History Trails

Twenty-one Years at the Devonian Botanic Garden

The University of Alberta Devonian Botanic Garden was founded in 1959 on 80 acres of land donated by the late H.A. Dyde, Q.C. and University of Alberta alumnus. At that time, the Garden consisted of sand dunes, peat sloughs, two oil wells, and exposed pipelines.

The early years were spent (with minimal budget) in clearing plots, digging drainage ditches, erecting a lecture hut and two small garages, and burying the exposed pipes. Progress was slow until 1974, when a wet fall, followed by heavy snow, led to flooding in the spring of 1975. Thousands of plants were killed in that flood. We kept hoping that the water would go down, but it didn't for one entire year; one of the reasons being that the Garden is in an area of aeolian sand dunes with an intermittent drainage pattern, and there is nowhere for the water to go.

In 1975, the fund-raising group, the Friends of the Devonian Botanic Garden started to repair the flood damage. Their efforts culminated in a large grant from the Devonian Foundation of $572,405. This sum was matched by the Department of Advanced Education, and enabled the Garden to do three things: 1) to acquire a further 110 acres of land; 2) to reconstruct the flood damaged areas of the Garden: and 3) to erect the Headquarters Building and greenhouses.

The reconstruction period was a fascinating one. A dragline was brought in and the Calla Pond was greatly enlarged and deepened to twenty feet, and the land built up around it. The area east of the Calla Pond was landscaped with a collection of shrubs and trees of known hardiness in the Edmonton region. This area is very interesting to the public. The west side of the Calla Pond now has a large collection of plants of the Province of Alberta. This is the only such labelled collection in the province, and is a teaching area of immense value for students of all ages, and for the general public.

A site was raised for the herb garden and later landscaped with a grant of $85,000 from the Clifford E. Lee Foundation. This herb garden is an informally designed garden with long beds which flow in the same basic patterns as the sand dunes, and which have been edged with dwarf caraganas. The paths have been laid out with inter-locking bricks which gives a firm surface for wheelchairs, etc. In the many beds there are collections of various types of herbs: 1) culinary, such as parsley, sage, thyme, marjoram; 2) medicinal, such as rhubarb, Atropa belladonna, raspberries, and scurvy grass; 3) poisonous, such as hemlock, Datura, and nightshade; 4) economic, such as flax, artichokes and lentiles; 5) dye, such as woad and madder; 6) oil, such as rapeseed, mustard and sunflower. This garden is of great interest to cooks, weavers, and students of all ages.

The old east pond was deepened to twenty feet in places and the soil spread on the surrounding plots which had been flooded. A channel was dug, connecting this pond with the Iris Dell. In the middle was left a raised area like a sand dune, and on this we have placed the garden of plants used by the native peoples of Alberta. This garden was initially funded by a grant from Imperial Oil Ltd. Construction was delayed due to the flood, and this garden will finally be opened to the public by the fall of 1980.

The old Primula Dell also suffered in the floods, and we had to raise this whole area up by three feet. This done, the area was landscaped, and the old Primula Dell pond deepened and re-landscaped. The borders, which are full of plants from the Himalayas, such as Primulas, Cowslips, and the emblem of the Garden — the Himalayan Blue Poppy — have been replanted. They do well in this area, as it has a deep and long-lasting snow cover in winter. The lawn has been replanted, giving a beautiful vista of trees, shrubs, and blue poppies.

One of the dreams of the late Dr. James Whyte, who retired as Director in 1971, had been to have an alpine garden, modelled on that of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. Before he died, a grant was received from the Stanley Smith Trust in Scotland to begin construction of such a garden. The alpine garden is now situated on an area of the sand dunes west of the oil well. When it was under construction it was decided to keep the original shape of the sand dunes and build the garden around it in a bowl-shaped area. This large part of the Botanic Garden is a teaching area which displays different styles of alpine gardens. There are four main areas here: 1) simulated glaciated ridge — similar to that found in the foothills, it seems to be the best type of alpine garden to fit into the prairie landscape; 2) a traditional type of rock garden — this has large rocks in it and is planted with the alpines native to the Rockies of Alberta (this is an area of great interest in the spring); 3) boulder rock garden — this simulated boulder field, as found in the high Rockies, provides shelter for those plants liking some shade from the hot sun (some New Zealand plants are also grown in this area); 4) scree — this is a gently sloping area which houses cushion type plants from high altitudes. The soil for the alpines in this garden has been made up of 50 percent sand and 50 percent acid peat. Traditionally, alpine plants require good sharp drainage and this is readily available to them on the sand dunes. Peat gives good moisture retention, and the sand, good drainage. All areas of the alpine garden have been given a mulch of sharp stone chips to protect the plants from excessive soil water evaporation, and also to stop the sand from blowing. Lawn has been planted in the centre of the alpine garden. This part of the Botanic Garden is at its best in May and early June, with its hundreds of alpine plants giving great displays of color.

In various parts of the Garden are shrub borders which also have other plants known to be hardy in the Edmonton region, including a good collection of shrub roses, dogwoods, birch, and poplar. As well, these plants of known hardiness are inter-planted with experimental plantings of new, not-as-yet-known shrubs in this region.

We have constructed a nature trail which goes through the woodland and crosses the wet lying areas by means of boardwalks. This trail is used widely by nature lovers and school children. There are also two ecological areas in the Garden, one a forest ecological reserve and the other a wetland ecological reserve. These are used as part of a research program.

One of the prime objectives of the Botanic Garden is to conduct winter hardiness trials to increase the range of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and bulbs which will grow in the Edmonton region. One of the things we are always asked is "where does this material come from?" Most of the plant material comes from seed, which we obtain through seed exchange with over 500 international botanic gardens. All these plants have to have their names checked, and we now have an herbarium of cultivated plants of over 1,800 specimens.

Phase I of the Headquarters Building is now in use and operation. This building contains a large seminar room, office space, a workshop for the Botanic Garden Club (the group that does all the arranging of the dried flowers), a large potting shed, and two large greenhouses. One of these greenhouses is a service greenhouse where plants are grown for planting out; the other is an indoor rock garden which has been landscaped and will eventually be open to the public. This greenhouse was funded by a matching grant of $110,000 from the Muttart Foundation.

This is what has happened in the past twenty-one years. But what of our future? In 1978, Butler-Krebes Associates Ltd. prepared a long-range development plan report. Proposals in this report provide a framework for the logical development of the Garden in accordance with its aims and objectives. The Friends of the Botanic Garden are committed to carrying out these objectives. Phase I of the Headquarters Building has been built; Phase II (which is yet to be funded) will include an herbarium, library, research space, a lecture hall for extension work, an education area which would be adjacent to the main area of the shop, and which will be an area of educational horticultural and botanical exhibits staged on a semi-permanent basis. This will provide an excellent opportunity for public education. A handicapped garden is planned adjacent to the building, for easy access from the parking lot.

A large Japanese Garden will be built in the area immediately south of the Headquarters Building. This will be a garden where the principles of Japanese landscape architecture will be applied, using native Alberta plants.

The southern part of our new land will be eventually developed into an arboretum, with service plots adjacent. Between the arboretum and the Japanese Garden will be various small educational type gardens. Among these will be included a garden of plants which were introduced by settlers from eastern Europe, a collection of fruit trees, a home demonstration garden (which will show people various styles and plans for their home gardens), a lawn trial garden, a moss garden, and finally, a trial garden for annuals where different annuals can be tried out each year.

1984 will be the 25th anniversary of the founding of the Garden. At that time, the American Association of Botanic Gardens and Arboreta will be holding its annual meeting in Edmonton, and we hope that at that point we will have achieved many of our objectives as outlined above. A final note — the objectives of the Garden could not have been met without the invaluable support and help of the Friends of the Botanic Garden.

The Devonian Botanic Garden is open to the public from 1-6 p.m. daily, May through September. For the first time, this year, guided tours will be available, in July and August, Wednesday through Sunday, at 1:30 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. This is done with the help and support of Community Relations.

Published June 1980.

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