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Rare indigenous plants flourish in Canadian nursery
Reuters, September 21, 1998, by Leah Eichler

Ken Parker, like many new homeowners, dreamed of a perfect garden. But Parker, a Seneca Indian and former U.S. Marine Corps sax player, knew he would have a problem planting common flowers in his garden on the reserve west of Toronto since it consisted mainly of clay soil and limestone. So he decided to use plants indigenous to the area, ones hardy enough to survive Canada's long, cold winters as well as the poor soil. But to his surprise he could not find any. Thus began his search for the literal roots of his people - a quest that sometimes pitted him against his elders but eventually led to a thriving new business. ''We just wanted a nice yard with a garden ... indigenous plants seemed like the logical choice but I couldn't find it,'' Parker told Reuters at his home on the Six Nations Reserve.

He searched for stores selling indigenous plants but found few that offered what he wanted, so he began traipsing around the continent looking for them in the wild. Now, with his wife Linda, he runs what may be the only nursery owned by Indians and dedicated to reestablishing native North American plants. His garden doubles as a showcase for indigenous plants. But his first commitment is to grow plants important to Indian cultures such as Sweetgrass and Sage, which are burned in religious ceremonies. His Sweet Grass Gardens carries several rare or hard-to-find species such as Canada's Prickly Pear, the Iroquois Potato, Buffalo Grass and Sweetgrass.

Sweetgrass used in Everyday Life
"Sweetgrass is very uncommon now,'' he said. ''Natives used to use it in everyday life ... to clear their minds and spirits and start their day. But no one was managing it and now the populations are relatively few.'' When it first opened, Sweet Grass Gardens carried about 12 varieties of plants. Now it has more than 200 listed in its catalogue as well as many that are not listed, which the Parkers keep in small quantities. Sweet Grass Gardens supplies combinations of plants suitable for different environments and soil conditions. For example, owners of a large piece of land can reproduce ''prairie'' conditions with a mixture of flowers and grasses, while more urban home owners can purchase rock garden plants or cacti native to the area that can survive winter.

Plants indigenous to colder climates develop deep root systems, Parker said. They are hardier but take longer to mature. Sometimes the only maintenance required is to till the land and cut back or burn the plants once a year. Originally, Parker's idea to sell native plants to Indians was received with trepidation since many on the reserve felt that people should not profit from ceremonial plants. ''What got us around that is we told elders that we want to restore the numbers, preserve and maintain them, and then they understood. It wasn't that we were trying to be greedy and sell our natural resources,'' Parker explained.

Scientific Names Used for Plants
Although their mission statement explicitly states their ambition to ''preserve the history of North America and its First Nation people by encouraging the rediscovery and respect for our traditional Mother Earth,'' Parker sticks with the scientific name for all his plants. ''I guess I was pretty naive because even here at Six Nations a single plant will have several names since Six Nations mean six distinct languages. And if I can only find a Seneca word for a plant the Cayuga may get mad and it became overwhelming,'' he explained. The Six Nations Reserve, where Sweet Grass Gardens is located, includes the Mohawk, Seneca, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Tuscarora people. It is the only native community in North America that has each of the Iroquois nations represented.

Sweet Grass Gardens has also become an educational center, offering slide and multimedia presentations of native plants from an Indian perspective. Parker offers one-day workshops of topics ranging from propagation techniques to garden design. Although there is no standardized definition, Parker quickly realized that it would be necessary to differentiate between native plants and aboriginal ones. He defines native plants as those indigenous to North America before European settlement, while aboriginal plants are significant to Indian culture, whether medicinal, ceremonial or edible, and are not necessarily indigenous.

Business for Parker may not be booming yet but gardners and landscapers have shown enough interest in his idea to keep him going. ''When we first started we said, 'If we could sell Sweetgrass and Sage to 5 percent of the aboriginal population in Ontario, our business could be successful,' and that's not a lot if you think about it,'' Parker said. But the business took off in directions the Parkers did not anticipate and most of their sales go to non-Indians. Many environmentally conscious gardeners are attracted by the notion of native gardening, since chemicals are not necessary. ''I hate to say it but it's very trendy now, even with non-natives,'' Parker said. ''They're all interested in growing herbal remedies and stuff.''