PHOTO BY T.M. O'SHAUGHNESSY
Among the revered herbs used in indigenous celebrations and ritual, sweetgrass is often braided and, along with sage, cedar and tobacco, is ceremoniously used when smudging.
Long before we headed into the change-making year of 2020, a vociferous argument (at least for gardeners) began over the fact that, for the celebration of the country’s 150th birthday in 2017, Canada had no national flower. Until then, the maple leaf had been the ‘floral emblem’ of Canada but the purists were disturbed that no actual flower, no botanic flora, officially represented our home and native land.
It was of course pointed out that the provinces had already done their job of choosing real flowers.
Newfoundland and Labrador had chosen the pitcher plant, New Brunswick the purple violet, Nova Scotia the gentle mayflower and PEI the fabulous lady’s slipper. Quebec’s blue flag iris bloomed proudly throughout June’s Fete nationale season, and Ontario’s white trillium was already quite famous in its own right. Manitoba went for the prairie crocus, Saskatchewan the western red lily and Alberta the beautiful wild rose. Pacific dogwood was the choice of British Columbia, purple saxifrage for Nunavut, mountain avens for the North West Territories and magenta fireweed for the Yukon.
So, from sea to sea to sea, it was high time for the federal government to also commit to an official, actual flower.
Three possibilities were thrown into the ring – the evocatively named Hooded Ladies Tresses, the Twinflower, and the Bunchberry. Discourse raged. Canadians voted. And the Bunchberry (cornus canadensis) was chosen. But it was soon clear that this new floral symbol of Canada was not going to become its ‘official’ floral emblem after all – just its flower. For all the patriotic reasons unnecessary to go into, the maple leaf was retained and everyone was pretty happy about that.
But here’s a thought for our times. With full awareness – and heartfelt apologies if making a gaffe without realizing it – I would nominate sweetgrass to be the national flower for our country. Sacred to indigenous peoples, native to our native land – full of ritual and honour – I would choose beautifully scented sweetgrass as Canada’s flower.
Hierochloe odorata or Anthoxanthum nitens is the botanical name of this aromatic herb that originates in northern Eurasia and North America. A sacred grass of the indigenous peoples of Canada and the United States, it’s used in smudging, in herbal medicine, and is one of the most important native ceremonial plants. Symbolizing healing, peace and spirituality, in the myths of some nations, such as the Ojibwe and Cree, it is said to be the oldest of all plants and sometimes referred to as the hair of Mother Earth.
The legends, stories and ritual importance of sweetgrass cannot be overestimated, and if that makes it an inappropriate suggestion for floral symbol contests, than perhaps another botanical motif important to indigenous cultures could be considered – sage or tobacco (though they are also sacred and essential to ceremonial ritual), or the delicate bloom that flowers before strawberries fruit, a symbol of great significance to the First Nations of the eastern part of Canada.
To be sure, there are national conversations to have about deserving the honour of adopting any of these as the country’s floral emblem – Canada’s indigenous peoples have suffered, and continue to suffer, greatly. But if wishing could make it so, I would choose sweetgrass as our national flower, above all others.