Wednesday, 22 March 2017





The series of digital stories about Toronto history and culture which make up this project are the work of fifty-three Master of Museum Studies (MMSt) graduate students. The project was inspired by the 2015 Myseum Intersections – Telling Toronto’s Stories and invited each storyteller to select an object from local collections which has significance to Toronto’s past and present. The objects inspired the authors to connect historical events with contemporary context so that they tell stories about the multiple intersections that happen in the city.

Musings will be posting collected stories once a cycle. We hope that, after reading the stories, you will know Toronto a little bit better. And perhaps you will find similar stories in your own objects!

Our partners for this project, to which we are extremely thankful, are:
Now, without further ado, object stories from Toronto Botanical Gardens.



Saffron crocuses. Image credit: Rowan McOnegal, Wellcome Images.
 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc-nd 4.0, see 
This autumn, look for a small purple crocus with three long, red threads, the stigma, blooming among the foliage of the Toronto Botanical Garden's kitchen garden. This is the saffron crocus (crocus sativa), which produces saffron, the most expensive spice in the world, and an emerging trend on Toronto's cocktail scene.

Saffron has most commonly been used as a spice, giving food a bright yellow colour and a hay-like fragrance. Although no one agrees on its exact origins, by late antiquity saffron had spread across Asia, Europe, and North Africa from somewhere near the eastern Mediterranean. Today it is mainly associated with the cuisines of Iran, Spain, and India. In addition, it has long been valued as a medicinal plant - so much so that in 1671 a German physician penned nearly 300 pages dedicated to medical uses of saffron.

Its medicinal reputation led to saffron's inclusion in herbal tonics. Early modern alchemists believed distilled spirits to be the quintessence, or essential spirit, of plants. [1] Some began adding medicinal herbs to spirits to create flavoured liquors intended for use as herbal health tonics. The spice became a regular ingredient in some recipes. Certain of these survive, as jägermeister, yellow chartreuse, and Drambuie all contain saffron.

Saffron has since become far better known as a culinary ingredient than a medicine, but history has a way of repeating itself, and this time saffron's flavour is at the forefront. According to Joel Kallmeyer, bartender at BarChef, saffron is a nascent trend for cocktails in Toronto. “It's all about the savoury cocktail,” he says. [2] The two saffron-infused offerings on the menu, the Toasted Fizz and the Fox Tail, get their aroma from Chef Frankie Solarik's house-made saffron bitters. When asked about what inspired him, Chef Solarik replied that he already had a cocktail in mind, and the smokey quality of the saffron paired well with the chamomile. [3] Toronto is embracing saffron as part of its culinary cocktail culture, producing new recipes featuring the spice – and history is repeating itself in other ways, too.

BarChef's Fox Tail cocktail.
Photograph by Shanlon Gilbert.
BarChef has had really excellent reviews, but if cocktails aren't for you there are numerous culinary recipes you could try. Multicultural Toronto has no shortage of restaurants offering saffron-based dishes from a wide variety of cuisines: try Iranian bastani sonnati, or some Spanish paella, French bouillabaisse, or an Indian saffron pulao. It may just be of benefit: medical institutions and researchers around the world, including Toronto, are conducting studies into the medicinal potential of various compounds derived from saffron, showing numerous possible uses and benefits.

So here's to the saffron crocus: a small, unassuming purple flower at the Toronto Botanical Gardens with a rich, multicultural history, and a promising medical and culinary future. Cheers!

*Please note that other than the stigma of crocus sativa, crocuses are poisonous and should not be consumed under any circumstances.

1. Moran, B. T. (2009). Distilling knowledge: Alchemy, chemistry, and the scientific revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
2. Personal communication, 21 November, 2015
3. Personal communication, 21 November, 2015



One third of the food we eat is pollinated freely by bees. However, the world’s bee population has seen a dramatic decrease in recent years, which in turn threatens the future of global food production. Shouldn’t we be concerned, then, that this incredible ability to pollinate is at risk? As citizens of urban environments, this issue may seem removed for us, Torontonians. Nevertheless, many cultural institutions have been part of a grassroots initiative to save the bees. The Toronto Botanical Gardens has joined this effort by building a Bee Hotel! This structure is made out of scrap wood and is designed to house solitary bees when they need to rest. In fact, it looks like a nest hanging from a tree canopy, much like what solitary bees would use in rural areas.
Photo of the Bee Hotel at the Toronto Botanical Gardens, taken by Anja Hamilton
The causes of the decline in bee populations are explained in the panel placed beside the Bee Hotel. It notes that urbanization and the use of toxins, like pesticides for agricultural land, have made rural areas less habitable for bees. There is also some evidence that climate change has also had a significant effect on the amount of pollinating bees can do. Although warmer days earlier in the year can be a blessing for us, it has disrupted the synchronized timing of when flowers bloom during the summer and when rural bees go out to pollinate.

However, city-dwellers can help support a sustainable urban population of bees. Groups such as the Toronto District Beekeepers’ Association and the Ontario Beekeepers Association have set up beekeeping initiatives that help establish and grow urban bee populations. In fact, it was with the help of the Toronto Beekeepers Co-operative that the Toronto Botanical Gardens was able to have on-site beehives, which are kept for the health of bees, as a teaching resource for their beekeeping courses and to harvest honey used in products such as soap sold in the gift shop. These beehives also help pollinate their plentiful gardens throughout the growing season. In an innovative and engaged city like Toronto, the Bee Hotel represents the city’s continuous interest in learning more about global issues. Also, it gives creative examples of what people can do in their own urban environment to help out. Plus, beekeeping is a pretty cool hobby, with some delicious and healthy results. For those who are less adventurous and would rather not have a Bee Hotel in their backyard, the Toronto Botanical Gardens also provides a list of plants that city-dwellers can grow to promote sustainable, healthy bee populations in the city. What else can we do in Toronto to help our local bees?
Check out the Bee Hotel for yourself at the Toronto Botanical Gardens to find out more!



A “Living Fossil”
After surviving through extremes of climate and then migrations across the globe to places like Toronto, little has changed for the Ginkgo biloba tree (Figure 1 below). Ancestors of the Ginkgo biloba date all the way back to China, almost 200 million years ago, and even to the age of dinosaurs. These slowly-maturing trees have the ability to live to advanced ages, and the oldest Ginkgo tree is estimated to be 3,500 years old. [1]

Figure 1: Ginkgo leaves and seeds found next to their fossils from the dinosaur gallery.
(Photo taken by Katherine Ing at the Royal Ontario Museum).
What’s in a Name?
From its inconspicuous appearance, the Ginkgo tree in the herb garden of the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG) can be easily overlooked amongst the greenery (Figure 2). The Maidenhair Tree is its common name for its resemblance to the maidenhair fern but its scientific name, Ginkgo biloba is surprisingly much more well-known. The tree can be identified by its trunk which branches into a dense canopy of shady, fan-shaped leaves divided into two lobes or “biloba”, in Latin. The Asian characters in Chinese and Japanese can be translated into “Silver Apricot” which is the source for its species name “Ginkgo.”

Figure 2: An immature Ginkgo tree located in Toronto Botanical Garden’s herb garden.
(Photo taken by Katherine Ing)
A “Memorable” Survivor to the Senses
More mature Ginkgo trees also populate the TBG’s grounds. Ginkgos are among a few species of trees that can be further divided into different sexes. Male trees are known for their cone-shaped stamens while female trees have flowers. In the late fall, rotten-smelling fruits develop from the female flowers and can be a deterrent to those unfamiliar with it. Beneath its smelly flesh, the “Ginkgo nuts” are sold in Asian grocery stores to be cooked in kitchens in many cities across North America, including Toronto, for their benefits to respiratory and kidney issues (Figure 3). Since the trees are tolerant to pollution, road salts, temperate climates, and a range of soil conditions in cities, they can be found in many urban areas. [2] Outside of Asian countries, Ginkgo leaves were transformed into pills to help with memory retention.

Figure 3: Fallen Ginkgo seeds from a mature female tree covered in wrinkly, smelly skin.
After removing the skin with gloves, the “nut” can be cracked open and cooked into a congee (rice porridge).
(Photo taken by Katherine Ing)
Ginkgo trees and its fruits can be found in many sites across Toronto whether growing outside the city’s buildings, filling dinner plates in Chinese homes or Asian restaurants or stocking shelves of local pharmacies or health stores. The story of the tree might be familiar to many Torontonians who have family origins outside Canada, but take root, “flourish” in new soil and grow into their new environment. Gardeners at the Toronto Botanical Garden made a deliberate choice to recognize the local Iroquoian population and more recent arrivals who have contributed to plant knowledge in Canada. The herb garden is recognition of the medicinal usages of different plants who arrived to Canada with different cultures both native and those from afar.

1. Peter Crane, interview by Roger Cohn, Yale Environment 360, May, 1, 2013
2. Missouri Botanical Garden. “Ginkgo biloba.” Accessed November 23, 2015.

Works Cited
Crane, Peter. (Interviewee). Ginkgo: The life story of the oldest tree on Earth. By Roger Cohn. Yale Environment 360, 2013, May 1. Accessed November 21, 2015.

Del Tredici, Peter. “The evolution, ecology, and cultivation of Ginkgo biloba.” In Ginkgo biloba, edited by Teris A. van Beek, 7-23. Australia: Harwood Academic Publisher, 2000.

Marcelis, David. Ginkgo trees stink up cities when seeds fall. Wall Street Journal, November 24, 2014. Accessed December 2, 2015.

Missouri Botanical Garden. (2015). “Ginkgo biloba.” Accessed November 23, 2015 from



Located to the left of the main parking lot, a path leading into the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG) guides the way to the burial grounds for the Milne family. This cemetery is a secret that, once discovered, reveals stories about past Toronto landmarks. The Gardens’ librarian Mark Stewart recalls that the Milne’s were the original settlers of the current TBG land. He had also mentioned that the large pavilion located atop the grassy hill behind the Garden’s caf√© was where their home once stood before it burnt down in 1921. I was on a mission to find the cemetery and to discover its story.

The hiding spot. (n.d.) Toronto Botanical Gardens. Toronto, On.
Photograph by Danielle Rutkowski. 
Enclosed by an aluminum fence, the Milne Family Burial Grounds holds the large marble tombstone of Helen, “Daddy” Milne’s mother, Eliza and Hannah Milne. Accompanying their tombstone are three small fragments of slate that are dedicated to the memory of eight different family members, three of which are “Daddy” Milne’s brothers.

Milne family burial plot. (n.d.) Toronto Botanical Gardens. Toronto, On.
Photograph by Danielle Rutkowski.
Charles Sauriol’s Pioneers of the Don recounts the tales of the pioneers in Don Valley, an area that evolved into the town of York, and eventually grew into the city of Toronto itself. The Milne’s are featured in the book as masters of the weaving trade. Born in Scotland in 1777, Alexander, or “Daddy”, as Sauriol calls him, Milne immigrated to United States in 1801 to pursue a career in the weaving industry. The draw of the cotton bleaching business brought him to New Jersey in 1813. “Daddy” Milne immigrated to Toronto in 1817 and the Milne’s built the first of three wool Mills in the Don Valley. This first mill was located slightly south of Lawrence Avenue, about half a mile west of Don Mills Road. It was abandoned due to a lack of hydropower. The second mill was swept away in the great flood of 1878 and the last mill was built by Milne’s son, William and his son, Alexander W. Milne. 

The mill settlement consisted of sixteen buildings, with homes for mill workers, a wagon shop, and a dry goods store. It was even said that the sheep were washed in the river before shearing. Tender boards covered in drying wool would then be tore to shreds by a picker before it was woven into yarn.

We may not see the sheep being washed in the creek anymore, nor hear the shutter of the looms and clank of the spindles but, instead, the memory of the Milne’s is encapsulated in the cemetery of the family burial plot. For those of us who find or stumble upon it, the Milne family burial plot is the hidden link between their prosperous past and TBG’s contemporary landscape. This cemetery is a timeless reminder that people are the foundation of Toronto, bringing together cultures, communities, and places through the stories they share.

Sauriol, C. (1995) Pioneers of the Don. Serv-A-Trade. East-York, Canada.



When visiting the Toronto Botanical Garden (TBG), I expected to see flowers and plants, but not “Stooks and Punes,” a temporary art installation by landscape designer W. Gary Smith.

The “Punes” of “Stooks and Punes.” (Rachael Thiessen) 
According to TBG website, “Stooks and Punes” are representations of “a collection of magic, whimsy and meaning plays on the enticing possibilities of nature, and graces the permanent site of the proposed children’s garden.” It also notes that Smith’s inspiration for his sculpture was derived from the Garden, Canadian agricultural history and “punes,” the childhood name his brother gave to his cowlicks. [1] The creation of Smith’s art piece was possible through the work and contribution of Toronto’s local community and the city’s natural resources.

On my visit, “Stooks” —two circles of coned tree-bunches— were missing, but “Punes” were at their regular place.

The “Stooks” were formally located in the background behind “Punes.” A photo can be found on the TBG website. (Rachael Thiessen)
“Punes” is comprised of a circular and branching, or dendritic, pattern. [2] Smith explains that the dendritic pattern emulates a flow of energy and can make intimate connections between humans and nature. “Stooks and Punes” is the collective work of TBG staff and 300 local volunteers who built it from natural materials. The TBG “is a volunteer-driven charity dedicated to disseminating horticultural and gardening information,” making community participation for such projects common. Smith used natural materials from TBG, as well as materials from gardens maintained by GTA members of Landscape Ontario. Landscape Ontario represents over 2000 horticultural professionals who have developed numerous connections with other GTA organizations and associations to “promote the benefits of landscaping and horticulture.” [3] The dendritic pattern of “Stooks and Punes” emphasizes not only these volunteers’ connection to nature, but also their connection to each other, the material they used and the many places these people live throughout the GTA. 

Smith says his passion for the natural world is rooted in his early childhood in Newark, Delaware. [4] While not a Toronto or GTA native, the construction of his art allowed residents of the community to come together and encounter new areas of their city. With “Stooks” already gone and “Punes” sure to follow, the connection they helped build between communities will be only a memory. [5] Nonetheless, members of the TBG and its community can look forward to the building of the some new children’s garden in the future.

1. Note. All general information on structure and connections to the TBG can be found on their website at
2. Note: These patterns are ones Smith uses in many of his works and are described in his book. Smith, W. Gary, (2010) From Art to Landscape: Unleashing Creative Activity in Garden Design (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press Inc.).
3. Note: All information about Landscape Ontario came from their website at
4. Note. All references to Smith and his writings came from his above-mentioned book.
5. Note: With the TBG listing ‘Stooks and Punes” as a temporary exhibit, it can only be assumed that “Punes” will eventually be taken down as well.



“The green grass and the happy skies court the fluttering butterflies.” – Terri Guillemets, Quotation Anthologist,

Famous English playwright William Shakespeare once penned that we will all laugh at gilded butterflies, while legendary American boxer Muhammad Ali advised that we should float like the gentle insects. However, it is the Toronto Botanical Garden that hopes we look to butterflies, one giant Monarch butterfly in particular, to tell the time and learn how the movement of the sun affects the plants that grow in our Toronto backyard gardens.

Although the sundial is the oldest known human invention used to measure time, it remains an important tool for teaching, a neat intersection of ancient customs and modern practices. Today, if we want to know the time we check our watches or cellphones. Few city-dwellers go outside to track the sun’s location to determine the hour. As we move further into the age of technology and our city continues to grow, our interactions with nature become fewer. However, the Toronto Botanical Garden is bringing us back to basics, re-connecting us with nature through an ancient timekeeping gadget. The Garden’s staff employ outdoor exploration and colorful fun to teach about nature in urban environments so visitors can still enjoy nature even in a large city like Toronto!

The giant Monarch butterfly Sundial is located in the Spiral Butterfly Garden, a sub-section of the TBG’s Teaching Garden. Consisting of bright orange and yellow cement tiles, the dial plate of the sundial is laid out like a mosaic. The pattern of the dial plate resembles an open flower or the sun itself. The sundial’s gnomon is a decorative Monarch butterfly with large, closed wings. The tawny-orange and yellow-brown wings with black veins and white spots unmistakably mark this butterfly as a Monarch. The butterfly rests upon the dial plate, drinking the dewy drops that have collected on a bright green leaf placed in the centre of the sundial.

Giant Monarch Butterfly Sundial, Teaching Garden, Toronto Botanical Garden
Photograph courtesy of Alyssa Trudeau [Thursday, November 5, 2015]
The Monarch Butterfly Sundial was crafted by Anvil Artistry & Wrought Iron Designs, funded and installed in 1998 by the Garden Club of Toronto. Founded in 1946, the Club has played a key role in designing and planting gardens that beautify the city. These gardens are not only new and vibrant spaces for Torontonians of all ages to explore, they also get people talking about Toronto’s unique intersections of nature and urban environments. According to Toronto Botanical Garden Librarian, Mark Stewart, the Monarch Butterfly Sundial was one of many installations commissioned by the Club for the Teaching Garden, a space for children to interact with the outdoor environment that allows for hands-on learning and experiential school and recreational programs. The giant Monarch Butterfly Sundial is surrounded by several plant species that are known to attract butterflies, including the Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus) and the Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii). In a large, bustling Toronto, the Monarch Butterfly Sundial at the Toronto Botanical Garden reminds us to slow down, appreciate nature and spend our time enjoying simple things like the flowers and butterflies.

Works Cited
Garden Club of Toronto. (n.d.) The garden club of Toronto: about us. the garden club of Toronto. Retrieved November 17, 2015 from

Toronto Botanical Gardens. (2015). Teaching garden. Toronto botanical garden. Retrieved November 17, 2015 from

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