Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

New medicine garden creating sacred, peaceful and learning space on the StFX campus

June 21st, 2022
L-r, StFX Knowledge Keeper Kerry Prosper and Arlynne McGrath at the new medicine garden on StFX campus

If you step into the Warren Gardens at StFX and take a seat by the large, central, raised peanut-shaped bed, you may notice a number of sacred plants growing— Eastern White Cedar, Sweetgrass, Pearly Everlasting, Tobacco, and Wild Strawberries. There are patches of Wild Blueberries, Woodland Poppies grown from seed, White Snakeroot and Black Elderberry.  

It’s a new medicine garden on campus. All the plants have medicinal value and are indigenous to the area, with the first plants going into the bed on June 13. Stones will be placed in the shape of an “X”—not for StFX, but for dividing the garden into four quadrants, representing north, south, east and west, with a circle of stones in the middle.

“The idea is to create a space on campus for Indigenous students, staff and faculty to practice their culture, to have a sacred healing space,” says Arlynne McGrath, community support coordinator with Service Learning, and one of those behind the project. 

“It’s also a teaching tool, and to show people the beauty of the plants, and the history of this place. For 14,000 years, the Mi’kmaw people have been here.” 

Ms. McGrath says the medicine garden, which is still a work in progress and will take several years to mature, is not only a peaceful place, it offers many opportunities for learning, including learning the traditional Mi’kmaq names for the plants and their medicinal value.  

She says the garden, located close to Kiknu, the StFX Student Indigenous Centre in Coady West, is a partnership with the StFX Indigenous Student Affairs Office and with StFX Grounds. 

“I’m just trying to make it happen. For me, this is a way to take action to decolonize the campus and to build relationships,” says Ms. McGrath. 

“I get a lot of joy out of gardens and learning about plants. I am excited to support this project and have this opportunity to learn.”

Ms. McGrath says the medicine garden came about following a conversation with Terena Francis, Coordinator, Indigenous Student Affairs. StFX’s Diversity Engagement Centre is a Service Learning community partner, with which they meet regularly. During a meeting last year, Ms. McGrath mentioned she volunteered for the Butterflyway Project, a national volunteer program that sees volunteers work in their community to restore vital habitats for insects. 

Thanks to a grant from East Coast Credit Union, Ms. McGrath was able to put in 10 gardens last summer around town at non-profit and public spaces. She says the experience piqued her interest in indigenous plants, which have evolved over thousands of years along with the insects. 

“As settlers colonized this place, we brought plants from other places as well,” she says. 

Now, plants that have been here for thousands of years that are essential to the ecosystem don’t get put into gardens and it is a challenge to find most indigenous plants in garden centres. Many are threatened or on the verge of extinction in the wild due to human expansion, habitat loss and invasive species. 

As part of the conversation, Ms. Francis said she would love to have a medicine garden on campus as a cultural practice for students and staff. She asked Ms. McGrath if she would be interested in leading the gardening aspect.

“I was very honoured she would ask me. It’s matching my skills and interest with a need they expressed.

“I got really excited and bought the cedar tree right away.”

Says Ms. McGrath, “this is just the beginning.”

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