DR. GIBSON ON “ACADIAN NATURAL HISTORY” (March 5/99)

If one knows the approximate areas to look, it may be possible to locate the sites of Acadian homesteads. As recently as the 1950s Acadian cellars were visible in Upper Dyke, Canard, New Minas, Grand Pre and in areas running eastward to Gaspereau and the Hants County border.

However, while Acadian cellars are not easily discernible today, there are various clues indicating where they may be found. Speaking at the Kings Historical Society on February 23, retired Acadia University professor Dr. Merritt Gibson said some plants are indicators of possible Acadian homesteads.

One of these plants is the wild daphne. One of some 87 plants, shrubs and trees the Acadians are known to have introduced to Nova Scotia, the daphne was used as an ornamental shrub. Slow to spread, the daphne often grows close to sites of Acadian homes, Dr. Gibson said. “If you find daphne growing in profusion, you can be certain that the Acadians once lived nearby.”

Another plant that may indicate Acadian homesteads is the red fly-honeysuckle. While it is planted today for ornamental purposes, Dr. Gibson said that in the wild the red fly-honeysuckle has “remained largely in areas of Acadian homesteads and is a good marker in finding such sites.”

A number of plants introduced by the Acadians were used for medicinal purposes and many of them grow wild today and are classified as weeds. Dr. Gibson asked members of the Historical Society if any of them remembered the tansy tea their grandmothers used to make them drink at the least hint of a sniffle. “It was bitter stuff,” Dr. Gibson said, adding that we have the Acadians to thank for introducing tansy. The Acadians made a tea from tansy for use as a tonic and to treat colds and fevers. Also among the plants introduced by the Acadians for medicinal and culinary use were red yarrow, chicory, wormwood, caraway, hops and slender vetch.

When the Acadians arrived in Nova Scotia the climate was going through what Dr. Gibson called the “little ice age.” It was much colder here in the Acadian period, Dr. Gibson said, and this affected the types of plants and animals that were here. One of the birds harvested by Acadian hunters was called by them the “white partridge.” This was the ptarmigan, Dr. Gibson said, a northern bird that once thrived here but disappeared as the climate warmed up.

The colder climate during the Acadian period also brought beluga whales into our waters, Dr. Gibson said. Beluga are now found mainly in the St. Lawrence River but in the Acadian period they were regular visitors to the Minas Basin. The Acadians hunted beluga, which they called “white porpoises,” for blubber which they processed for oil – “one for home use and two to be sold,” Dr. Gibson said, apparently quoting from Acadian records.

Another indication that the Acadians lived in much colder times, Dr. Gibson said, was the presence of wolves in Nova Scotia. Evidence that wolves were considered a threat by the Acadians is found in a 1750 petition they drew up after their firearms were confiscated. In the petition the Acadians asked that their firearms be returned, mentioning they needed them to protect domestic animals from wolves.

When the Acadians arrived in this area there were no fields and the forest grew down to the marsh. “It was a mature forest, a forest that had never been cut,” Dr. Gibson said. The native tress, red and white pines, hemlock, beech, sugar maple, red and white birch, were here and the Acadians introduced others, such as the Lombardy poplar and French willow and at least seven types of apple trees.

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