The Edible Windbreak: Caragana on the Prairies

Experimental farms on the Prairies were used to demonstrate and test the use of shelterbelts. (photo credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-018336)

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Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of articles on the 2018 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium. The symposium was held in Saskatchewan in early June and focused on the theme of “Prairie and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.”

Settler colonialism altered the environment of the Canadian Prairies both intentionally and unintentionally. Settlers considered the large open spaces of the Prairie landscape ideal for large-scale agricultural production. After years of subjecting what had been natural grasslands to invasive agricultural techniques that contributed to soil erosion and had negative impacts on productivity, farmers and scientific experts began to introduce windbreaks around the turn of the twentieth century.

CHESS 2018 was the first time I had been back to the Prairies during the summer since moving to Ontario in 2016. I grew up in a rural community in Alberta and I spent many of my summers volunteering and working at museums focused on rural and agricultural life in Western Canada. Walking onto the Seager Wheeler Farm at the end of May, I was excited to see a large wall of green bushes with small yellow flowers. Immediately, I went to the bushes to pull off a flower. I showed my fellow scholars how to pull apart the bottom petal of the blossom to reveal a small drop of delicious nectar. I didn’t realise until that moment that these bushes that had lined the sidewalks on my way to school as a child don’t dot the landscape in and around my current residence in Southern Ontario.

Author showing fellow CHESS participants how to take apart Caragana flowers at the Seager Wheeler Farm.
(photo credit: Jessica DeWitt)

This trip was also first time I had learned that these bushes are called Caragana, or Siberian Peashrub. Larry Epp at the Seager Wheeler Farm explained to our group how the flowers on these plants were edible and leguminous. (In the mid-summer, if you listen closely, you can hear the pods snapping open.) Epp also explained that these bushes were introduced to the west to be used as shelterbelts or windbreaks on the Prairies.

Sutherland caragana (phot by the author)

The next day, we visited the Forestry Farm, where one of the first plants our guide Peggy Sarjeant introduced us to was the Sutherland Caragana. This is a taller, less bush-like variety that was developed on the Sutherland Forestry Farm more for ornamental purposes than for any practical reason.

Caragana bush (photo by the author)

Our guide also told us about the Caragana bushes and showed us the remains of the shelterbelts still present on the site. Sarjeant also keen told us how a large number of the original shelterbelts had been removed from the old farm area, though there were still some of them surrounding the various gardens that now showcase flowers and trees that grow well on the Prairies. She also showed us how the bushes were used around the various buildings onsite to create divisions of space.

Both the Seager Wheeler Farm and the Sutherland Forestry Farm tours pointed out the importance of windbreaks to prairie agriculture, something I knew about but had never spent much time thinking about. According to Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, Caragana establishes itself quickly in its early years, grows slowly after reaching maturity, and can live for over 50 years if maintained. It is also remarkably drought resistant, and as a legume, its roots fix nitrogen in the soil. All of these factors made Caragana an ideal plant for farmers who sought to protect soil and crops.

Farm Buildings in Vermilion Valley, Alberta, [1920]. This photo shows the use of Caragana bushes as windbreaks around farmyards.
(photo credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-101669)
The NFB film, “Windbreaks on the Prairie” (recommended by Pete Anderson while we were at the Forestry Farm) shows the increased importance placed upon trees and shelterbelts to prairie agriculture after the Great Depression. For many years shelterbelts were seen as important to the sustainability of agriculture in the Prairies. Now, new soil management techniques like no-till farming have made shelterbelts seem obsolete. According to the Manitoba Co-operator, farmers have begun to see shelterbelts as taking up valuable crop land and as a hinderance to their larger farm equipment. However, groups like Stanley Soil Management in Manitoba have recognized that shelterbelts maintain their value for rural communities. They have suggested that renovating shelterbelts instead of removing them is important for mitigating the effects of climate change and soil degradation.

As ubiquitous as Caragana plants are to the Prairies, they are also a testament to the efforts of Euro-Canadians to alter the prairie landscape to fit their expectations of proper farmland. Some settlers, like the Doukhobors and Ukrainians, searched for land that already fit within their understanding of home and allowed them to more easily transplant their cultural and farming practices. Others, as Pete Anderson points out in his post, altered the landscape to feel more like home and fit their expectations of productivity.

Farm house in Vermilion Valley, Alberta, c. 1920. Placed around homesteads, Caragana helped settlers to physically define and claim home on the Prairies.
(photo credit: Library and Archives Canada / PA-101689)

The more I think about Caragana bushes, the more I realise that they have become the backdrop to the prairie landscape. For the 24 years I lived in Alberta I hadn’t known that a large majority of the greenery in the fields outside my small town were Caragana. There were even Dwarf Caragana used to beautify people’s gardens and shopping centre parking lots. I don’t know if I would have noticed them now if I hadn’t been around to see the tell-tale yellow flowers. Attending CHESS this year helped me to more carefully observe the landscape that I had grown up surrounded by in a way that my years at agricultural museums had not. The environment I am familiar with is a result of over a century of human interference and shaping of the land to conform to a specific vision and the reaction to the consequences of those changes. Caragana, something I never knew I identified with home, has a history rooted in the unintended and intended environmental changes that resulted from the introduction of farming to the prairies.

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Kesia is a PhD Candidate at the University of Guelph. Her dissertation explores the relationships of women, food, and government during the First World War in Canada. She has a background in Western Canadian History and has been involved with museums and living history sites for over 10 years.

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