Garden of Native Prairie Plants Botany and Ethonobotany

by Penny Dodd & Marion Jankunis

The Garden of Native Prairie Plants is a cooperative project between the Lethbridge & District Horticultural Society, Galt Museum & Archives and Alberta Native Plant Council.


From the earliest times, people have sought out plants for medicinal purposes. Perhaps less spiritual, but no less inquisitive and experimental, gardeners and gatherers from across the ages have dedicated much of their lives to finding plants that could be used for food, clothing, shelter and ornament. Certainly, nomadic people depended on the plants they could find in order to sustain themselves. Over the past twenty-five thousand years, the First Nations people of the prairie developed a knowledge and understanding of the local plants that could help or harm them.

The historical relationship between First Nations people and the plants they used was complex. Dr. Alex Johnston reports that the Blackfoot knew and used about one hundred eighty-five species of plants for purposes of “religion and ceremony, crafts and folklore, birth control, medicines, horse medicines and diet.” Many of these plants can be found in The Garden of Native Prairie Plants, created to commemorate the centenary of the Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society, on the grounds surrounding the Galt Museum & Archives.

The information presented here describes the plants in the Garden, along with their uses by First Nations people. If your interest has been piqued, acquire one of the books cited in the references below, and let your feet take you into the Garden, and then to the grasslands and the hills beyond to observe these plants in their natural environment.


Budd, Archibald Charles. 1979. Budd’s Flora of the Canadian Prairie Provinces. Canadian Government Publishing Center, Hull, Quebec.

Best, K. F. and Looman, J. 1979. Budd’s Flora of the Canadian Prairies. Canadian Government Publishing Centre, PQ.

Flanagan, June. 2005. Native Plants for Prairie Gardens. Fitzhenry & Whiteside Ltd., Markham, Ontario.

Hungry Wolf, Adolf. 1989. Teachings of Nature. Good Medicine Books, BC.

Jennings, Neil. 2007. Prairie Beauty. Rocky Mountain Books, AB.

Johnston, Alex. 1987. Plants and the Blackfoot. Occasional Paper No. 15., Lethbridge Historical Society, AB.

Kershaw, Linda. 2000. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies. Lone Pine Publishing, AB.

Kimball, Shannon Fitzpatrick and Lesica, Peter. 2005. Wildflowers of Glacier National Park and Surrounding Areas. Trillium Press, USA.

Kindscher, Kelly. 1987. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairies. University Press of Kansas

Royer, France and Richard Dickinson. 2007. Plants of Alberta. Lone Pine Publishing, AB.

Van Bruggen, Theodore. 1983. Wildflowers, Grasses and Other Plants of the Northern Plains and Black Hills. Badlands Natural History Association, SD.

Vance, Fenton R, Jowsey, James R, and McLean, James S. 1984. Wildflowers Across the Prairies. Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver, British Columbia.

Wilkinson, Kathleen. 1999. Wildflowers of Alberta: A Guide to Common Wildflowers and Other Herbaceous Plants. University of Alberta Press and Lone Pine Publishing, AB.

What’s in the Name

To fully describe any particular plant, we can place it into the phylogenetic system devised by botanists. This system is as follows, in increasing order of group size:

  • Species: the plants of a single type

  • Genus: a group of related species

  • Family: a group of related genera

  • Order: a group of related families

  • Class: a group of related orders

  • Subdivision: a group of related classes

  • Division: a group of related subdivisions

Placing Geum triflorum Pursh (three flowered avens) into this scheme would look like this:

  • Species – triflorum

  • Genus – Geum

  • Family – Rosaceae

  • Order – Rosales

  • Class – Dicotyledoneae

  • Subdivision – Angiospermae

  • Division – Spermatophyta

Note that all of the group names, with the exception of the species, are capitalized, and that all group names are italicized. This is by convention. Also note that the person who first described the plant is credited after the botanical name. In the above example, this is Pursh. When referring to a particular plant in books or conversation, we often just use the genus and species designations, knowing that the other designations are implied.

The common name or names of a plant tend to be descriptive of some characteristic of the plant, and are not assigned scientifically. In the above example, the name, ‘three flowered avens’ refers to the usual appearance of clusters of three blossoms per stem in this species.

Shrubs and Vines