Features & Stories

They are survivors. Scattered throughout the West, their presence marks the settler's paths, often when all other traces of settlement have vanished. Many a spot now returned to wilderness or pasture, or, even transmogrified into housing developments, has, still a stubborn patch of rhubarb or a grimly determined lilac as a reminder that, once, people equally resolute built their homes here, tilled the fields or logged the forests, raised their families, and tried to make a living on the wild frontier.

Not all succeeded. Some had no skills as farmers. Others lacked the myriad abilities, from farrier to cabin-builder and well digger to be self-sufficient. The vagaries of markets and shipping their goods defeated others. Many lost to drought and grasshoppers. Thousands of men locked their cabin doors and went to fight in the two World Wars and not all returned. Many settlers were routed by sheer loneliness. The ceaseless wind gusting across open prairie or secret rustlings among tall, dark trees finally drove them back to towns where a neighbor's light was visible.

When they went, they left behind their cabins, barns, cellars, fences and gardens. It's a tribute to the power of Nature that the plants have endured longest. Many of you have noticed crumbling cabins, roofs long ago fallen in, side logs askew, still companioned by a healthy stand of lilac, as if the trees were comforting the old place. I have come upon a pasture in the woodland from which all signs of human habitation have disappeared and found a flourishing patch of rhubarb which would have delighted a 1910 housewife.

Wanderers along railway tracks discover lilacs and rhubarb still growing by boarded up houses, evidence that, decades ago, when each section had its section foreman and station agent along the CPR and CNR, and most of those foremen and agents had wives, there were tidy gardens here and the derelict old houses were homes full of activity.

From the Cypress Hills to the Peace River, lilacs and rhubarb are consistent, silent witnesses to Canadian settlement. No two plants were better suited to pioneer families. Like human pioneers, both plants are hardy, survive being transported over long distances and are easy to start from roots. Long before garden centres people traded roots and cuttings with family and neighbours. Even today who has not taken just one plant from our family home to start in a new residence? It's like carrying our family history with us. Surely it was that way for early settlers. Plants came west from Ontario, and up from the U.S., first by ox-cart and covered wagon, then by train along the recently completed Canadian Pacific and Grand Trunk Railways.

The fact that the two plants are frequently found together gives us insight into the character of Canadian settlers who valued beauty as much as food. Rhubarb sustained their bodies; lilacs nourished their souls.

Keeping young plants alive on some farms where every drop of water had to be hauled by horse or carried by hand took determination, but those pioneers did it.

They were wise. In the early 1900s, keeping away scurvy meant preserving wild blueberries; cranberries or huckleberries, if any were available. The sight of a rhubarb shoot poking through the chilly soil was welcome. 'Spring tonic' it was rightly called. Rhubarb is an excellent source of vitamins A and C, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which keeps moose and deer from eating the rhubarb. Water from boiled leaves will serve as an insecticide.

Moreover, rhubarb NEEDS cold winters to thrive. It grows well in poor soil. Both robust and nutritious, it was the perfect plant for homesteaders.

Rhubarb has been known in China and the Far East, where it's considered a medicinal plant, since 2700 BC. A patch planted on our family homestead at least 65 years ago is still flourishing. During those years, we ate it, preserved it, sold it to townsfolk and gave away numerous roots for propagation. Two years ago, my sister, who lives there, decided to move the mother plant and put a birch tree in its place. The plant took well to the move but some unnoticed root remained and is now growing in close harmony with the birch. Rhubarb is not only tangy and tasty, it's tenacious.

So are lilacs. The lilac is one of the longest-lived shrubs. The oldest known in North America, over three hundred years old, grow in New Hampshire and Michigan. Its name comes from the Persian word for blue. In mythology, lilac is the flower of the Goddess Venus, an understandable connection to anyone who's caught the scent of lilacs in full bloom.

One can easily picture a young couple on their homestead taking a moment to enjoy the fragrance of the lilacs, dreaming of their future. And one can imagine the sadness when, through age, illness or changing economic circumstances, they were forced to leave, and walked one last time around the yard saying goodbye to the trees they cherished.

The first lilacs I ever saw were grown by Mr. Cox, our local postmaster, a transplanted Londoner. An expert gardener, he created a replica of a formal English garden guarded on all sides by towering lilac hedges. To a small child familiar only with wild paintbrush and columbine, the perfumed lilacs were exotic treasures.

This spring I noticed that a wild lilac has taken root on the hill behind my home. Its deep green leaves and brilliant mauve flowers contrast strikingly with surrounding sagebrush and saskatoon. Colonizing seems to be going the other way.

Romans left roads to make their presence and their passing. Much more poignant and evocative are the lilacs and rhubarb of Canadian pioneers.


(Trudy is a freelance writer living in Kamloops, B.C.)

Other articles by Trudy Frisk

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