Noticing & Connection: Plants & Lichens of the Arctic

"Arctic flowers are beautiful. There are few people who are not awed into silence and wonder in the midst of the tundra in July, covered with literally thousands of plants in bloom at once." - Dorothy Swales on her travels to Iqaluit.

Upon taking over the curatorship of the Macdonald College Herbarium in 1964, Dr. Swales chose to create a specialized focus on plants from the Canadian Arctic and subarctic regions. As she writes in the 1984 issue of The Macdonald Journal, interest in the Arctic was increasing due to the need for oil and hydroelectric expansion as well as how these infrastructural developments would impact the surrounding ecosystems.

In order to add to the herbarium's collection, Swales travelled to the Arctic during the summer breaks between semesters. As she writes in her memoir The Outdoor Trail from Farm to University, "I decided the only way to have plenty of arctic plants for exchange was to go north myself to collect. I travelled to sub-Arctic and Arctic collecting sites for eight years, not only getting plants, but observing pollintation, and making hundreds of drawings of flower parts for a possible paper on their nectaries." These drawings and observations culminated in an article published in the 1979 issue of Rhodora entitled Nectaries of Certain Arctic and sub-Arctic Plants with Notes on Pollination.

During her tenure, Swales established relationships with the Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Sweden, the Universitetets Botaniske Museum in Denmark, and the Komarov Botanical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in the former Soviet Union. Swales sent flowering plants, grasses, mosses, and lichens that she collected during her trips to the Northwest Territories, Quebec, and other locations across Canada in exchange for plants from Greenland, Swedish Lapland, and Siberia. In one document detailing the Macdonald College Herbarium, Swales explains that “we are fairly unique in Canada in establishing an exchange of Siberian plants with the Soviet Union as so far, they have not exchanged freely with Canada, outside of the National Herbarium in Ottawa."

Correspondence between Dr. Swales and her colleagues overseas listed the various genera and species available to send, requests for assistance with identification, and the occasional apology for delayed responses due to summer fieldwork. Despite global divisions caused by the Cold War, a mutual love of Arctic plants bridged the divide between Swales and botanists in the Soviet Union. As Dr. Swales writes in her memoir, "the Iron Curtain faded to a slight shadow between us." 

This exhibit features a selection of plants and lichens that she collected during her fieldwork in the Canadian North, many of which had duplicates that she sent overseas to botanists in Sweden, Denmark, and the Soviet Union.