Bergen is a magical place. I’m lucky to live in such a beautiful environment with such charming neighbours. This month some of them welcomed guests to their corners of Bergen for Open Farm Days. I got to visit one of the farms and, in the process, learned about plants that live in our part of the world.

On August 18, Kwesi and Megan Vesey organized several presentations at Akesi Farms. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend one of them, but it was fabulous. A nominal registration fee was collected and donated to the Alberta Wilderness Association. Gus Yaki, a conservationist and educator, gave a nature tour around the farm.

We had not walked three steps before Gus was discussing a tree that I take for granted: the trembling aspen. While I admit to being annoyed by its tendency to invade my gardens with suckers, I gained a new respect for this species when Gus shared details of the life and history of these trees. Aspens form colonies that are connected by a single root system. One particular colony in Utah, (named Pando), is among the oldest living organisms on Earth. Pando is thought to be 80,000 years old! 

From there, we wandered about the farm and Gus continued to point out plants: describing their distinguishing physical features, common and scientific names, preferred habitats, and assorted uses. Although I am familiar with some of the domestic plants that we passed, in each case, I learned something new from Gus. The native plants were particularly interesting to me, as there were many that I had not seen, or at least noticed, before. I soon lost track of the astounding number of plants we observed, which is not surprising considering Gus has helped identify over 200 native species at the farm. There were a few that stuck in my head, however. 

The unusual structure of the horsetail plants (there were several varieties) was quite remarkable. They have distinctive, hollow, jointed stems and radiating from them are thin branches that could be mistaken for leaves. They looked prehistoric to me, since they had a spiky appearance, and it turns out their ancestors date back to the Carboniferous Period.

One shrub Gus selected was vaguely familiar to me and when he described its uses, the memories of a previous experience came flooding back. Buffaloberry plants have small red edible berries. I remembered tasting a concoction that had been prepared by a Metis guide; she whipped the berries and added sugar to make Indian ice cream. It was a lovely pink colour, but I found it quite bitter, so declined to sample a berry on Gus’s tour. To me, they seemed more suited to their other known use: soap.

The stories Gus told about the plants helped to make them memorable. For example, northern bedstraw really was used by early settlers to stuff mattresses, because its square stem structure resists compaction. I also found out that a particular plant I had been pulling out of my garden for years, cursing it as a weed, is called lamb’s quarters and is actually edible. My favourite plant of all, was one I had never seen before: fairy cups. This diminutive fungus was a silvery green colour and, as someone on the tour remarked, looked just like tiny Shrek ears!

Thanks to Akesi Farms I spent an enchanting morning listening to the spellbinding Gus Yaki. Now, I’m off to explore the forest around my house to hunt for evidence of elusive elves…

This article was originally printed in the Bergen News and is being reprinted with permission.