I wandered along a Grand Manan Island shore looking for an Arctic plant. In the arctic most plants are low growing so I was searching for something ground hugging and perhaps mound shaped. This vision vanished when I stopped to look at a ribbon of lustrous-leaved plants standing five or six feet (180 cm) tall at the top of a shingle bank. There, with its yellow daisy-like flowers silhouetted against the clear blue sky, was the Sea-beach groundsel (Senecio pseudo-arnica). This plant is usually identified with the western Arctic, where it grows around the Bering Strait, southward along the British Columbia coast and westward through the Aleutian island chain to Siberia, Korea, and Japan. Here in eastern Canada it is found only in a few isolated colonies around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, along the Labrador coast, and on the west coast of Newfoundland. The Grand Manan colony is one of the most southerly on the North Atlantic.1

On the leeward side of the shingle bank, just a few feet from the Sea-beach groundsel, at the edge of marshy ground, I found a very different plant: here was the small, six inch (15 cm) tall pink-flowered Gerardia (Agalinis neoscotica). It is a local variety of a southern plant with a distribution extending from New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to Florida. On Grand Manan it grows mostly in roadside ditches and in gravelly moist soil in the southern part of the island.

These plants, surviving in their tiny havens at the extreme limits of their ranges, illustrate two features that make the flora of New Brunswick notable: the meeting and intermingling of northern and southern species and the presence of isolated populations of rare or uncommon plants. Although our flora lacks the richness and variety to be found farther south, it has distinctive aspects that make it worthy of study. There is, for instance, a puzzling anomaly along the Northumberland Strait coast where a number of species have affinities with plants found hundreds of miles away to the southward, but not found in the intervening regions. And there are two unique endemic species. The Bathurst Aster occurs only in the mud flats at the mouth of the Tetagouche River at Bathurst, and the Furbish Lousewort is found only in the northern reaches of the Saint John River valley. These species are found nowhere else on earth.

Isolated plant colonies are like ancient artifacts: they provide us with a window on the past. Merritt Lyndon Fernald, an eminent American botanist at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard University, was the first scientist to clearly identify the complexity of the Maritime region. He called these isolated plant colonies “relicts of a former age.”2 He visited New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and the Gaspé Peninsula early in the twentieth century. His analysis led him to recognize that some of our plants had relationships to species found in surprisingly far-flung parts of the globe. Fernald followed in the footsteps of an earlier Harvard University botanist, Asa Gray, a pioneer in the discipline of biogeography. This subject seeks to answer the fundamental questions of why particular plants are found in particular places, and how they arrived there. It is a science that has made giant strides in recent decades.

In Fernald’s time most people believed that the continents and oceans occupied permanent positions and had always occupied those places on the earth’s surface. In the last fifty years our ideas have changed. By studying fossils and the composition of rocks, geologists and palaeontologists have determined that, over a time span of millions of years, powerful forces in the earth’s mantle have moved continents across the globe and have caused old oceans to disappear and new ones to be born. As long ago as the sixteenth century, Francis Bacon had noticed that Africa and South America have reciprocal shapes which, if pushed together, would fit like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This idea developed into a theory only in the 1920s when a German meteorologist, Alfred Wegener, proposed his theory of “continental drift.” At first the theory was ridiculed, but gradually evidence from rocks, fossils, and the variation in magnetism of volcanic rocks laid down in different geological eras proved that continents had indeed wandered.3 The theory was finally accepted in the 1960s after it was discovered that new oceanic crust was welling up through mid-oceanic ridges, such as the mid-Atlantic ridge, causing the ocean floor to spread. Further, old sea floor was being sucked under or “subducted” in deep sea trenches at some of the ocean’s margins where the oceanic tectonic plates meet the continental tectonic plates.4 This renewal and destruction of the sea floor with material dragged into the much hotter earth’s mantle was a sort of recycling process. The convection currents set up in the earth’s mantle act as a conveyor belt.

Occasionally, over the earth’s long history, continents collided and then rafted together forming super-continents. A super-continent of this type, Pangea, was formed about 350 million years ago. Approximately 100 million years later, this land mass fractured into two: a northern continent, Laurasia and a large southern continent, Gondwanaland, with a developing ocean, the Tethys Sea, between them. The Laurasian continent eventually gave rise to much of North America. Inundation by an arm of the Tethys Sea into a rift valley on the Laurasian continent allowed another ocean, the Atlantic, to be born. The widening Atlantic Ocean cut off southern Europe and North Africa from North America.

Sometimes pieces of the edges of continents broke away, moved independently of their parent continent and became accreted to another continent. This kind of activity accounts for much of the geological complexity of the Maritime region of Canada where broken-off pieces of Pangea, sea mounts, and volcanic island chains became accreted to the northeastern part of Laurasia.

All these continental movements are incredibly slow on our time scale. They cover millions of years and the movements are usually in the order of centimeters or a few inches per year. Through a long period of time they caused Laurasia and therefore North America to move from the southern hemisphere across the equator and into the northern hemisphere.

The importance of these continental movements becomes clear when we consider the plants which occupied these lands. The vascular plants—those having a conducting system for water and food—first arose about 400 million years ago and the true flowering plants approximately 140 million years ago. That was well before Laurasia broke away from the super-continent, Pangea. These continents carried the precursors and ancestors of our modern plants with them on their travels. Each continent was a sort of ark for the plants which happened to occupy it at that particular time. On those continents separated for a long period of time by wide oceans, the plant and animal life (or biota) evolved independently; continents isolated in this way for millions of years came to have distinctive assemblages of life. Where continents have some common history the plants and animals may show some similarities. North America and Europe, for instance, have a number of plants which are closely allied. Ferns have many species common to both continents. Pairs of similar species of trees and shrubs can also be distinguished; the American Elm and European Elm, our Jack Pine and the European Scotch Pine, the North American and European Hop Hornbeam, American and European Beech, and the high-bush cranberries and elderberry bushes on both continents have marked similarities.

While plate tectonics account for some of the broad patterns of vegetation, plant evolution and climate have both played a decisive role in determining our modern flora. A giant cooling beginning two million years ago led to ice formation around the poles. There were a series of glaciations or ice ages, the ice at times advancing into lower latitudes, at other times retreating toward the poles. During the ice ages vegetation migrated southwards only to return when the glaciers melted in the warmer interglacial periods.

In North America the last ice age (known as the Wisconsin glaciation) reached its maximum development about 24,000 years ago. The ice extended to the edge of the continental shelf and south as far as Long Island, New York. So much water was locked up in the ice that sea levels fell. At the same time the weight of the ice depressed the land a few hundred metres, causing the relatively plastic layers below to be squeezed outward and the edge of the continent to buckle upwards so that the edge of the continental shelf stood above the sea level.5 At the end of the ice age the melting ice and rebounding land led to many changes in the coastal configuration. In the Maritimes this exposed a corridor, a temporary land bridge, extending discontinuously from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. Forest appeared on this exposed continental shelf before the glaciers had finally retreated from northern New Brunswick. Here then, was a route for plants to migrate and return from their southern refuges and to bring other plants with them into Nova Scotia. It was several thousand years later that the melting ice led to coastal changes in what is now New Brunswick, so that some of the Passamaquoddy islands and Prince Edward Island were linked to the mainland by exposed continental shelf.

During the glaciers’ advance and retreat they flayed the skin off soil, scraped and gouged the rocks and left a surface of poorly compacted rock and impoverished glacial till. Large erratic boulders were scattered over the landscape. The boulders and scrape marks often found on rock surfaces are the present day evidence of past glacial action. When the climate warmed, the ice sheets melted over a period of several thousand years. The return of plants from their refuges in the south was a gradual process. We can imagine a situation similar to that at the edge of glaciers in present times: tundra-like vegetation appeared first, followed by boreal forest and finally the mixed forest typical of the Acadian region today.

The last ice age ended approximately 15,000 years ago. Fluctuations in climate since the last ice age add to the complexity of this story. Specialists examining pollen grains deposited in lake sediments and bogs have discovered that approximately 10,800 to 10,000 years ago there was an abrupt cooling known as the younger Dryas. At this time the vegetation changed from boreal forest back to shrub tundra. A warmer period 7,000 to 5,000 years ago allowed white pine, hemlock, and oak to become common, followed by maple and beech. All of these changes in climate have played a significant part in the establishment of our present New Brunswick flora.

M. L. Fernald based his theories of relict plants on small enclaves of rare plants hundreds of miles distant from others of their kind. Such a theory demands an extensive knowledge of the flora, which could only be obtained by many years of plant exploration. When the first Europeans arrived in this part of North America 400 years ago they knew nothing of the plants which grew here. They were invariably struck by the barren nature of the rocky and sandy shores and the backdrop of gloomy and forbidding forest. The forests were seen as an evil excrescence on the earth, fit only for wild beasts. “Being covered on every side by one continuous forest,” exclaimed the Jesuit priest, Father Biard, “it naturally follows that the soil hardly ever becomes warmed through.”6 The New England Puritan clergyman Cotton Mather was even more scathing in his criticism: “the Plymouth colony was founded in a ‘hideous and desolate wilderness . . . full of wild beasts . . . and the whole country full of woods and thickets’. The colonists were aghast at the sight of a countryside covered by ‘wild and uncouth woods’; and they set about destroying trees so as to make ‘habitable’ . . . [the] ‘dismal thickets’.”7 They had envisioned an orderly society set in a rural landscape of well tended fields and productive gardens. Here they were faced with a wild grandeur totally divorced from their past experience.

For the first travellers and settlers in New Brunswick, some knowledge of the plants was imperative. Many of the plants they found were unknown to them. Which ones were useful as food or as medicines? At that time, medical cures for diseases were based largely on plant extracts. The native peoples shared their knowledge with the newcomers. They told the Europeans of plants which they knew had curative properties or were poisonous. They knew, for instance, that the White Hellebore (Veratrum viride) is a poisonous plant, but an extract from the roots was used against head lice. Similarly the skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is poisonous, but an oil extracted from the crushed leaves was inhaled by native people to relieve headaches. This was the kind of information which was useful to the settlers. The Mi’kmaq and Maliseet peoples explained the use of fiddlehead ferns, the making of maple syrup and spruce beer, and the use of cattails as food. Theirs was a practical knowledge passed on orally from generation to generation with nothing written down. Europeans then began to observe plants, recording and collating their own information.

The early explorers usually collected some plants to take back to Europe with them for further study. Later, European botanists and naturalists were occasionally sent to other parts of the world to make special collections. Plant exploration in a region such as New Brunswick has been a long and arduous process. Early accounts illustrate the formidable difficulties that plant hunters encountered. Two and a half centuries after Champlain visited these shores, the surveyor Sir James Alexander, working in New Brunswick in the mid-nineteenth century, described the province as “a vast ocean of trees through which the compass alone can guide us.”8 A few years later in 1841, the military engineer Sir Richard Henry Bonnycastle was conducting a survey of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. He and a companion landed on the New Brunswick shore near the mouth of the Restigouche River, but when they attempted to penetrate the forest they “found it so dense and so obstructed by fallen timber that they were at last obliged to return to the shore.”9 Trails and roads were constructed slowly while the rivers remained the only means of penetrating central New Brunswick until well into the nineteenth century. The 1829 map, prepared by the surveyor general Thomas Baillie, shows an area across central New Brunswick south of the Tobique River as being “a country very little known.”10 In 1900, the New Brunswick botanist, cartographer, and wilderness explorer W. F. Ganong reported that this same area was “unsurveyed, wrongly mapped and scientifically little known,” and could be reached only after several days’ canoe journey.11

Among these serious obstacles to plant exploration, the hordes of insects that attacked all who entered the forest through much of the spring and summer seasons were particularly obnoxious. “Nowhere,” wrote Leith Adams, “are mosquitoes more abundant and bloodthirsty than in the forest tracts . . . Pennyroyal and camphor are effective, but require to be constantly applied. The lumber man covers his body with pork fat until he is encased in lard—a sort of enamelling process which seems to drive the old hunter distracted.”12

The first European plant explorers, working farther to the south, assumed that the vegetation of northern New England and the Maritimes was merely an extension of a broad and continuous range of plants known from other parts of Canada and the United States.13 Few botanists and plant hunters bothered to visit northeastern Canada. In the wider world, the eighteenth century was marked by the launching of expeditions specifically designed to obtain information about plants and animals. The illustrious Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus, for instance, collected plants in Lapland (1732) and later brought about a revolution in the way plants are named and classified. In the next generation, Sir Joseph Banks was perhaps the most notable of all plant explorers and collectors, at least in terms of the number of specimens that he obtained. Supported by a large private fortune as well as by government sponsorship, he sailed from Britain to Newfoundland (1766) and later to Australia (1768–1771), returning with remarkable collections of plants and information which were to form an important element of the collections of the British Museum and the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew. Subsequently, as president of the British Royal Society (1778), he was able to ensure that plant collecting continued to be one of the objectives of government exploration overseas.

Despite many European expeditions to all parts of the world, no world famous plant hunters visited the province of New Brunswick: we had no David Douglas or Robert Fortune exploring these shores and forests. Yet remarkable progress was made. In the 400 years since the arrival of Europeans, many less-celebrated individuals have contributed their skills and expertise to expanding our knowledge. For evidence of their endeavours we must turn to the botanical periodicals, naturalist journals and other publications and to herbaria (a sort of library of pressed and dried plants) for the material evidence of their activities—the plants they found. Armed with the tools of their trade—the trowel, pocket knife, vasculum, plant press and cartridge paper—these pioneers traversed bogs and waterways and braved the forest depths to determine the nature of our plant communities.14 Their story is a saga of individual adventure and accomplishment. This account examines their progress in the context of the botanical ideas of the time in which they lived and searches for answers to the problems of those small plant populations isolated by hundreds of miles from others of their kind.

^ 1 Senecio pseudo-arnica is also found in southern Nova Scotia near Yarmouth and on Sable Island.

^ 2 M. L. Fernald, “Persistence of Plants in Unglaciated Areas of Boreal America,” Memoirs of American Academy of Arts and Science 15, 3 (1925): 241–342. See also M. L. Fernald, “The Geographic Affinities of the Vascular Flora of New England, The Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland,” American Journal of Botany 5, 5 (1918): 219–47.

^ 3 There are several excellent accounts of continental drift. See Robert A. Fensome and Graham L. Williams eds., The Last Billion Years (Halifax: Atlantic Geoscience Society and Nimbus Publishing, 2001), 52–114. There is an easily readable account in Simon Winchester, Krakatoa (Harper Collins, 2003). An account of particular interest to Maritime readers on both continental drift and plants is Stephen R. Clayden, “History, Physical Setting and Regional Variation of the Flora,” in Harold Hinds, Flora of New Brunswick, 2nd ed. (Fredericton: University of New Brunswick, 2000), 25–73. See also Richard Corfield, The Silent Landscape, The Scientific Voyage of the Challenger (Washington: Joseph Henry, 2001).

^ 4 The earth’s crust is made up of a series of plates which constantly move in relation to each other.

^ 5 Clayden, “History, Physical Setting and Regional Variation…” 35–73.

^ 6 Letter from Port Royal in Acadia in Reuben Gold Thwaites, ed., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents II Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610–1791 (Cleveland, IL.: The Burrows Company, 1896); and ibid., Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents IV Acadia and Quebec 1612–14 (Cleveland, IL: The Burrows Company, 1899), 78.

^ 7 Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983), 194.

^ 8 James E. Alexander. L’Acadie or Seven Years Explorations in British North America, vol. 2 (London: Henry Colburn, 1849), 78.

^ 9 Richard Henry Bonnycastle, The Canadas in 1841 (London: Henry Colburn, 1841, republished by the Social Science Research Council of Canada 1968), 141. Bonnycastle (1791–1847) was commanding royal engineer in Upper Canada 1837–1839, and later in Newfoundland. He wrote a number of papers and books on Canada, including The Canadas in 1841, 2 vols., and Newfoundland 1842: A Sequel to the Canadas in 1841.

^ 10 Thomas Baillie, “Map of the province of New Brunswick in illustration of a report of the Commissioner of Crown Lands and forests,” 1829. Public Archives of Canada, Map Division. I am indebted to D. Murray Young for this reference.

^ 11 William Francis Ganong, “Notes on the Natural History and Physiography of New Brunswick, 23. Forestry Problems in New Brunswick,” Natural History Society of New Brunswick (hereafter NHSNB) Bulletin 18 (1900): 239.

^ 12 A. Leith Adams, Field and Forest Rambles with notes and observations on the Natural History of Eastern Canada (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873), 290.

^ 13 Broad statements of this kind were often made by travelers when they first arrived in this country. The French collector Eugène Bourgeau, for instance, was impressed by the majestic forests and prairies, but his first impression was one of the paucity of species relative to the vastness of the area. Marcel Raymond, “Bourgeau, Eugène,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography (hereafter DCB) X, 8.

^ 14 The vasculum, first used in 1704, was a flattened oval tin box used to carry collected plant specimens. See David Elliston Allen, The Naturalist in Britain (London: Allen Lane, 1976), 6. The vasculum has been replaced in modern times by the plastic bag. Cartridge paper is used to mount pressed and dried plants for further study. Occasionally taken into the field together with the plant press, it is more frequently used in the herbarium.