The wonderful willow

Willow has long been associated with mystical properties along with the moon and water. The Greek poet Orpheus carried willow branches with him to the underworld. Hecate was the Greek Goddess of both the moon and the willow. In Druid mythology, man was hatched from two scarlet eggs hidden in a willow tree.

Mystical or not, willow has always had an important place in the everyday lives of humans. Its flexible, fast growing branches were used for a myriad of purposes from making baskets to making Welsh coracles (boats). Willow wood is the source of charcoal used in drawings. Tannin from the bark was used for making leather. Willow wood absorbs shock well and so is still favoured in making cricket bats. Sound boxes for harps were originally carved out of willow. Coppiced willow twigs are still used for fodder and, in Sweden, willow is being used as a high energy bio-mass fuel.

But perhaps the most important use of willow in the early years was its ability ease pain and reduce fever because willow contains an abundance of salicin which turns into salicylic acid in the human body.

It was used as medicine by the early Sumerians and by the Assyrians, Greeks and Egyptians. In North America, willow was a staple in the medicine chest of the indigenous people. It was the salicin in willow that eventually led to the development of aspirin, a synthesized salicylic acid derived from spirea.

Of all the willows, the weeping willow is the most cherished. Its long sweeping branches form a graceful veil at the margins of a pond or a stream where it loves to locate for the water it needs to survive. It is hardy to at least zone 3 as long as it has enough water. It will be happy if you plant it beside a stream or on the edge of a pond.

And willow has another quite magical property: stick a willow branch into the ground and a new tree will sprout from the branch, sending out roots where the stick touches the soil. However, the same magic that causes it to grow so spontaneously can be troublesome with some varieties that have stoloniferous roots. These are roots that send up shoots along its nodes otherwise known as suckering.

It should be noted that there are exceptions to this. Some species, such as the Goat willow, Salic Caprea, and the peachleaf or almond willow Salix amygdaloides do not respond so readily to planting from cuttings.

Another extraordinary property of the willow is its ability to make other plants send out roots. The growing tips of the weeping willow contain indolebutyric acid (IBA), a plant growth hormone. Aided by the salicin which prevents the growth of bacteria, chopped willow tips can be soaked in water to make willow water.  If you use boiling water, the chemical can be leeched from the willow over a 24-hour period and then used to prepare cuttings from a plant you wish to propagate. Just stick the new cuttings into a glass of willow water, leave them for several hours and then plant. You can also use a bit of the willow water a couple of times to hydrate your newly planted cuttings.

 Willows are among the earliest plants to flower, making them a welcome host to bees. The mourning cloak butterfly relies on the willow to lay her eggs and willow catkins (the flower or “pussies” of the willow tree) can be mashed and eaten by humans.

There are more than 400 species of willow and they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Willow trees include the weeping willow (Salix babylonica), the acute willow (Salix acutifolia) has spreading branches and blue green leaves. It grows to 50 feet tall and wide and is great for shelterbelts, lasting 40 to 50 years.  Black Willow is a shrubby tree hardy to zone 3. It likes to grow in wet conditions in sunlight or part shade. Its height and spread are 20 to 30 feet. The peachleaf willow (Salix amygdaloides) is a multi-stemmed tree with a spreading crown. The wood is weak, and it needs copious amounts of water. And then there is the corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana ‘Tortusa’) with its tortured branches that is hardy to zone 4 but is short lived and will not stand up well to heavy winds.

Despite all these virtues, there is one even closer to the heart of a gardener: its beauty. The willow inspired Chinese poet, He Zhizhang (659 to 744), to observe “Thousands of verdant branches drape like silk ribbons”, and William Makepeace Thackery to write,Know ye the willow-tree, Whose gray leaves quiver, Whispering gloomily, To yon pale river . . .” in his poem about how the willow tree affects young ladies who stray too close. Indeed, the word willow stimulates an image of grace and elegance.

If there be a second life then coming back as a willow tree would be a lovely reward for a life well lived. You would be useful, beautiful and flexible, your days spent with feet bathed in cool waters, the sun in your billowing hair which would make leaf music in the wind. You could welcome birds and small animals and feed the bees in earliest spring.

There are fates much worse!

Hanging gardens    

When I read long ago about the mythical Hanging Gardens of Babylon, my imagination lit up with delight. To think of flowers and plants all around you at eye level — how lovely and cooling and calming that would be!

Now I can make my dreams come alive and I do. I love to hang blooming baskets in the trees around my garden and attach wall planters on fences. I have window boxes and eaves hangers and every vertical surface is covered with vines.
Choosing the plants has been a journey of discovery and experience – not to mention a well- drained pocketbook – but it was worth it. I now know what will achieve just the look that makes my eyes mist over with joy – and which plants will keep up the fight well into fall so that I can squeeze every hour of summer out of our northern climate.

I started very early growing fuchsia, then became disillusioned, that is until last year when I came across giant fuchsias. The four-inch blossoms are amazing and non-stop if you keep the fading blossoms pruned. If you don’t you end up with some beautiful glossy seeds, but trim those off and the flowers come back immediately. Fuchsia flowers always remind me of ballerinas, so resting on my lounge with these ladies dancing above me hanging from the branches of an old green ash tree, was a rare delight last summer.

Begonias have come a long way in the past few years. The sun tolerant types are everywhere now and can be found in increasingly intriguing colours, shapes and sizes. And of course, we cannot forget about Rex begonias, grown for their stunning variegated and interesting shaped foliage.

Some of the newer begonias are amazing. For the novice or nonchalant gardener, I cannot speak highly enough about the Angel Wing varieties, with their prolific and unstoppable blossoms, their unfussiness about light and their low thirst levels. They are so very reliable, uncomplainingly doing their thing in dark corners or in dappled shade. And there are now more colours – from pink to red to orange, even white.

The hanging garden would be sadly lacking without petunias, those faithful bloomers lending their myriad shapes and colours to any garden. There are now too many to try to keep track of by name, but a trip to any greenhouse will have you reeling with amazement over the varieties of colours and combination, singles, doubles, trailers, uprights, picotees, and my favourite, the velvety, green-edged flowers of one called Pistachio Cream.

Even good old-fashioned pelargoniums or, as we more commonly but mistakenly know them, geraniums, have taken on new life. I grew some popcorn geraniums last year given to me by a super gardener friend and I have potted up cuttings. This is a plant with rose like blossoms, and the pink and white ones, often called Apple Blossom, will make you swoon, but they come in good old blood-red, as well.

Another favourite last year was a Regal Geranium. It has a ruffled leaf with ruffled pink and white flowers that will capture your heart.

I adore the brilliant blue of Nolana which is not that floriferous, but the colour says it all. Scaevola, whether in blue or pink or mauve, solid, or striped, fills my heart with gladness. Beautiful White Diamond Euphorbia adds sparkle, pretty Nierembergia and Lobelia all come to the party daintily dressed to complement their companions.

Finally, life in the hanging garden could not be complete without Boston Fern which has made a comeback these past few years. Its exuberant green lends a luxury to the hanging garden that nothing else can duplicate.

At this moment, in early March, the world outside my window is white and cold. Here in my heart through, it is filled with never ending colour. Spring is only a few short weeks away. I can feel the energy of the earth beginning to urge the sleeping life underground to get to work.

There is a much to do . . .

Garden climbers

What is more pleasing to the eye than a wall covered in green?  If there are also flowers, all the better, and most vines flower. Vines provide visual relief on hard surfaces, increase growing space in small and large gardens and can have a cooling effect on a balcony or a small courtyard.

Vines are versatile. There are many choices between annual and perennial, herbaceous and woody, and flowering or non-flowering, depending on where you are growing them. They not only climb, they can trail.

Not all vines reach the heights the same way. Knowing how they climb offers the gardener the best chance of success in growing them.

Vines often take root where the growing resources are limited. Vining allows a plant rooted in a small patch of earth to reach out to the sunlight for the energy it needs to photosynthesize. This is called phototropism which simply means light seeking. Roots generally demonstrate the opposite trait called skototropism, or growing away from light, to help them navigate through soil.

How vines climb

There are many ways for vines to reach out, including through stem twining and tendrils and using assistive devices such as adhesive pads, climbing roots, and even thorns.

Twining is one of the most fascinating methods. The direction of twining can be either left or right, depending on the genetics of the plant, but both use the same method, sending up shoots in a helix shape to curve around a surface.

How does this happen? When a twining plant touches an appropriate structure, the cells on the touching side suddenly cool, causing them to shrink by reducing the space between the cells, in effect, “growing” more slowly while the cells on the outside of the stem continue to elongate at the usual pace. This results in curving and wrapping. Certain plants also have downward pointed bristles on their inner twining surface to help them stay put. Some can contract tightly around their support. Others use adhesives.

How does a plant know when it reaches the right structure to curve around? This has to do with their very sensitive touch ability. Climbing plants can be as much as 10 times more sensitive to touch than humans. But there is more at work here than we currently know. For instance, what causes vines to reject climbing up weak-stemmed neighbours? How does the plant know? This is still being studied.

Twining can either occur at stem level or as leaf shots called tendrils. Plants may send out a long slender shoot from a leaf node that “sniffs” the surroundings, in a process called circumnutating, to find an appropriate support. Once it reaches a suitable surface, the tendril grows in the familiar helix, tightening through the reaction above. Some tendrils also produce an adhesive on contact with a firm surface.

Plants that have tendrils include sweet peas, cucumbers, and cobea. These plants generally require support structures to climb successfully:  nets, trellises, strings, and even branches with many side shoots can be used depending on the plant and type of tendril. 

Stem twiners will wrap themselves around upright structures. Bittersweet for example can girdle large trees. Others such as clematis, honeysuckle, Dutchman’s pipe, pole beans, thunbergia and morning glories will wrap themselves around thinner supports, generally preferring those under an inch and a half in circumference.


Boston ivy (Parthenocissus tricuspidata) produces adhesive roots along its stems to cling to hard surfaces. Some ivies have little sucker-like “feet” that adhere to the wall.

There is always confusion between Virginia creeper, (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and Engelmann’s ivy (Parthenocissus quinquefolia var. Englmannii). Englemann’s ivy has adhesive pads to cling to a surface. Virginia creeper, on the other hand, does some weak twining and generally needs a little help from a trellis or other structure to grow upwards. It is quite happy to ramble aggressively across the ground.

Thorns and hooked branches

Rambling or “climbing” roses don’t climb. They need support to stay up on a brick wall, a trellis or a fence. But once trained and tacked to the support structure, their thorns can help them hook on to surrounding structures and assist them to stay in place.

Some plants grow “hooks” on the underside of leaves to help them stay upright.

We have talked mainly of climbing plants, but remember that vines can also be trailers, cascading from a container or a pergola and adding a magic of their own.

Patience is the best reward

A new gardener might have dreams of a vine covered cottage or pergola. Just remember that vines, like many other potentially invasive plants, have a deceiving habit. As the old garden adage has it, the first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap. Be prepared to be a little patient.

How to propagate clematis and other vines

Pretty well all vines, like other plants, can be propagated in water or wet sand with a little help from some rooting compound. However, there is also a method called layering, which can increase vines on site with very little effort beyond supplying adequate water.

Layering involves pinning a young, flexible vine stem to some nicely prepared earth and letting the vine take root. Loosen the earth along the area where you wish to encourage new growth. Add a little peat moss if the soil is hard or especially sandy or clay based. Make a hole about three or four inches deep.

Clematis, unlike some other vines will want to root along the stem between nodes.  A clematis vine should be bent or nicked at the point of pegging to encourage root growth. Take a healthy, young tendril, and peg it to the ground along a wall or a fence. Use anything handy to do the pegging, even a heavy stone, so that it keeps the leaf node, or the nicked part of the vine securely fastened to the ground.

Eventually, the vine will send down roots where it is pegged to the earth. You can assist this by adding a little rooting hormone to the nodes that will contact the earth. Keep the area evenly watered.

You can increase the vine even more by pegging it at several locations along the stem. This is called serpentine layering. For clematis, make sure there is at least one leaf above the ground between each pegging.

When you can see that the stem has taken root, you can cut the new plant away from the mother plant. Then it is just a matter of nurturing your new vine and giving it support to climb upwards.

Reflections in the garden

The garden is a place to think and dream and reflect. The fresh air, the singing of birds, the whispery breezes all bring thoughts to mind that are . . . well, worth thinking.

Love thyself

That little voice inside our heads:

Can you love yourself too much?

It is really kind of sad when the most popular ad on TV is one that features a person having a relationship with themselves. The “little voice” ad shows an intimate relationship that is totally internal The soulmate, the wise counsellor, the balancing ego belonging to a life mate who is other than self seems to have less and less of a place in the current world.

This didn’t start today. Watching a replay of a Sex and City movie from 20 years ago, we see Samantha giving up a man, a much younger one at that, who dotes on her. In ending the relationship, she says, “Yes, I love you—ah, f*** it—I’m just gonna say the thing you’re not supposed to say: I love you, but I love me more. And I’ve been in a relationship with myself for 49 years and that’s the one I need to work on.”

I love you, but I love me more. That is the kind of thinking that we have nurtured in many of our millennial generation. They are warm and kind, but they personally come first. Ironically, it is sort of true to Ayn Rand and her views in the Fountainhead written in the early part of the last century. Her point was that if you don’t save yourself, you can’t save others – the same view that prescribes the airline advice: “Put on your own oxygen mask before that of the person you wish to help because you can’t save others if you are dead.” But somehow, that thinking, meant to be altruistic back in Ayn Rand’s day, has been contorted into a sort of narcissism that has no ultimate good end.

We now spend hours taking “selfies” and baring our selfie souls on Facebook. It’s a one-note song based on me, me, me, me.

Is self-fullness promoting lawlessness?

Is it this self-fullness that has led to the lawlessness we are confronting today? Could our self-interest lead to the beginning of ultimate anarchy?

Security guards and others are counselled by well-meaning unions not to put themselves in harm’s way if a thief tries to steal armloads of liquor. They are supposed to stand by, dumbly, and allow it to happen rather than expose themselves to danger. Thieves are not stupid. They have immediately seized upon the opportunity to grab everything they can.

This philosophy of self-before-service led to the death of Kevin Anderson near Ponton, Manitoba when he was trapped in the derailment of a train carrying some not so-dangerous-goods a few years ago.  First responders took nine hours to extricate him from the wreck, rather than rescuing him immediately. Why? It was thought that there might be some danger to the would-be rescuers from the spilled diesel fuel. Due to the delay, Kevin Anderson bled to death.

Going into the police force or being a firefighter or even a security guard is about self-sacrifice and service. However, workers are being taught that the preservation of self transcends the sacrifice that is supposed to motivate the securing of these careers. So why choose that line of work? Because it pays well? Not a good motive. Service means sacrifice.

Anyone going into politics knows that – or should know that. It is not for those who serve to whine about how hard they work or that they have to sacrifice friends, family and self to do the job. It was what has always been understood, yet in the current Parliament there were some who complained loudly about the amount of work they had to do!


If self-before-service became the prevailing school of thought in all nations, could it perversely end war? Because why would a soldier stand in the line of fire when self-preservation is the only goal? In reality, rather than ending war, refusal to serve others over self simply provides a licence to the exploiters of the weak and defenceless.

Socialists, who talk about community and collective action, really mean only to preserve their own interest. Individual sacrifice is never high on their agenda, even though it appears to be. What they are inevitably saying is that I, personally, want to benefit from your labour, from your sacrifice, and I deserve to do so.

Our generation worked hard. We didn’t think of self or sacrifice. We thought of tomorrow and of our children and of the wonderful world we were building.  We knew the strong must step up, but the weak must do their part. And preservation of the species sometimes meant self-sacrifice.

We are social animals. Being self-full can be isolating. It would be a very lonely life if the only voice we had to consider is that little one inside our heads.

Wrapped in a blanket of white

The snow falls and falls and falls this year. . . .

This winter we are wrapped in swathes of snow. There is much more than we have seen for many years, blanketing the earth with promises of replenishing the thirsty soil this coming springtime. It is white and clean, glistening and sparkling in the sunlight that persists on the clear cold days between snowfalls. Small animals leave their desperate footprints outside my door, and I look for last year’s birdseed to scatter for them. Some cobs of dried corn, kept for the jays in spring, was a bounty the squirrel accepted without gratitude but with my blessings.

The rabbits have left their galumphing mark in the snow, seeking the dried-out rosemary in the planter next to the back door. They are more than welcome although I fear it is poor fare for rabbits. I did leave lots of overwinter fodder for them, but it is all buried beneath drifts that are four feet high and promise to get higher as often, in Manitoba, more snow falls in early March than in February.

Even the birds are hiding this year. It may be too cold at –37 C for them to do much more than shiver in some sheltered spot among the cedar branches. The winds keep blowing though, piling the snow higher and higher and polishing the roads to glare ice so hard and smooth that it is skateable – if it were warm enough to skate outside.

At times such as these, one longs for spring, impossible as it seems that it will ever come again. Where will all the snow go? worry some, but those of us who have seen enough years like this know that it will slip away in no time once the late March sun heats the air and the days grow longer and longer. I like to think of the incipient seedlings sensing the time, snug and warm beneath this burden of white, and beginning to stir with life. I sense the root meristems wakening to the pulse of the earth, feeling an urge to explore for food to feed the soon awakening trees and perennials. I will soon feel their thrum beneath my feet as the activity under the snow begins to grow and the long sleep is nearly over.

A friend in the greenhouse business called today. He has pansies and peppers started and has just received a load of seedlings from down south. He knows the habits of plants and that the time is dawning. And if you look at your houseplants, they know too. You will see little shoots beginning to emerge. You will see the stems stand straighter and the leaves perking up.

You will feel it soon, too. A new energy will enter your days. You will be ready to awaken sooner and go to sleep later. You will begin to look for new things to do and projects to start. Do not ignore this. Welcome it and begin to plan for the days when the snow slips away, or if there is no snow where you live, then when the plants begin their annual dance.

It is so good to be alive. So wonderful to be one with the earth and all the beings within it. Cherish every moment and look for these small things to sustain you even when chaos seems to reign on the wider horizon. It will pass, but the earth and its growing things will still be here to nurture and invigorate you.


Have you heard of the wonderful pine tree, Araucaria columnaris, that always grows with a slant toward the equator? If planted north of the equator it will lean south. If planted south of the equator, it will lean north. Thar slant averages 8.05 degrees. Nobody yet knows why. It makes me think about all the things we don’t know about our world, yet we believe we can predict its future and change its course through the puny efforts of men . . .

The Garden where Peace lives

There is a wonderful place on the edge of Manitoba that far too few know about. It is the International Peace Garden, perched on the border between Manitoba and North Dakota, straddling the two countries. While there are other gardens claiming the title of peace garden, this is the only one in the world that occupies two nations where you can come and go freely from one side of the border to the other without any interference.

The International Peace Garden was the farsighted dream of Dr. Henry Moore, a Canadian horticulturist from Islington, Ont., who brought it to the attention of the National Association of Gardeners at a meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut in 1928. The idea was endorsed by the gathering, and a committee selected to bring it to fruition the following year at a meeting in Toronto. The Garden opened in 1932 with 50,000 people in attendance from the two sparsely populated jurisdictions.

Dr. Moore’s dream was to create a place “where the people of the two countries could share the glories found in a lovely Garden and the pleasures found in warm friendship.”  Readers interested in the history of the Garden can find more information here:

What I want to share with you is what the garden is now so that you can put it on your bucket list to visit when you are able.

Whether coming from the south or the north, you enter the Garden without going through customs and, after passing through the gate you, find yourself completely at ease in a place of tranquility and beauty, no matter what the season or whether there are flowers all around or not. The flowers will be there in midsummer and into fall, but it really doesn’t matter. The Garden is more than the built or planted landscapes. The land seems to have absorbed the notion that this is a place where peace lives.

Winter is my favourite time in the garden. The space is steeped in silence. Bright white snow collects on tree branches and gathers in hollows and sheltered corners. Time seems to stand still, pausing to let the call of a bird echo and fade in the crystal air. You can hear a branch unload its burden of snow with a softly whooshing sound, see the slight bowing of the trees urged by the breath of nature. You feel a sense of lightness as the mind empties of everyday concerns and floods with a sensation of warmth, of being wrapped in safe embrace. It is a feeling of peace.

If the snow has been cleared from the roadway, this is the time to explore the circular route that leads the visitor from the gate, past the manmade part of the garden, and around the 2,300-acre site. Even if you can only go part of the way, it is good to escape the occupied area and just absorb the beauty of Turtle Mountain. You might get lucky and see the resident herd of elk cross the road at dusk, travelling single file in a majestic parade.

Late winter brings snowmelt and a chance to explore more of the land. You will see little lakes and romantic-looking buildings and picnic shelters in the distance. Some, such as the beautiful log Heritage Lodge, the first building on the site constructed as far back as the 1930s, are quite old while others are of more recent vintage. Preservation of the older buildings honours the memory of those who have kept this idea and the land that protects it in operation for the past 90 years. They illustrate the continuity of the legacy of peace left to us in the wake of the Great War. In all, there are over 200 buildings of one type or another in the park, many of them hidden discreetly by small stands of forest. The Garden is home to the International Music Camp and until recently was also the site of the International Sports Camp. This is also where the North American Game Warden Museum resides.

As winter fades, spring settles upon the land, with bright things, both natural and introduced, poking from beneath the white blanket that so recently protected them. The heavy snowfall leaves a blessing of moisture that tickles seeds into sprouting and reminds roots to set up new shoots. Small animals and insects scurry to the surface to find a meal in the warmth of the new sunshine. This is the awakening. There is a sense of urgency in the air.

Soon, buds begin to break, pushing out leaves in the native trees and flowers on the fruit trees in the formal gardens. Bulbs release their hidden blossoms, and, in the wild parts of the garden, the lonely bird call of winter has become a cacophony of bird song as southern vacationers return to nest and noisily call out for mates. If you stand still, you can feel the busy world under your feet and almost hear the thrum of life forcing its way to the surface to bask in the ever-intensifying sun. This is where peace lives.

Suddenly it is summer in the impetuous way this happens here in this part of the North American continent; summer upstages spring with annoying haste, anxious to steal the show. And she does.

All those buds suddenly explode. Leaves fill the overhead air, turning the sunlight green and causing its presence to shrink in a pleasing way that offers a welcome respite from the brilliance in the sky. Down below, where the trees are not overshadowing things, brilliance is transferred to the earth which, fed by the sun, now presents its artistry in a display of amazing colour, shape and form. Flowers cleverly arranged by human hands create a kaleidoscope on the landscape. The eyes, so recently soothed by the white canvas of winter, are dazzled by the display. It is hard to get enough of this glory which, up close, offers mysteries worth exploring.

Now is the time for human art to take centre stage. We see the smooth, wide walkways that lead from one splendor to another. We enter the formal garden through a wrought iron fence built to keep the fervid gourmands among the local deer population at bay. We admire the lovely pools and rest on the poolside benches to the music of fountains as we gaze upon the perennial gardens and look north and south along the boundary that defines our two countries. There is a stream there. Everyone gets the photo taken straddling it in one place or another; a favourite spot is on one of the little bridges that cross it.

In the Conservatory building, a gift shop and small café with an attached patio are filled with excited visitors who can wander through gardens or stop near the entrance to admire the Hands of Peace sculpture which, we are told, will last 800 years. Looking westward along the boundary stream, the eye is drawn to the peace chapel in the distance, where not that long ago a tower stood that could be seen for miles around. It was removed because it was falling apart, but the Garden hopes to resurrect it. On the pathway to the left, just beyond the sunken garden which is the centre axis of this formal planted area, tortured remains of the twin towers from 9/11 remind people of the value of peace. To the right as we wander toward the Peace Chapel is a carillon that chimes out the time periodically.

Not far away from the conservatory, under a grove of sheltering poplars, a children’s nature playground will open in the spring of 2022, heralding a new life for the garden. The CEO is only in his thirties and, recently, he and his wife had twins while both the cactus curator and the grounds manager have children. All three families live on site year-round.

Campers are now resident in the garden campgrounds which can accommodate the glampers in their big rigs or find a more primitive site to pitch a tent. The music camp brings the laughter of children and young people during the day and strains of music from the theatres at night.

Summer wanes, the leaves turn colour and a different mood settles on the garden. Most of the visitors are gone and the prewinter peace descends over the wilting flowers. You can almost hear a sigh of relief as the undulating land empties and nature reclaims dominion. This is a good time to take an evening kayak or canoe ride over one of the lakes and watch the moonlight playing on the still water. In certain years, when sunspot activity is low, the northern lights make an appearance to dance over the land.

Now the snow comes and although it is quiet and peaceful, there are still things to do in winter for the energetic. Snowshoers and cross-country skiers can rent one of the lovely new cabins that are home to garden summer staff. Some years ago, Don Vitko from Minot, donated his enormous collection of 5,200 cactuses and succulents that he had been collecting since he was a small boy. The collection has grown since then, most recently added to from the estate of Dr. Ernest Brown a Winnipeg collector of hardy cactus. The curator of the collection likes to brag that this is one of the finest succulents collections in North America.

The conservatory is open year-round. It is currently the conservatory being rebuilt and expanded to offer more display area and to realize operational efficiencies not available when the original was constructed. Its humid winter air takes you out of the cold and back to summer just when you need it.

Here is where you can find out more. Please come visit us.

The stream that flows along the 49th parallel, the boundary between Canada and the United States.

I freeze for the trees

It is two days past my birthday and the long week is ending, silently but sunnily, in chilly Winnipeg. I love the two weeks after Christmas when everyone is preoccupied with their own lives. It is a quiet time for reflection and recharging the batteries that tend to run a little low by year-end.

Today, it is bitingly cold outside – the morning started out at minus 46, I am told. I wouldn’t know as I was sound asleep. But the sun is shining sweetly on the freshly fallen snow, there is a light breeze to animate the trees and the weather people promise a less cold day tomorrow. The sun signals hope and lifts the spirits.

This is a rather typical Manitoba winter, with a bit more snow than is usual, but it is much needed considering the drought conditions of the past summer.

All that brings us down right now is the new panic over COVID and its ugly variant, Omicron, which is rapidly infecting everyone it can. The symptoms are slight in most people, especially in those who have been vaccinated, but the sheer numbers are sending terror into the hearts of the establishment. As they say, it is always darkest before dawn.

Dawn for me was to be January 19, when a group of 16 former parliamentarians was set to travel on a study tour to St. Maarten. That hope is now dashed as St. Maarten has just announced a state of national emergency due to Omicron and, even if we had not agreed yesterday to postpone, we would have been cancelled today. Perhaps we can go in March. We shall see.

The point is that people are feeling very exhausted, angry, and depressed due to the constantly reimposed restrictions added to their fear of infection. With all the media emphasis of dire consequences and death over the past two years, our national and individual psyche is very bruised. The relentless bad news and negative narrative of the media spill over to the Internet. It is hard to escape.

But let’s escape today!

Let’s put on our boots and an extra pair of pants over our leggings, throw a fleece over our sweater and shirt, and slop on a jacket over that.  Add a scarf, and my fleecy hat with the lamb ears and some warm gloves, and out we go. I am excited about the very thought of being outdoors in the sunshine.

 The snow makes that musical crunching sound as I walk out the front door and down to the street, the sun beating on my back as I head to the pathway that leads to the forest half a block away. I turn right, up a little rise on the pathway that will take me from this street to the next and across that to the forest.

I enter the forest. All is still. Snow coats the branches of the underbrush. If I stand still and listen, I can hear small animals searching for food. At this time of day, the deer are down by the river just beyond those trees. I look with regret to my left where the zigzag used to thrill small grandchildren who were brave enough to try and balance on it. It’s gone now, a victim of the generation that lives in fear that the slightest risk must be kept from their darlings. Poor kids. What a shock they will get as they enter adulthood and discover that they know nothing about meeting challenges.

But let’s forget that today and continue forward under the trees, taking the path to the right that leads to the open park alongside the river. The trees get larger, the closer I come to water, and some have fallen with age providing a home for all sorts of critters. Already, I feel better, healed by that brief stint among the trees that practice their magic even in the dead of winter.

The trees are not fazed by the cold. They simply drop the leaves that help them breathe during the vigorous growing days of summer, and then go quietly to sleep, upright.

Ahead of me now is the open field. But if I stay to the left, I can walk along the margin of the river bottom forest with the river silently and reassuringly beyond.  I will pass a little grove of pines, so beautiful in their form and shape. . . . but, maybe not! It really is bitterly cold and even though I am bundled to my chin, the chill slips in between the coat’s seams and that slight breeze from the south has a knife-like edge to it.

I turn and head back, crunch, crunch, crunch. Usually, there are several other walkers but not today. A lone man taking his dog for a hurried break is all I see, that and a fellow shoveling snow on his driveway as I quickly return the way I came. I pick up my pace as the cold becomes more insistent, and finally, I am home, inside the door, my upper legs burning with cold, my nose dripping and my eyes watering.

But I feel great! It was worth it. I pull off my extra layers and fall into a chair to catch my breath. Challenging yourself is so much better than falling into despair!

. . . But, oh, I am looking forward to summer!

The dog days of Christmas, how glorious!

Outside, the snow is softly falling, coating the trees with blankets of white. My window is cracked open, and frost has formed on the inside. In this time of tightly sealed houses, open windows in winter is a freshening thing. It is the day after Boxing Day and everyone is exhausted from Christmas and COVID panic, so the world is very quiet, a welcome respite from the frantic pace of the past few weeks.

I love these days between Christmas and New Year’s Day when I give myself a mental holiday, not worrying about business or any of the other fierce pressures of my usual life. It is a time to reflect, to snooze a little, to listen to music, or watch a silly movie. The snowfall is just a bonus.

I like to doodle. And I do doodle. There are always scraps of paper covered with mostly flowers, but sometimes people or trees or something abstract, littering my desk and, if one catches my fancy, I may tape it to the wall beside me. Doodling is a wonderful way of passing the time at boring zoom meetings when people go on and on about nothing. I used to do this in Parliament, and everyone thought I was taking copious notes, but not a single note was taken. Instead, I would doodle. Or I would write silly limericks about the people across the table in parliamentary meetings and hearings. Odd bits of dialogue would stick in my mind and sometimes come out as verse.

I particularly remember a woman who was always smiling as she asked loaded questions during the 1992 constitutional hearings. My then co-chair, Claude Castonguay, whispered to me, “There are very sharp teeth in that smile!” How apt. She was a bit of a barracuda! I don’t think that ended up in a limerick, but it should have!

The thing is, doodling and verse-making are ways of giving the mind a break. They provide the brain a chance to sort all the bits and pieces of trivial or profound information bombarding it every minute. For a time in politics, I couldn’t write at all, because the political world was all about words, millions of them mostly meaningless, what today would be called “word salads”, contaminating the air and filtering into the smallest crevasses of my mind.

A scrap of verse written out of sheer verbal overload comes to me now:

Words are birds.

They fly in herds!

For relief, I took up water colouring. I was never very good — I am, after all, just a doodler, but it gave me much comfort.

Another time I was taking part in a live panel on pollution. This was back in the late 80s and the environmental thing was just coming into prominence. Single-use products like Bic pens and lighters were all the rage. While the other panelists spoke, I wrote:

We lived in Bic society,

Where waste was the height of propriety.

I can’t remember the rest, but I read it to the crowd at the end of the event in my summation, thinking it would give them a laugh. It did not. Seems these guys had no sense of humour even back then!

The other thing I do to ease my mind is physical activity. In winter, vacuuming, washing floors, and dusting, is not as good as gardening in summer, but it soothes the soul. I could go for walk, but it is cold, and I am becoming allergic to cold. Working out at the local gym is also a big help, much as I hate dragging myself there, although once there, I immediately feel energized.

Despite all this, there is still a good deal to be said for good old-fashioned sleep. I took advantage of that today, dozing till late into the morning. What a luxury!

Outside, the snow has stopped. The day is already darkening although it is only a little after 3:00. There is a very light breeze teasing the branches of the spruce tree, occasionally sending a puff of snow whirling into the air. The phone is silent. The neighbourhood is tranquil. Even the birds and squirrels seem to be taking a rest.

I am filled with the joy of being lazy.

How Santa brought joy back to the world

T’was the night before Christmas and all through the land

Santa noticed more COVID fear being fanned.

This just isn’t right, he told Mrs. Claus,

I think it’s high time I took up this cause.

He went to his workshop, he worked while he thought

How this virulent virus could best be forgot.

He remembered last Christmas when folks all alone,

Celebrated with sadness by zoom and by phone.

He remembered old folks by themselves in their beds,

While visions of grandchildren danced in their heads.

I have to do something, he thought in despair,

Or the reindeer won’t be able to take to the air.

He picked up a hammer giving delicate taps

To the finishing touches on some new cellphone apps.

Then, out on the lawn, there arose such a clatter

That he sprang from his bench to see what was the matter!

And there on the crest of the new-fallen snow

Shone the answer he’d been trying and trying to know.

I’ve got it! he chortled, joy flooding his face,

I know how to put happiness back in its place!

He twiddled his mustache, a finely honed trick,

As he conjured the product, he needed — real quick!

And there on the workbench, something started to grow;

Little vials of a substance that started to glow.

It’s the happy elixir, he said with a smile.

I should have enough in a very short while

To give to the people throughout the whole world.

This will not have patents. It will be joy unfurled,

And free for the masses, both the rich and the poor.

They’ll be equally treated by me, that’s for sure!”

He hitched up his suspenders and pulled on his hat

He gave Mrs. Claus a kiss and a pat.

Then he sprang to his sleigh with his bag full of joy

And he called to his team, “We’ve got a new toy!”

They took off quite smoothly, gliding up to the moon

As he cried, “Joy is coming your way very soon!”

The very next morning we felt what he meant

As that inner glow spread from the vials that he sent.

Fear was banished, the virus disappeared with a whine

People realized that every little thing would be fine.

That inner glow started by St. Nick’s little vial,

Is always there waiting; we just need to smile.

I promise you friends, we will all be okay

I am sending you hugs. Please! Enjoy Christmas Day!

– Dorothy Dobbie 2021

The dog days of summer

Living in the “heatland”

This heat drains us, sucks our energy away. Our plants focus on their roots, trying to pull as much moisture from under the ground as they can. Their blossoms are limp, tired from all the effort to simply survive. Animals are lethargic. My little red squirrel would rather try to lie flat on the edge of a bin, making himself skinny in the hope that I won’t see him, than run and hide.

These are the dog days of summer. The nights are warm and sultry, there is no rain, although it seems to threaten all around us. I can smell ozone in the air from time to time and the pressure headache, from which there is no escape by pill, haunts me. My house is air conditioned, but still, I cannot sleep. I am tormented by restlessness.

I have set up an outdoor lounge, a place to lie and think and snooze after cooling my legs in the pool to bring my body temperature down. It works. The breeze whispers over me, the tree above me embraces me in its shade. I can watch the cedars play, shoulder to shoulder, with the very tall fir tree between them as the wind animates their branches.

It is the kind of summer we used to have, day after rainless day, with scorching temperatures and blazing sunlight. And even while the heat drains me, I am compelled to come out and absorb more and more because something deep inside me is being regenerated. I am useless while this recharging of my internal batteries takes place, but I know it will be there for me when I need it in the cold, dark days ahead.

“Don’t you want some sunscreen?” urges my host the day before yesterday. “It is hot under the sun in the boat.” But I don’t want sunscreen to get between me and my energizer. I have a thin cover to filter out too intrusive rays, but otherwise, I need its kiss on my winterized skin, sinking to my bones and lending them energizing vitamin D. I do not need chemical filters to interfere with this life giver.

When the sun goes down. The day cools, but only a little. Its breath is like a warm caress. You want to possess it, absorb it so that the memory warms you in February. You drink it in like coffee with cream, comforting and invigorating at the same time.

There is nothing like a Manitoba summer of this kind. These days are the days that gave me life, that informed my soul with possibility, that inspired Rick Neufeld to create Moody Manitoba Morning.

His lyrics strike the tone, reflect the feeling:

It’s a long and kind of gentle,

Lazy prairie town afternoon, The sky is high

I can feel the grass a-growin’ from yesterday’s rain

The sun’s a-glowin’, and so am I.

It’s a long and kind of gentle lazy day . . .

We have long wondered at the magic that make this province the special place it is. These summer days, when everyone is half fearful of the drought and half delighted with the lake weather, are part of the magic: long, long days under the blazing sun, in and out of the water of which there is so much, gentle evenings of laughter and joy.

And no mosquitoes. We haven’t had any for three years. No doubt they will be back, but these are the days we will forever hold in our hearts as we grow old, strengthened by the energy of our sun and the particular way it shines on our bit of heaven.