Studies of Plant Life in Canada was published when Catharine was eighty-three, again with the assistance of her capable niece Agnes. It was her most significant work as a naturalist, an important literary record of native wild flowers, shrubs and grasses, representing a half century of observation and study. Catharine was honoured at Rideau Hall where notables including Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and Governor-General Lord Lansdowne were eager to meet her. As Michael Peterman notes, “It was Catharine Parr Traill’s one informal moment of being a genuine celebrity in her adopted country, a Margaret Atwood before her time.”

Catharine had an ecological awareness that was far ahead of her time, an appreciation of the complex interactions of organisms with each other and their environment. Witnessing the rapid alteration of the landscape as a result of settlement, she wrote, “Man has altered the face of the soil - the mighty giants of the forest are gone, and the lowly shrub, the lovely flower, the ferns and mosses that flourished beneath their shade, have departed with them.” She was highly sensitive to the fragility of the natural world and to the ecological upheaval occurring on the Canadian frontier.

Her stated purpose was to “foster a love for the native plants of Canada” by drawing attention to them before they were swept away by “the onward march of civilization”. During her lifetime, massive flocks of Passenger Pigeons were hunted to extinction. Her concern about the need for the preservation of wild plants and animals grew greater over her sixty-seven years in Canada. Nevertheless, she would have had difficulty imagining the assault on nature since her time.

As a natural historian of the Victorian era, she saw the plants, animals and processes of the natural world as reflections of divine goodness and order. While appreciating flowers for their own sake, at the same time she viewed them as “the first of nature’s books,” confident that their study would act as “a ladder to heaven,” teaching both children and adults “to look through nature up to nature’s God.”
The large-format Canadian Wild Flowers paired her “floral biographies” with lovely hand-coloured illustrations by her niece Agnes Fitzgibbon, Susanna Moodie’s resourceful and determined daughter.

Aimed at a general readership, it was a critical and popular success in the new Dominion of Canada, and Canada's very first coffee table book. The authors of Gore’s Landing and the Rice Lake Plains point out that Catharine was Canada’s first published naturalist.
“This splendidly-coloured plant is the glory and ornament of the plain-lands of Canada. ... The Painted Cup owes its gay appearance not to its flowers, which are not very conspicuous at a distance, but to the deeply-cut leafy tracts that enclose them and clothe the stalks, forming at the ends of the flower branches clustered rosettes.” 

                                Catharine Parr Traill in Canadian Wildflowers  (1868)
Catharine’s enthusiasm for natural history and her “passion for flowers” stemmed from childhood rambles and conversations with her father in England. She became a great admirer of Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne which she embraced as a model for her own work.
Once in Canada, Catharine immersed herself in the study of a whole new world of flora and fauna, constantly learning in the field and from older settlers and the native people. For systematic information, she depended on an old edition of Frederick Pursh’s North American Flora, one of the few scholarly works to which she had access. At that time, there was no study of indigenous Canadian flora.
A keen observer and avid collector of specimens, Catharine consulted over time with some of the leading experts of her day in North America and England. A gifted amateur botanist rather than a professional scientist, she nevertheless came to play a significant role in furthering knowledge and appreciation of plant life in early Canada.
During the early days in her adopted land, when she was unable to discover names for the unfamiliar plants she found in the woods, Catharine said she felt “free to become their floral godmother and give them names of [her] own choosing.” While she used scientific classification and nomenclature in works such as Studies of Plant Life in Canada, Catharine’s approach was also literary and personal.
Catharine celebrated native flora in numerous magazine articles and in her botanical books, namely Canadian Wild Flowers (1868), and Studies of Plant Life in Canada or Gleanings from Forest, Lake and Plain (1885). 

However, flora and fauna figured largely in all her Canadian writing, including The Backwoods of Canada (1836), Canadian Crusoes (1852), her “Forest Gleanings” sketches (1852-1856), Lady Mary and her Nurse (1856); and in her last two books, Pearls and Pebbles or Notes of an Old Naturalist (1894), and Cot and Cradle Stories (1895), both published when she was in her nineties.

In her botanical studies, Catharine drew on her literary and scientific interests, combining nature poetry and her thoughts on the virtues of different species with detailed descriptions of their appearance, life cycles, habitats, and medicinal, nutritional and household uses.
 “... in Nature, from the greatest to the smallest thing, there is no waste. Unseen and unnoticed by us, every atom has its place and its part to fulfil. Nothing is lost.” 

Catharine Parr Traill in Pearls and Pebbles (1894)
On looking back over my old diary of a far-off date, 1839, I find notes of many things that struck me in the first years of my sojourn in my forest home ... which I now seldom or never see. It is rarely now that I catch a passing glimpse of the lovely plumed crossbill, or the scarlet tanager; seldom do I hear the cry of the bobolink, or watch the sailing of the baldheaded eagle or the fish hawk over the lake, as I did formerly in fear for the safety of my little goslings.“

Catharine Parr Traill in Pearls and Pebbles (1894)

Painted Cup


New England Asters

Fringed Gentian

Botany / Ecology
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