When we browse on social medias, we quickly notice this. Groups interested in native plants and wild edible plants are growing as quickly as mushrooms after a nice autumn rain. The “natural nature” of Quebec is popular. It’s in fashion. Whether we should be happy about it or worried about it is another debate. But I have noticed, in some cases, how those who promote this beautiful nature seem to know so little about it. This is the main reason that motivated me to make this plea, this sales pitch in favor of the Laurentian Flora (Flore laurentienne in French), written by Frère Marie-Victorin. With this exponential craze for native plants, it’s a book that deserves to be proudly displayed in every home in the province of Quebec.
What Exactly is a Flora?
A flora is a complete inventory of plants that cover a specific region. Some will say that it is a kind of catalog, where everything is classified according to common characteristics. For example, there is a flora of Spain, a flora of New Brunswick, a flora of alpine plants from the American Rockies, etc. And of course, we have a flora from Quebec, called the Laurentian Flora. It is quite simply a very large book (1093 pages for the 3rd edition published in 1997) which presents all the plants that we are likely to come across in nature in Quebec. Forest trees, field plants, weeds, aquatic plants, ferns… it’s all there! This great work is, nothing more, nothing less, than a tribute to our beautiful nature, whether rural or urban.
And Why Have a Flora?
First and foremost because Brother Marie-Victorin was right. In a certain way, he was a precursor of what would become the Quiet Revolution. Marie-Victorin emphasized the importance of scientific knowledge. He underlined the importance of knowing our territory, its animals, and above all, in the case that interests us, its plants.
This is how 10 years later, Marie-Victorin solved his own problem by publishing Flore laurentienne. Reason number one to have Flora at hand: knowing its nature to acquire a better sense of identity. Nothing less.
Reason number two: to satisfy a growing craze for plants in general, whether they are edible, medicinal or right there in front of you. It is not unreasonable to assert that the Laurentian Flora is the most comprehensive work currently available for identifying thousands of plants. And not just native plants, that is, those that have been growing here since the dawn of time. The Flora also addresses these great travelers, the introduced plants, those which arrived at the same time as the first Europeans and the first house sparrows. Let us cite our glorious dandelion, our beautiful daisy of the sunny fields or the common mullein, affectionately called Devil’s tobacco. All introduced!
All of Quebec in a Book?
Not exactly. Even if the Flora lists 88 species of ferns, horsetails and lycopods, 15 conifers, and 2440 flowering plants (we understand here that the definition of a flower is very broad), it does not include all the plants of Quebec within its current administrative boundaries. Indeed, the northern flora, which grows beyond the 54th parallel, is somewhat excluded. For this part, you must obtain the four immense and majestic volumes of Flore alpine du Québec. There is also only a few mentions of the breathtaking flora that grows against all odds, it is fair to say, on the Mingan Islands. Despite these deliberate choices which would certainly have increased the already considerable thickness of the book, we can still appreciate more than 2500 species which grow in relative proximity to inhabited places.
Published for the first time in 1935 (four years before the official opening of the Montreal Botanical Garden, an institution also initiated by Marie-Victorin), the Flore Laurentienne has been updated and reissued numerous times since.
Many books, including the magnificent guides from the Fleurbec collection , cover some of the flora. We talk about ferns, city and field plants, spring plants and aquatic plants. The book “La petite flore forestière”, when we manage to find it, is also a valuable “field guide”. But there is none that displays a review as exhaustive as the Laurentian Flora.
Do You Speak Science?
On the other hand, the flaw of a flora is that it uses scientific language, which can become as difficult as learning Klingon or the Elvish language. It is true that when we do not have the slightest idea of what a stemless plant with a solitary flower head at the end of a fistulous scape is, reading and understanding and even appreciating the Laurentian Flora can be questioned. Luckily, our Quebec flora has a part (in small print) which is a rare fact in a so-called scientific flora: it is the “did you know that…” part. Yes, just under the serious description, Frère Marie-Victorin took the liberty of adding more personal notes, on the historical use of this plant.
This is how we learned that we used the Dirca palustris to discourage rascals who steal maple sap, because this plant gives you the runs! It is also in this section that Marie-Victorin makes the most beautiful apology, a tribute to our beautiful New England aster.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
The other clear advantage of the Laurentian Flora is that it is abundantly illustrated. It was Frère Alexandre who made each board manually, with a precision that surpasses belief. It’s mainly through these illustrations that the uninitiated in scientific language will become acquainted with the beautiful plants that surround them. Also, the most recent editions contain, at the end of the book, numerous photographs of the plants.
Despite the updates in the margins, some great experts will say that Flore Laurentienne is a somewhat outdated book. Some botanical family names have changed since then. The Compositae became the Asteraceae. Legumes became Fabaceae. And even our dear maples, which had a beautiful family of their own (the Aceraceae) have been placed in a “catch-all” family that is the Sapindaceae. Some plants have also changed their names (some several times in the last 80 years). We only have to think of certain poor asters, which have become Symphyotrichon, Ochlemena, Eurybia or Doellingeria. For all its fluctuations, let us blame or congratulate botanists and plant specialists, who have certainly made great advances in the modernization of the classification of plants (and living organisms as a whole), notably thanks to phylogenetics.
That said, they are far from over, these wrist-shooting games of the scientific elite to determine once and for all whether a given plant will bear the name A or the name B. Never mind, the Laurentian Flora remains an excellent resource. And for the most rigorous and also the most curious, there is always the wonderful Canadensys site which is a pure diamond of current and scientifically validated data. (Hats off to the team who keeps this site up to date).