Wildflower Watch

A Passion for Wildflowers - Early Canadian Botanical Art

By Lyn Noble

Originally appeared in The Botanical Artist - Volume 18, Issue 1


As the fortunate custodian of a second edition copy of the book Canadian Wildflowers by Agnes Fitzgibbon and Catherine Parr Traill, I’d like to share with you the story of its inception. It began when barrister Charles and Agnes Fitzgibbon, a welleducated young English couple immigrated to the wilderness of Canada in 1850. 

They were given a land grant in an unsettled, wild, forested area. There being no path or track, they hired oxen and cart to transport them and their belongings to their land. On arrival, their driver quickly unloaded the cart and departed, leaving them to fell the forest and build a shelter before snow fell and freeze-up started. A challenging task, but by winter they had shelter, albeit few provisions. Thankfully, Indians skilled in using native plants for sustenance assisted them, and they weathered that first year. 

After that first winter, their lives and homestead flourished and they started their family. Fifteen years later, in1865, Charles died, leaving Agnes to manage their farm, rear their children and earn a living. As a child, she painted in watercolour with her mother, Susanna Moodie. In 1866, with great enthusiasm, Agnes and her aunt [the botanist] Catherine Parr Traill, proposed the creation of a book on Canadian wildflowers to publisher John Lovell of Montreal. He agreed to the project, but only if the book was pre-subscribed so that all costs were covered. 

In February of 1867, undaunted and with a specimen book provided by Lovell, the ladies set out to seek subscribers, and by June had over 400! 

Agnes took lithography lessons, and on borrowed stones drew the title page and 10 floral plates, each with 3 different native wildflowers per plate. William Chewett printed the lithographs and forwarded the 5000 sheets to be hand-coloured by Agnes while her aunt wrote the botanical descriptions. From 1867-1868 Agnes, worked hand-colouring each illustration, sometimes aided by her children and neighbours! She finished in December, 1868. 

The first edition appeared in January, 1869, was sold out by March, and a second edition [from which my book came] was begun. This one, 5500 plates and also pre-subscribed, was produced and again hand-coloured, leaving us a lasting legacy of early botanical art in Canada. There were other later editions, including a four-copy edition with a cover of American Wildflowers to gauge interest in the US. There was none. Not even one of those has survived as far as we know. 

The introduction is an inspiring beginning to this beautiful volume: “A few words of introduction for our book on the Wild Flowers of Canada may be deemed necessary by the friends who have so kindly and freely come forward as Subscribers to the work, and also the public in general. 

We present it with every hope that success may follow the publication, which has been delayed, by many unforeseen [sic] obstacles, from appearing at as early a date as had been anticipated. However, we must fall back upon the old saying, ‘Better late than never,’ and in excuse, observe that the labour of the undertaking has been very great. First, the designs – all the flowers having been copied from Nature’s Own Book, by Mrs. FitzGibbon – then the subsequent grouping and lithographing on stone by her own hand, and finally the colouring of each separate plate – a gigantic task to be executed by one person. 

With a patriotic pride in her native land, Mrs. F. was desirous that the book should be entirely of Canadian production, without any foreign aid, and thus far her design has been carried out.” 

This book represents Agnes Fitzgibbon’s passion for wildflowers, and demonstrates botanical art in action under challenging circumstances. 

  • Anemone nemorosa, Wood Anemone; Uvularia perfoliata, Large Flowered Bellwort, Hepatica acutiloba, Sharp-lobed Hepatica; Claytonia virginica, Spring-Beauty
  • Veronica americana, American Brooklime; Rubus odoratus, Purple Flowering Raspberry; Moneses uniflora, One Flowered Pyrola; Pyrola elliptica, Shin Leaf
  • Castilleja coccinea, Scarlet Painted Cup; Orchis spectabilis, Showy Orchis; Arum triphyllum, Indian Turnip; Rudbeckia fulgida, Cone Flower
  • Aquilegia canadensis, Wild Columbine: Trillium grandiflorum, Large White Trillium, Erythronium americanum, Yellow Adders Tongue