Friends of the Wild Flower Garden

An Earlier Wild Botanic Garden

by Gary Bebeau


Imagine her surprise when Eloise Butler saw an article in The Boston Transcript in 1908 that described a “wild garden” in New Brunswick, Canada that maintained more than 500 species of flowering plants and had been established years earlier. (1) Until this time she believed her garden in Glenwood Park was original to the idea. So - what to do about it? You go there and check it out! She was already in the Boston area that Summer staying with her sister Cora Pease in Malden MA, so off they went, sourcing several plant specimens for the Minneapolis Garden in Nova Scotia while on the journey. (2)

The New Brunswick garden belonged to George Upham Hay (1843-1913). He was a leading member of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick (NHSNB), which was founded in 1880. He founded the herbarium in the group’s museum and for the rest of his life he chaired its’ committee on botany. (3)

In 1899 he announced the existence of the wild garden in papers sent to to the NHSNB and to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). This was 10 years after he bought the property. To the NHSNB he noted that the garden would aim to “[show] as far as the conditions would warrant, the peculiarities and extent of the flora of New Brunswick”. (4) This is similar to the wording in the petition establishing the Minneapolis Garden: “The aims of this garden would be to show plants as living things and their adaptations to their environment, to display in miniature the rich and varied flora of Minnesota. (5)

Hay’s garden was of two acres and located on his private summer estate at Ingleside, near Westfield NB. It was a private garden dedicated to study, not open to the public for general viewing of plants.

George Hay
George U. Hay, making field notes in a field book, seated by a campfire on the South Tobique Lakes region of north-western New Brunswick - July 1900. Photo by Mauran I. Furbish

To the RSC he described it as an “experiment in which year-to-year variation in flowering times and other phenomena would be examined in relation to variation in climate.” He stated that it “presented the botanist the opportunity of studying problems analogous to those which a city presents to the sociologist - that is, the interactions of living organisms inhabiting the same locality, adapting themselves to different conditions, maintaining their ground against rival or yielding to unfavorable conditions.” (6)


Below: Gathering of women from the Ladies Auxiliary of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick at the summer property of George U. Hay at Ingleside, the location of his Wild Garden circa 1890. Hay is at the back of the group on the verandah.

George Hay's House

On his trips to remote parts of the province he would collect plants for transplant to his garden. He also made a study of fungi of New Brunswick - many were mushrooms growing in or near his garden. This the same type of procedure undertaken by Eloise Butler for her wild botanic garden. Eloise wrote of her visit that the garden was “of vivid interest” but her wild garden was “superior” as it was larger, open to the public, and did not get flooded out periodically by a small brook. (7)

Dr. Hay’s wild garden became a venue for outings by the NHSNB and students from Victoria High School where he was principal. Beginning in 1899 he provided annual notes to the Bulletin of the NHSNB about what native plants were amenable to cultivation and on the seasonal changes in his garden. After 10 years he published a summary of the earliest, latest and average flowering dates for 24 species that he had followed in the same locations each year. (8)

The seasonal bloom summary was just the type of record that was maintained at Glenwood Park. Years later Gardener Ken Avery would publish his list of earliest, latest and average flowering dates - for 25 species.

Hay had his trouble with plants just like Eloise did. He decided to attempt to “secure a modus vivendi” there between native and non-native species “by assigning the weeds to a space in one corner,” but he noted the weeds showed “a perversity characteristic of their tribe — spurned such treatment and refused to grow.” (9)

Some years later Eloise wrote:
“Mistress Mary, so contrary How does your garden grow? Like Mistress, like garden is the reply. In quirks, in whimsies, and in sheer contrariness a wild garden surpasses Mistress Mary. This is true especially of the introduced species.” (10)

The similarities in purpose and thought in the establishment of these two “wild gardens” is remarkable. But the public garden in Minneapolis had an advantage - there was the hope of continuance when the founding person left the scene, as it was part of a larger city park system and had public support. Dr. Hay made no provision for the longterm maintenance of his garden and after his death in 1913 it fell into disuse and there is now no trace of it. (11)