The Rich Heritage of Catharine Parr Traill, Pioneer, Author and Botanist

Monochrome portrait.

Miniature portrait of Catharine Parr Strickland (her name before her marriage). Image: National Archives of Canada, C-067337 © Public domain

International Women’s Day is a good time for us at the National Herbarium of Canada to remember the many women who have shaped our understanding and appreciation of Canada’s plant life. There are so many!

This year, I’d like to thank Catharine Parr Traill, the dedicated and artistic creator of more than 20 bound herbaria (blank books filled with pressed plants and annotations) that now hold treasured places in the Canadian Museum of Nature’s plant collection.

Each of these herbaria has a unique history, content and potential value. In August 2011, Marion Cinqualbre described our conservators’ plan to painstakingly stabilize and digitize these precious historical objects.

Why are they so incredibly special? Catharine Parr Traill immigrated in 1834, transitioning abruptly from a genteel life in Britain where she was surrounded by familiar and supportive people, to self-sufficiency in a one-room cabin in the Canadian woods. Talk about tough!

Two images: Several dried and pressed plants affixed to a page in an album, and a twig of Manitoba maple (Acer negundo) with leaves, flowers and fruit, affixed to a page in an album.

Left: Catharine Parr Traill sometimes filled pages with plants of many kinds and from many places. Catalogue: CAN 588170. Right: This specimen reflects a more scientific style because the sheet includes one specimen, the collecting location and the date on one page. The species is Manitoba maple (Acer negundo). Images: Jennifer Doubt/Carolyn Leckie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Unlike many who couldn’t cope, she preferred to be “up and doing”—not only learning from her new neighbours, farming, and raising a family, but also publishing 22 books (e.g., The Backwoods of Canada, 1836, and The Female Emigrant’s Guide, 1854), and fearlessly befriending and documenting her new, often intimidating, natural landscape.

Handwritten inscription mounted on a piece of cardboard, with by a photograph of the author. Inscription text: "An Easter offering for my dear daughter, Katharine Agnes S. Traill With much love from her aged Mother. Catharine Parr Traill – April 1898 –".

Catharine Parr Traill died in 1899 at the age of 97, about a year after she wrote this inscription. Catalogue: CAN 596093. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

As an amateur botanist, Catharine Parr Traill bridged science and popular culture. Her work set the stage for thousands of Canadian enthusiasts whose weekend passion for the outdoors furnishes specimens and other records that fuel scientific discovery and species conservation.

Her home near Rice Lake, Upper Canada (now Ontario), was in prairie and oak savannah habitat that has changed a lot in the past 200 years. Specimens that she collected according to her avid interests can now be used by scientists to reconstruct these past plant communities.

Her Canadian Wildflowers (1868), with its hand-painted illustrations by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon, is considered to be one of the nation’s first field guides. The Canadian Museum of Nature has a first edition of this book—one of only 500 made.

The existence of Catharine Parr Traill’s writings, and those of her sister, Susannah Moodie (e.g., Roughing It in the Bush, 1852), and biographers (e.g., Charlotte Gray, Sisters in the Wilderness, 2000), add an unusually detailed human dimension to her plant collections in the National Herbarium. While many of the National Herbarium’s plant specimens bear few clues regarding the collector’s experience—perhaps only the collection date and location—, much of the adventure and character of Catharine Parr Traill’s remarkable story is preserved. Seeing her collections and handwriting in context powerfully inspires people from many backgrounds.

Visitors to Catharine Parr Traill’s collection at our collections and research facility in Gatineau, Quebec, represent projects in fine art, land stewardship, women’s studies, literature, Canadian history and—of course!—botany.

We have also hosted guests who were personally so inspired by Catharine Parr Traill that they simply wanted to be photographed beside the cabinet where some of the gifts she left us are kept safe for future generations.

From an extraordinary woman, a spectacular example and lasting legacy. Happy International Women’s Day!

A plant specimen on a sheet of six fabric samples.

Plant specimens were pressed with whatever was handy... in this case, fabric samples! Catalogue: CAN 596098. Image: Jennifer Doubt © Canadian Museum of Nature

This entry was posted in Collections, History, Plants and Algae and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Rich Heritage of Catharine Parr Traill, Pioneer, Author and Botanist

  1. Painter Lady says:

    Such a great post! I was out in Belleville this past summer and really really treasured reading about Catherine and Susanna! Thanks for this interesting read.

  2. Susan says:

    For more inspiring real-life stories of people who turned passion for native plants into action check out the People in Action stories (http://www.nature.ca/plnt/wycd/pia_e.cfm) on the Museum’s Native Plant Crossroads web site.

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