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Pre-colonial era and New France

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The Iroquoians used intercropping to grow corn, beans, sunflowers and several Cucurbit species
Photo: Practical Plants database (Paris)

Travel diaries

In the 16th century, the Montréal area was occupied by the Iroquoians, a First Nations people for whom the clan was the basic social and economic unit. All the families belonging to one clan lived in a longhouse, a dwelling that could accommodate from about fifty to one hundred members. A village had three to ten longhouses.

Kitchen gardens back in those days would be the size of an agricultural field. The Iroquoians cultivated corn, but also used an intercropping system to grow beans, sunflowers, tobacco and several Cucurbit species. The Jesuit Relations (Les Relations des Jésuites), documents written by missionaries in New France, confirm the types of plants grown:

They have corn, beans and pumpkins in equal abundance.”

The species of extra-large pumpkins found on the island were unfamiliar to Europeans, as Pierre Boucher observed in 1663 in his Histoire véritable et naturelle des mœurs et du pays de Nouvelle-France (a description of the flora, fauna and native societies in the region):

The seeds grown by the savages, and that they had before we came to this land, are (…) a type of pumpkin different from those in France.

Visit the First Nations Garden at the Montréal Botanical Garden to learn more about the plants Natives used.

Cabbage, lettuce and turnip were the first plants of European origin to be cultivated. The earliest settlers and sailors of the ships exploring the St. Lawrence planted small gardens to make themselves self-sufficient.

Supplying enough food for the newly emigrated Europeans became a major concern.

When Jacques Cartier set sail for his third voyage to New France, it was recommended that he take six farmers and six winegrowers along. The provisions had to include domestic animals and “all sorts of grains and seeds.” He evidently followed these  instructions:

Mr. Hébert had planted some apple trees in his lifetime, which bore good fruit, I have been assured; the livestock ruined these trees.

Pehr Kalm provided a good description of vegetable gardens in his journal Travels into North America. Between Albany and Saratoga, on June 23, 1749, he wrote:

The farms were commonly built close to the river, on the hills. Each house has a little kitchen-garden, and a still lesser orchard. Some farms, however, have large gardens. The kitchen-gardens afford several kinds of gourds, water-melons, and kidney-beans. The orchards are full of apple-trees.

In August 1749, he listed the vegetables growing in a kitchen garden in the town of Quebec:

The kitchen herbs succeed very well here. The white cabbage is very fine, but sometimes suffers greatly from worms. Few people took notice of potatoes; and neither the common (Solanum tuberosum) nor the Bermuda ones (Convolvulus batatas) were planted in Canada. When the French here are asked why they do not plant potatoes, they answer that they cannot find any relish in them, and they laugh at the English who are so fond of them. Nowhere did I see Jerusalem artichokes or parsneps; but onions are very much in use here, together with other species of leeks. They likewise plant several species of gourds, melons, squash, lemon verbena, salads, wild succory, as well as red raddishes; horse-raddishes and common raddishes are not grown in large quantities; they have plenty of red beets in fairly large amounts; several kinds of pease and French beans; a fair amount of cucumbers, thyme and marjoram. Those who have been employed in sowing and planting these vegetables and kitchen herbs, and have had some experience in gardening, told me that they were obliged to send for fresh seeds from France every year, because they commonly lose their strength here in the third generation, and do not produce such plants as would equal the original ones in taste and goodness. This applies to red beets and other plants. Throughout all North-America the root cabbage is unknown. Nor have I seen any turnep in all of Canada or anyone using mustard.

Based on an article by Céline Arseneault and Daniel Fortin in Quatre-Temps magazine, 18(1): 20-23.

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