When most people think of plants, they typically picture flowers: cherry trees in bloom, colourful tulips and exotic-looking orchids. This is because 90% of all living plant species are flowering plants (i.e., angiosperms). But when dinosaurs first evolved 225 million years ago (mya), flowers were nowhere to be found.
The first land plants did not produce seeds; instead, they reproduced using spores. Like amphibians, they needed water for reproduction, which restricted them to habitats that were moist. These spore-producing plants included mosses, liverworts, club mosses, horsetails, ferns and several, completely extinct plant groups called Rhyniophytes and Zosterophylls. When the first dinosaurs evolved in the Triassic Period (252-201 mya), spore-producing plants, like tree ferns and human-sized quillworts (e.g. Pleuromeia), were common (Palmer et al. 2009). Although these sorts of plants still exist today, their ancestors looked much different than the ones we are familiar with.
Seed plants evolved in the Late Devonian (416-359 mya), eventually becoming the dominant vegetation by the Early Cretaceous (145-100 mya). A seed consists of a plant embryo, a source of food, and a protective coat. This adaptation helped seed plants, like conifers, gingkos and cycads, out-compete the spore-producing plants, particularly in drier habitats.
Flowering plants similar to modern magnolias, dogwoods, and oaks, appeared rather abruptly in the fossil record, about 90 mya (Late Cretaceous). Decades of searching by palaeobotanists for the first flowers has finally borne fruit (pardon the pun). The most recent evidence of an undisputed flowering plant is a fossil named Florigerminis jurassica (Cui et al., 2021). The discovery of this fossilized flower bud and fruit, indicates that flowering plants evolved nearly 75 million years earlier than originally thought, in the Jurassic Period 164 mya (Cui et al., 2021).
Part of the reason why flower fossils are so rare is because these structures are very delicate. Flowers likely decompose long before they can fossilize. In fact, some species that palaeontologists think were cone-bearing, may have actually borne flowers, since we only have fossils of their leaves. Another reason flowers did not often fossilize, is that Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous flowering plants may have grown in relatively dry habitats, where fossilization rarely occurs.
It wasn’t just the animal world that changed when that giant asteroid hit the earth 66 mya; it was the plant world, too. In North America, about 50% of the plant species (mainly the slower-growing, cone-bearing plants) went extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period (Condamine et al. 2020). Afterwards, the evolution of flowering plants was rapid, thanks in part to coevolution with pollinating insects like bees (Benton et al. 2022). With their quick growth, drought tolerance, and long-lived seeds, flowering plants were better able to colonize the devastated earth than cone-and spore-bearing species (Benton et al. 2022, Condamine et al. 2022). Thus, the evolution of flowering plants parallels that of mammals.
So, when you visit the “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit at the Manitoba Museum this summer, remember to look closely at the murals behind the dinos. They accurately portray the kinds of plants that supported those ancient creatures so long ago.
Benton, M.J., Wilf, P. and Sauquet, H., 2022. The Angiosperm Terrestrial Revolution and the origins of modern biodiversity. New Phytologist, 233(5), pp.2017-2035.
Condamine, F.L., Silvestro, D., Koppelhus, E.B. and Antonelli, A., 2020. The rise of angiosperms pushed conifers to decline during global cooling. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(46), pp. 28867-28875.
Cui, D.F., Hou, Y., Yin, P. and Wang, X., 2021. A Jurassic flower bud from the Jurassic of China. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 521.
Palmer, D., Lamb, S., Gavira Guerrero, A. and Frances, P. 2009. Prehistoric life: the definitive visual history of life on earth. New York, N.Y., DK Pub.
Like many of you, I am eagerly awaiting spring so that I can start planting my vegetable garden. There’s nothing better than eating bruschetta with freshly harvested vine-ripened tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum) and steamed green beans (Phaseolus sp.) with fried cream (see recipes at the end). My mouth drools just thinking about it! But the funny thing about tomatoes and green beans is that they are not actually vegetables: they are fruits masquerading as vegetables.
In fact, there are many other things we think of as vegetables that are actually fruits: avocados (Persea americana), cucumber (Cucumis sativus), eggplant (Solanum melongena), okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), olives (Olea europaea), peppers (Capsicum spp.), snow peas (Pisum sativum), squashes including pumpkin (Cucurbita spp.), tomatillos (Physalis spp.) and zucchini (Cucurbita pepo). We tend to define fruits as plant parts that are sweet and vegetables as plant parts that are not sweet. However, botanically, a fruit is a ripened ovary that contains seeds inside it, so all of the aforementioned plants meet the definition of a “fruit”, even though we rarely eat them the way we eat fruit (in a pie with ice cream!). For this reason, some people call them “vegetable fruits”.
Complicating things further is the fact that the fleshy parts of some “fruits”, like apples (Malus domesticus), pears (Pyrus spp.) and strawberries (Fragaria spp.), are not actually ripened ovaries at all, but greatly enlarged fleshy petals, or upper flower stalks (see Why a Strawberry is not a Fruit for a more thorough explanation).
“Aha” you might be thinking, what about bananas (Musa spp.)? They don’t have seeds. You may have noticed though, that there are little black specks inside bananas; those are tiny ovules (unfertilized seeds) that never ripened because the plants are sterile. Since people don’t usually like spitting out seeds, plant breeders have found ways to produce sterile, seedless varieties (often with an odd number of chromosomes) of certain plants such as citrus fruits, watermelons (Citrullus lanatus) and bananas.
There are actually four different kinds of vegetables, which vary according to the part of the plant you are actually eating: roots, stems, leaves, or inflorescences. Root vegetables are either fairly slender taproots (e.g. carrots or Daucus carota), or swollen, tuberous roots (e.g. sweet potato or Ipomoea batatas). Roots store starch that the plant can use the following year to grow new leaves.
Some of the vegetables we eat consist of stems (e.g. corms, tubers and rhizomes) or leaves (e.g. bulbs) that grow underground. Like roots, these structures are fleshy and store starch. However, corms grow upright and rhizomes grow horizontally. Tubers, on the other hand, can grow in any direction. Tubers also possess tiny “eyes” all over it that represent leaf buds. For this reason, you can plant a single tuber (or just part of it as long as there is an “eye” on it), and it will grow into a whole new plant.
The non-green parts of bulbs, like onions (Allium cepa), are actually special, fleshy leaves that store starch. Some vegetables, like broccoli (Brassica oleracea), actually consist of upper stems and unopened flowers, known as inflorescences. See the table below to find out what your favorite vegetables actually are.
Table 1. Plant parts that vegetables represent.
|Main plant part||Category||Examples|
|Root||Beets, burdock, carrot, cassava, celeriac, daikon, horseradish, parsnip, radish, rutabaga, sugar beet, sweet potato (Ipomoea), turnip|
|Stem (above ground)||Stalk||Asparagus, bamboo shoots, celery, cinnamon, fiddleheads, heart of palm, kohlrabi, rhubarb|
|Stem (below ground)||Corm||Taro, water chestnut|
|Rhizome||Galagal, ginger, lotus, turmeric, wasabi|
|Tuber||Jicama, oca, potato, sunchokes, yam (Dioscorea)|
|Leaf (below ground)||Bulbs||Garlic, leeks, onion, shallots|
|Leaf (above ground)||Greens||Arugula, bok choi, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, Chinese mustard, dandelion, endive, goosefoot, herbs (e.g. basil, oregano, rosemary), kale, lettuce, mustard greens, nettle, rocket, spinach, sorrel, Swiss chard, watercress|
|Inflorescences||Artichoke, broccoli, capers (flower buds), cauliflower, rapini|
To finish off, here are two of my favorite “vegetable fruit” recipes. Unfortunately, you’ll just have to wait a few more months to try them.
Coarsely chop however many fresh tomatoes you want to eat, and put in a bowl. Mix in coarsely chopped onions and some sliced fresh basil. Pour in enough olive oil and balsamic vinegar to generously coat. Season with salt and pepper and toss. Let sit for 15 minutes. Heap onto garlic toast and savour the flavour of summer!
Beans with Fried Cream
Steam fresh yellow or green wax beans until tender. Meanwhile, finely chop some onion and sauté with butter till golden over medium heat. Add cream to pan and cook, stirring until thickened. Add paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Pour over cooked beans and toss. Bon appétit!
On the surface, plant sex seems pretty simple. Birds and bees transfer pollen from one flower to another and voila: seeds are produced. But, like most things in life, plant reproduction is much more complicated than initially meets the eye.
FINDING A MATE
For starters, plants are not like mammals when it comes to gender. Only about 5-6% of all flowering plant species are dioecious, that is, having separate “males” (i.e. producing only sperm-containing pollen in stamens) and “females” (i.e. producing only eggs in pistils). The most familiar dioecious plants to most people are Manitoba Maples (Acer negundo), willows (Salix spp.) and marijuana (Cannabis sativa). However, the vast majority of plant species are monoecious, producing both sperm AND eggs in a single plant. This strategy makes sense for organisms that can’t move around to find a mate. When you make both sperm and eggs, your possible number of romantic encounters doubles. Most of the common garden flowers that we love, such as lilies, roses, tulips and orchids, are monoecious.
Some species are cosexual, with both stamens and pistils in the same flower (e.g. Western Red Lily (Lilium philadelphicum). Other species produce separate male and female cones or flowers on different parts of the same plant, or at different times of the year. For example, White Spruce (Picea glauca) trees produce male cones at the bottom of the tree and female cones at the top. Alder (Alnus spp.) shrubs typically produce their male flowers first, and then their female flowers afterwards. The separation of pollen- and egg-production in either space or time, helps prevent self-pollination and inbreeding.
However, even plants with separate “males” and “females” may be able to change sex in a pinch. Imagine what would happen if all the plants in a certain area happened to be female. No babies would be made at all! Scientists have described instances of plants switching from making female flowers to male flowers in response to environmental conditions (Freeman et al. 1980). Light levels, soil fertility and temperature are some of the factors known to alter floral sex in certain species (Varga and Kyto viita 2016; Freeman et al. 1980). When resources are scarce or growing conditions poor, making sperm is less energy-intensive than making eggs and seeds. Thus, for example, a dioecious tree may produce male flowers when it is young and short, and female flowers when it is older and taller, as larger trees capture more light.
But we have only scratched the surface of plant weirdness. Sometimes, flowers will not receive any pollen. This means that all the energy invested in egg production will go to waste. In the name of efficiency, some species, like sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), self-pollinate by curling parts of their pistils around their stamens. In other species, a process called agamospermy results in the egg maturing into a seed without being pollinated at all. It’s kind of like a virgin birth, with the offspring being genetically identical to the parent plant.
Other species, often those in cold, alpine or arctic climates, don’t even bother producing seeds; they just make tiny clones of themselves called bulbils. This is a kind of asexual reproduction. Once the bulbil is large enough, it detaches, perhaps when a stiff breeze is blowing, and grows into a new plant. That would be like growing a tiny version of yourself on the outside of your belly (like a giant pimple). Then one day it would just fall off and become a new person that looks exactly like you. Native plants like Bulb-bearing Water-hemlock (Cicuta bulbifera) and Viviparous Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca viviparoidea), and house plants like Kalanchoe (Kalanchoe spp.) use this technique to reproduce.
Plants also engage in vegetative reproduction. This is when plant parts, like leaves or stems, that become detached go on to grow roots and become new plants. Many cacti and other succulents, can do this: cactus “pads” (actually swollen stems) that become detached grow into new plants under the right conditions. For humans, this would be like removing a leg, and then having it grow into a clone of yourself. The “parent” would then grow a new leg to replace what was lost, kind of like what the Marvel Cinematic Universe character Deadpool did in the movie sequel (his whole body regrew from his head!).
Plants have had to evolve some ingenious ways to ensure their reproductive success because they are rooted in one spot. Imagine how much stranger our lives would be if humans reproduced like plants.
Freeman, D.C., K.T. Harper, and El L. Charnov. 1980. Sex change in plants: old and new observations and new hypotheses. Oecologia, 47: 222-232.
Freeman, D.C., McArthur, E.D., and K.T. Harper. 1984. The adaptive significance of sexual lability in plants using Atriplex canescens as a principal example. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden, 71: 265-277.
S. Varga, M.-M. Kyto viita. 2016. Light availability affects sex lability in a gynodioecious plant. American Journal of Botany, 103: 1928-1936.
With the days growing ever shorter, I find myself thinking about light and how we tend to take for granted the hard work that plants do, harnessing the energy from the sun. Photosynthesis is the beginning of most food chains on earth, the exceptions being bacteria (Archaea) that can obtain energy from inorganic chemicals like sulphur and ammonia. But since we don’t eat bacterial ooze for breakfast, this process remains relatively unimportant to humans. Photosynthesis is what gives us life!
Photosynthesis is a process where plants, and plant-like aquatic creatures such as phytoplankton, use energy from the sun (photons) to combine water (H2O) with carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air, to make sugar (C6H12O6). Oxygen (O2) is a “waste” product of photosynthesis. This reaction takes place in special green-coloured plant cells called chloroplasts. Plants and phytoplankton use the sugar they make to grow and reproduce themselves.
Animals and fungi are incapable of photosynthesizing; they have to “eat” plants to stay alive. Even meat-eaters (i.e. carnivores) are ultimately dependent on plants for their survival, because they eat animals that eat plants or phytoplankton. Further, the oxygen that plants produce is also required by animals to breathe. Thus, we depend on plants for our very lives.
Some northern plants are “evergreen”, which lets them begin photosynthesizing as soon as the ground thaws in spring. In contrast, deciduous plants have to grow a whole new set of leaves before they can begin photosynthesizing again. As there is almost continual sunlight over the summer months in the far north, tundra plants can photosynthesize almost non-stop during this time. They must quickly produce enough sugar over the short summer to stay alive, in a dormant state, over the long, dark winter.
One way that plants can increase the amount of light they receive is by slowly moving in response to the direction of the sun (i.e. heliotropism). Like tiny solar ovens, species such as Entire-leaved Mountain Avens (Dryas integrifolia), move their flowers each day so that they continually face the sun. As a result, the flower temperature is several degrees warmer than that of the air. This improves seed production, in part, because pollinating insects are more likely to visit warmer flowers. In other plant species (e.g. sunflowers or Helianthus) it is the leaves that rotate to be perpendicular to the sun, increasing the amount of light for photosynthesis.
Many ancient human societies in the northern hemisphere held religious gatherings or celebrations around the winter solstice (typically Dec. 21 or 22) because even though they knew many cold days were still ahead, the amount of sunlight would begin to increase again. Evergreen plants, like spruces, pines, mistletoes and holly, were sometimes part of these events, because they are the plants that refuse to wither when the light begins to fade.
Doing biological field work always comes with challenges. Since I began working at the Museum in 2003, the summers have been relatively wet. As a result, I’ve had to deal with muddy roads, many, many biting insects thirsty for my blood, and bootfuls of water obtained while exploring flooded wetlands. This year though, the roads were good, the biting insects non-existent, and many wetlands were so dry that I could walk right into the middle of them-no rubber boots required! In contrast, my main concern this year was possibly getting heat stroke!
As part of my research for a new book on Manitoba’s flora, I’ve been trying to track down populations of historically-collected plants (some of which haven’t been collected for over 100 years) to see if they still grow here. Fortunately, this year, all of the sites I needed to visit were close to major bodies of water: Lake of the Woods, Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, and Lac du Bonnet. As a result, I was able to go for a quick swim in the nearby body of water to cool off after a long day of hiking. Swimming is especially satisfying when you have been wearing long pants, wool socks and hiking boots in 30°C+ temperatures all day. Field work this year also involved drinking copious amounts of water (which were nearly completely sweated out given that I didn’t have to go to the bathroom all day!), lots of SPF 50 sunscreen, taking breaks under the shade of a tree, and wearing a cooling, water-soaked bandana around my neck.
I also got lucky with my field work, finding a new rare plant population and a new plant species for the province. The first rare plant species I discovered was Hairy Bugseed (Corispermum villosum). This species is currently ranked S1 (critically imperilled) in Manitoba because there are only three populations known in the province. I discovered a small population at St. Ambroise Beach Provincial Park on Lake Manitoba. Additionally, the population of this species that occurs out at Lake Winnipeg was found to be more extensive, extending all the way to Elk Island Provincial Park.
Out at Lake of the Woods, there are several plant species that reach the northeastern edge of their range. One is the lovely Small Purple Fringed-orchid (Platanthera psycodes). It was suspected to occur in Manitoba, but no one had actually collected a specimen until 1984. As I had never seen it before, I was thrilled to find and photograph the two plants in flower at the site.
Not far from the orchid, I saw another plant that I was on the lookout for: White Avens (Geum canadense). Although this species is relatively common in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, it has apparently never been collected in Manitoba before. I carefully removed part of the stem only (not the root) to make an herbarium specimen, after verifying that there were more than ten additional plants in the vicinity.
Finding these new, rare plant populations made the hot, July temperatures much easier to handle. The specimens collected will be carefully preserved in perpetuity at the Museum to document these plant populations for conservation purposes, and for future researchers to study.
Like many of you, I enjoy walking through my neighbourhood and smelling the sweet fragrances of the summer flowers. Unfortunately, like many things, flowers are ephemeral. When I see a flower, I am always reminded of the Robert Herrick poem urging us to:
“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today,
Tomorrow will be dying.”
Plants and fungi were challenging organisms to include in our new Prairies Gallery because most of our 50,000+ Museum specimens are preserved in a flattened, dehydrated condition. Not very attractive! Further, because these organisms don’t move the way animals do, people don’t seem to find them interesting. But are they really the passive, immobile creatures that we think they are? Our new exhibit case called Travelling Plants and Flying Fungi, attempts to dispel this notion.
The fact of the matter is, plants and fungi need to be able to move, otherwise they would never have colonized land! However, it is not the adults that do the actual moving; it is their gametes (pollen) and offspring (seeds). Before a plant can make seeds, it has to have its eggs fertilized by pollen grains from another plant. Since a plant can’t just get up and walk to another plant to give it some pollen, they have to use wind or animals, called pollinators, as couriers. To depict this process, the new Museum case includes intricate 3-D models of a wind-pollinated grass and four animal-pollinated flowers, as well as their pollinators, instead of flattened plants.
The plant models were created by the Museum’s talented Diorama & Collections Technician. Two of the models are real plants that were “mummified”, and then painted to look alive. The other three are entirely artificial. To make them, a plant was collected, and then molds made of the parts. These molds were used to create fake leaves, stems, flowers and fruits, which were then assembled together and painted.
Once a plant is pollinated, seeds, protected inside fruits, develop. Seeds also need to disperse, and, once again, wind and animals are the couriers. To illustrate the different methods of dispersal, various seeds and fruits from the Museum’s collection were selected for display.
Some plants, fungi and lichens do not produce multi-celled seeds; they produce tiny, single-celled structures called spores. Since they are so small, they typically disperse very well in the wind. Specimens of several common prairie spore-producers, including fungi and club-moss, are displayed in between the plant models.
Manitoba prairies have many fascinating plants, fungi and lichens in them. How they survive and reproduce is now one of the stories we tell in the Museum. My only regret is that we couldn’t include more species in the gallery. Hopefully, this new case will inspire our visitors to spend more time paying attention to, and appreciating, the plants in our wild prairies.
If you’re an observant person, you may have noticed colourful things growing on Manitoba’s trees and rocks. Although some of these organisms are mosses (especially near the base), they are more likely to be lichens. Bright orange Firedot Lichens (Caloplaca spp.) are common on Manitoba’s elm and oak trees.
Lichens are symbiotic organisms; they consist of a fungus (called a mycobiont) and an alga (called a photobiont). In some lichens there is also a cyanobacteria or a second or third species of algae (there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to lichens). The common dog lichens (Peltigera spp.) typically have cyanobacteria in them, often from the genus Nostoc, a free-living species that looks like bits of crumbled tar when dry. The algae and cyanobacteria, if present, photosynthesize, producing sugar, which they share with the fungus. The fungus absorbs water and dissolved minerals directly from the environment (so it doesn’t need any roots), and shares it with the other species. Cyanobacteria can also take nitrogen gas from the air, turn it into a chemical form, and share it with the other partners.
Lichens grow in the patterns they do to maximize the amount of light they intercept; some species look like tree branches (called fruticose = branch-like lichens) for this reason. Other lichens are leaf-like (i.e. foliose), or crusty (i.e. crustose). Some lichens living in really harsh environments (like the Antarctic) are cryptoendoliths, meaning that they live inside the rock, penetrating the tiny spaces in between rock crystals.
In the prairies, lichens often grow in hot, sunny habitats, such as sandy soils, and on glacially-deposited rocks. They are also common on fenceposts and abandoned human artifacts, like collapsing homesteads and rusty ploughs. In forested areas, lichens are common, growing on trees, as well as mossy, forest floors. In the Canadian Shield, rock outcrops are often almost completely covered by lichens. In urban areas, lichens are sometimes found on old buildings, like the legislature. Different species grow on these different substrates (hardwood vs. softwood, sandy soil vs. clayey soil, granite vs. limestone) so make sure you record this information when trying to identify lichens.
Since they don’t need soil, lichens are some of the first organisms that begin growing after large disasters wipe out all vegetation in an area. They are often the first to arrive after hot fires or mining activity (such as sand, gravel and coal mining). Acids in the lichens break down rocks, contributing to soil formation. Lichens can completely desiccate when it is dry, growing again when it rains. Due to this periodic desiccation, lichens tend to grow very slowly, reaching extremely old ages. Some lichens can be aged the way trees are: by counting their growth rings. Some lichens (i.e. yellow-green map lichens) have been dated as being over 8,600 years old.
Lichens reproduce themselves vegetatively, by breaking off into tiny pieces, and both sexually and asexually. Sexual fruiting bodies of various kinds (e.g. pycnidia, asci, apothecia etc.) are produced by the fungus. They release small, single-celled spores which germinate into new, partner-less fungi. These tiny fungi must find free-living alga to become lichens again. To allow both the fungus and the algae to disperse together, lichens also produce asexual propagules, usually at the branch tips, of various kinds (e.g. soredia, isidia, pycnidia etc.). These tiny clusters of cells, once dispersed, often by wind, will grow into a new lichen.
A few of the most common lichens in southern Manitoba are described below:
Pebbled Pixie-cup Lichen (Cladonia pyxidata)
Pixie-cup lichens were so named because ancient Europeans thought that fairies or
pixies would use these structures as goblets to drink from. The “cups” are actually the reproductive structures of the lichen. This species found in all provinces, occurring on forest floors and sometimes tree bark.
Reindeer lichen (Cladina mitis)
As the name implies, this species is eaten by “reindeer”, called caribou here in Canada. Reindeer lichen are common in the arctic and boreal forest, but are also found farther south. In Manitoba’s prairies, it is most common on sandy soils. This fruticose lichen grows sexual and asexual structures at the very tips of the branches. Vegetative reproduction via fragmentation is also a common method of spreading, as the branches are fragile when dry.
Sand-loving Iceland Lichen (Cetraria arenaria)
Like the reindeer lichen, this species is found on sandy or thin soils in the prairies. However, it is a prairie specialist, not found farther north. You can find it on the sand dunes near Portage la Prairie, Oak Lake and Carberry. It is a fruticose lichen with some flattish portions and upturned, spiny margins. This species reproduces mainly vegetatively via fragmentation or the production of asexual propagules. Sexual reproduction is infrequent, with the spore-producing structures (i.e. apothecia) located at the tips.
Rosette Lichen (Physcia spp.)
Species in this genus grow on alkaline substrates, such as calcareous, siliceous and basaltic rocks, bones, bark and soil. They often grow on substrates that are high in calcium, nitrogen and phosphorus, such as places where birds like to stand and poop. For the aforementioned reason, they have been called ornithocoprophiles (i.e. bird-poop lovers). They are foliose lichens that grow in a rosette. They mainly produce asexual soredia on their upper surfaces.
More lichen information can be found in this nifty little booklet available on-line (https://www.muskokawatershed.org/wp-content/uploads/LichenID.pdf) but if you are really serious about lichens I recommend investing in Irwin Brodo’s Lichens of North America.
When the Museum opens to the public again, our visitors will be in for a pleasant surprise. The very first of our nine galleries, now called the Welcome Gallery, has been completely renovated. The much-loved Bison diorama is still there, but the exhibits surrounding it are all different. Originally built in the 1970’s, this gallery definitely had a dated vibe to it that needed to change. Further, it was no longer doing its job as an effective introduction to the province of Manitoba or to the Museum’s galleries.
The role that First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples played in the settling and formation of the province of Manitoba is now described in several places in the renovated gallery, including a beautiful new exhibit on treaties. This exhibit was created in cooperation with the Treaty Relations Commission of Manitoba, and features the medals, pipes and pipe bags associated with these agreements. It demonstrates the fact that the Museum is committed to working with Indigenous peoples to accurately tell the history of Manitoba.
Another prominent component of the gallery is a new wall projection depicting 18,000 years of Manitoba history in two minutes! The Museum’s seven Curators all worked together on this video, which portrays, among other things, melting of ice age glaciers, changes in vegetational communities (i.e. biomes) over time, migration of Indigenous peoples into Manitoba, migration of settlers after confederation with Canada in 1870, and predicted future temperatures due to climate change.
The most eye-catching new exhibit is the gallery introduction case. The theme of each of the Museum’s remaining eight galleries are revealed through the iconic objects–animals, plants, fossils, minerals and artifacts–on display. Some galleries feature human history stories such as the fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay Company Collection Gallery, but four galleries are about Manitoba’s biomes (e.g. Arctic & Subarctic, Boreal Forest, Parklands and Prairies), and feature both natural and human history exhibits. Curators looked deep into the Museum collections to find some of our most intriguing objects to display. Unique colours and icons on the banners associated with each gallery are repeated at their entrances in the Museum, to let people know where they are, and what they will be seeing.
As a scientist, I was disheartened that the old Orientation Gallery did not highlight the fact that this Museum has scientific collections and does research. The new Welcome Gallery does a better job of explaining this, allowing us to display and depict some of Manitoba’s fascinating wildlife. In particular, the new Discovery Room exhibit, The Museum’s Collection Illuminated: Celebrating 50 Years, highlights specimens and artifacts collected by, or donated to, the Museum. A slide show gives visitors a peak into the lives of the Curators and Collections staff that brought this new gallery to life.
As the lead Curator for the Welcome Gallery renewal, I am thrilled with the look of this space! I hope our visitors will enjoy seeing what we have been busy making during the pandemic.
One of the most impressive plant specimens at the Manitoba Museum is a huge, preserved grass that shows the entire root system. I think the reason everybody likes this specimen is that it provides a perspective that no one ever has: what a plant actually looks like under the ground. There was just one problem with that grass: it’s not actually a native species. It’s a Eurasian species called Crested Wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) that was brought to Canada and widely planted in the 1930’s. During our planning for the new Prairies Gallery, the Curators strongly felt that visitors needed to see native species of plants when first entering the gallery. The process to collect plants for this exhibit was previously described in “I once caught a plant that was this big”.
In addition to the tap-rooted White Prairie-clover (Dalea candida), the display case includes a specimen of Manitoba’s Provincial grass, Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) and a June Grass (Koeleria macrantha). White Prairie-clover relies heavily on associated microbial organisms to obtain adequate nutrition; mycorrhizal fungi help it obtain water and minerals like phosphorus, while nitrogen-fixing bacteria help it obtain nitrogen. This means that the roots of prairie-clover do not have to be very extensive, as they mainly serve as attachment points for its associated organisms. Big Bluestem is a warm season grass that flowers in late summer when the soil is relatively dry; this is why its root system is so extensive and deep. In contrast, the June Grass is a cool-season species that flowers in June when the soil is still fairly moist; the shallow, densely hairy roots are able to obtain all the resources the plant needs. Thus, this exhibit nicely illustrates the main strategies that plants use to exploit different niches in the soil both in space and time.
After collecting these plants, the preservation process was out of my hands. Our talented Diorama and Collections Technician, Debbie Thompson, soaked the plants in a preservative for months, then carefully untangled the roots, painted the stems and roots to the correct colour, created false petals and came up with a clever mounting technique along with Bert Valentin, one of our productions staff. For a proper backdrop to the plants, I obtained an image of the correct soil profile from the Manitoba Soil Science Society, a Stockton Loamy Sand.
Last month, the exhibit case and graphics were installed, and our plants were ready to move into their new home. It was an exciting day to see my vision come to life. I hope you all enjoy being greeted by some new plants as you enter the gallery.
If you are wondering what happened to that Crested Wheatgrass specimen, it has been relocated to the second half of the gallery, which tells the story of Manitoba’s post-European contact history. It is now located next to a history case on the impact of the Great Depression on Manitobans, correctly interpreted as a species planted in the 1930’s to help stabilize soils that were blowing away due to the drought.