Wednesday, February 16, 2011


But what can you grow here?

I’ve had this question posed to me more than once this summer, and I’ve had to answer it in two different ways.

The first time, the question came from a customer who moved to Manitoba from B.C. They weren’t happy with having to ask the question, as many of the plants that they were used to growing “back home” couldn’t survive the Winnipeg winters.

The second time, the question came from a woman who had just moved into Winnipeg from Thompson, and she was thrilled with the variety of plants she now had the ability to put in her garden.

The early pioneers of the prairies faced the same question, and they had to answer it in their own way. Of course, there are many native trees and shrubs. Among these are the Black ash, Green ash, White birch, Showy Mountain ash, Hackberry, Trembling aspen, Peachleaf willow, Manitoba maple, Black spruce, White spruce and Jack pine. The shrubs include Nannyberry, Downy arrowwood, Highbush cranberry and Lowbush cranberry; wild plum, and the wild rose.

These native plants are not always the most attractive of trees and shrubs to plant on a small city lot; in fact, you rarely see them planted in the city for that very reason. Thank goodness we do have more diversity in our plant selection; but do we know who to thank?

There are a few pioneers in the plant breeding program; pioneers who missed the diversity of vegetation from their European homelands. Georges Bugnet, Richard Patmore, and Frank Skinner were all dedicated to plant breeding and hybridization. These men were all challenged with the question, “What can you grow here?”

Georges Bugnet and his family moved from France to Canada (Alberta) in 1905. By 1912, he was studying plant geography, and was writing to botanical gardens around the world, asking for plants that would grow under similar conditions to his geographical area. He received plants from as far away as Finland. He was able to work in conjunction with other research stations in Canada, including the Morden Research Station (which was established in 1915.) By 1925, he was hybridizing stone fruits and apples. In his later years, he began breeding roses, with many good results, including the popular Marie Bugnet rose and the Therese Bugnet rose. They are named after his daughters.

Frank Skinner began his notable career with the introduction of prairie winter hardy lilacs in the early 1930’s. Asessippi is a bluish purple, and Pocohantas is a dark purple; both still available. Pocohantas has the distinction of being one of the earliest flowering lilacs. He is also noted for the Maiden’s Blush, Royal Purple, Donald Wyman and the Dwarf Korean lilacs. He worked extensively with roses, and the results have been the background for many of our favourite rose cultivars, including some of the Explorer and Parkland series. Mr. Skinner’s plant breeding efforts began with lilacs, roses and lilies; but he is responsible for at least 25 cultivars that are still marketed in the prairies, including the Dropmore linden and the Dropmore Scarlet Trumpet honeysuckle.

Richard Patmore was the owner of Patmore Nurseries in Brandon. The nursery had been founded in the 1890’s by his father, and employed some of the prairie horticulturalists. Mr. Patmore was responsible for the development of the very popular Brandon cedar, and the Patmore green ash. The Patmore green ash is a grafted cultivar of the native Green ash, grows to about 60 feet, is seedless and very hardy.

Through the efforts of Georges Bugnet, Frank Skinner, Richard Patmore, and many other dedicated horticulturalists, it has now been demonstrated that our harsh prairie climate is indeed home to many beautiful and productive plants. The continual testing, development and plant management that is still carried out by nurseries such as Jeffries Nurseries in Portage la Prairie is living proof of what we can grow here.

Spring is just around the corner. Start planning now, and soon you’ll have a very satisfactory, very diverse and beautiful answer to the question, “but what can you grow here?”
Posted by Tammy Jensen at 12:00 AM