a journalist for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories and host of the arts and culture radio column Queen City Scene Setter, which airs on CBC's The Morning Edition. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. Laura specializes in human interest, arts and environmental coverage. She holds a master of journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at