Review of Shtier, ed., Flora’s Fieldworkers

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Ann Shtier, ed., Flora’s Fieldworkers: Women and Botany in Nineteenth-Century Canada. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2022. 488 pgs. ISBN 9780228011125.

Reviewed by Patricia Bowley.

Readers of Flora’s Fieldworkers: Women and Botany in Nineteenth Century Canada will discover an edited collection of essays, each of which is captivating and instructive on its own. Taken as a whole, this volume successfully interweaves several major themes in contemporary historical research: women’s history and gender history; the history of botanical science, interpreted in the mid-1800s as the growth and formation of flowers; and social histories of nineteenth-century Canada, Newfoundland, and Australia. Flora herself, the goddess of flowers in Roman mythology, would be delighted to be associated with such a thoughtful anthology.

Flora’s Fieldworkers is compiled from research papers presented at the 2017 workshop “Women, Men, and Plants in Nineteenth-Century Canada: New Resources, New Perspectives”. Scholars from a variety of disciplines are included in the collection. Although the book title suggests an exclusive focus on Canadian history, contributor Sara Maroske writes about Australia, and in several of the essays, British colonies outside Canada are added to the discussions; for example, Newfoundland in the case of collector Mary Brenton; the UK, headquarters at Kew of Sir Joseph Hooker, botanist, explorer and Brenton’s mentor; and even India, where Lady Dalhousie (Lady D to her husband) continued to collect native plants following his re-assignment. A vibrant communication network is shown to have existed between women and men; letters, live specimens and preserved herbaria, and botanical texts were integral to the expansionist and domestic projects of the British Empire (101).

Without exception, the women foregrounded in the book have personalities as well as botanical accomplishments. Many have been left out of the historical record until now, so getting to know them all as Flora’s fieldworkers is a pleasure. The following examples struck a chord for this reviewer. Isabella McIntosh (1828-c.1915) was a devout Presbyterian and a passionate collector of native ferns. When McIntosh’s father died, leaving Isabella and her sisters financially insecure, the women founded and ran a successful school for girls, and moved comfortably through Montreal’s social, religious and pedagogical circles. Alice Hollingsworth (1870-1954) was also devoted to learning, but unlike the majority of collectors featured in this book she was a pioneer and a farmer, who created an extensive herbarium of native plants growing near her home in the Muskoka district of rural Ontario. She uncovered artifacts and evidence of Indigenous sites as well as plants in her rambles through the countryside, and became an important source of local Indigenous history. She was also a founding member of the United Farm Women of Ontario in the 1920s. Artist Sophie Pemberton (1869-1959), born in Victoria, British Columbia, drew and painted flowers. Her albums of watercolour wildflowers, created as gifts for her siblings, melded her technical skill at botanical illustration with the active family and social life she enjoyed in Victoria and in London. Author Kristina Huneault interprets Sophie Pemberton’s albums as symbols of the similarities and differences shared by the botanizers who are profiled in Flora’s Fieldworkers as they strove to create a niche for themselves and their work. Likewise, authors and co-authors of each essay bring a unique scholarly background to their shared interest in the history of women in botanical science.

An extremely valuable part of each essay, not least for scholars who wish to continue this line of research, is the extensive bibliography and endnotes. Each author uses a selection of sources in ways that are amazingly creative. A case in point is the innovative approach taken by Jacques Cayouette and Faye-Yin Khoo, in their analysis of nine different documents, each published in the 1820s and some never examined before, containing the names or descriptions of plant specimens collected by Lady Dalhousie during her 1820-28 stay in Lower Canada. Cayouette and Khoo link these names to lists of endangered species published by the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Quebec Ministry of the Environment between 1983 and 2016. Thirty-six plants collected by Lady Dalhousie have been identified as at-risk species in contemporary Quebec; most of these are native orchids. Information gleaned from Cayouette and Khoo’s painstaking research will be used to track and protect these rare plants and their habitats in the future.

Bloodroot, Dog’s Tooth Violet, and Red Trillium. Fanny Amelia Bayfield, c.1827. Courtesy of Library and Archves Canada, Acc. No. 1963-103-75 Gift of Captain Boulton.

Visual evidence is effectively referenced by many of the authors. The 1877 cover of Introduction to Botanic Teachings at the Schools of Victoria, by Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, transports the reader to Australia (175). Mueller exploited his position as government botanist to engage individuals, mostly women immigrants, and not Indigenous Australians, in collecting and naming local specimens. Collectors thereby appropriated ownership of the national flora of Australia from British imperial botanists. Mueller’s small textbook invited teachers to recruit new collectors but also to experience the healthy pleasures to be gained from the study of botany. Flora’s Fieldworkers contains many images like Mueller’s textbook, which evoke the excitement of archival research when a new document is unpacked from a storage box or found in an ancient dusty bound volume.

By far the best images are the colour plates. Reproductions of the two textiles – the Fallowfield quilt, with panels considered to be embroidered by Elizabeth Bell, and Margaret Ann McCrum’s coverlet – are tantalizingly small, and invite textile historians and quilters alike to take a trip to the Heritage Quilt Collection at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University in Kingston. A detailed section of the Fallowfield quilt is presented, showing Bell to have been a skilled needlewoman who stitched colourful images of local flowers with needle and thread. Author and historian of material culture Vanessa Nicholas argues that such decorated textiles made for early Canadian homes were typical of another kind of female botanical tradition in Canada, practiced by women in charge of homes and families, and that they contributed to a growing material identity (324, 338). Embroidery was Bell’s way of recording local flora while creating something tangible and useful; note the embroidered red trillium, widespread in eastern Ontario.

Catherine Parr Traill, from Studies of Plant Life in Canada: Wild Flowers, Flowring Shrubs, and Grasses (Toronto: Williams Briggs, 1906), plate II.

Also presented as a coloured image is a stunning beaded bag, worked in floral motifs by an unidentified Mi’kmaq or Wǝlastǝkwewiyik person. Similarities between motifs on McCrum’s coverlet and the beaded bag suggest that stitchers borrowed designs from Indigenous makers from northeastern North America. By referencing the beaded bag, Nicholas draws attention to the relative absence of discussion of Indigenous botanizing tradition in this volume. There were in fact other ways of knowing about plants besides the developing science of botany, as David Galbraith emphasizes in a preamble to his discussion of botanical gardens (348-349). Indigenous knowledge included practical, medicinal, ceremonial and culinary traditions (347). Lady Dalhousie’s short-lived King’s Botanical Garden at Ȋle Ste-Hélène near Montreal showcased plants that were acquired from Indigenous neighbours, including those with medicinal qualities and dye plants, all “of the greatest importance to science in general” (350). Settlers like Catherine Parr Traill, possibly the last and greatest Canadian natural historian, was indebted to anonymous Indigenous botanizers for survival in the backwoods of eastern Ontario (240). In her eloquent Afterward, Suzanne Zeller reminds readers that scholars have a duty to recognize and acknowledge, through research, writing and teaching, the Indigenous roots of our plant knowledge (410-411).

From a cornucopia of data, editor Ann Shteir has crafted a comprehensive and cohesive interdisciplinary whole. I anticipate collaboration, discussion and debate, excitement and enthusiasm as readers of Flora’s Fieldworkers plunge into renewed study of hitherto unknown women and move them to the forefront of women’s and gender history, environmental history, Indigenous history, the history of botany, and environmental and plant sciences.

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