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Diana Beresford-Kroeger, among the hellebores. Photo: Sarah Harris
Diana Beresford-Kroeger, among the hellebores. Photo: Sarah Harris

"Sacred and science go together" for botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger

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Travel half a mile down a tree-lined dirt road in southern Ontario, and you'll find an oasis, a wooden cabin surrounded by sprawling gardens. Diana Beresford-Kroeger lives here with her husband Chris. She's a botanist in her 60s who clones rare trees. And she's also deeply ingrained in Celtic and Druidic traditions and faith. Sarah Harris spent a day with Diana Beresford-Kroeger in her gardens and among her trees. The place was enchanting -- and it just might hold the keys to what to we can grow as the region weathers climate change.

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Reported by

Sarah Harris
Reporter and Producer

It’s chilly, early spring day, but Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s garden is already starting to bloom. There’s one blossoming water lily in her koi pond. Her autumn crocuses are coming up. And a lush bed of hellebores blankets the ground. 

"I’ve got yellows — a light yellow color, a cream color, a double cream," she says, bending to touch them. "I’ve got black, I’ve got kind of puce color, I’ve got white and the Christmas rose, and pink form, a rosea form of the Christmas rose, really the whole gamut is here."

You can hear that Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s originally from Ireland. And she looks it too: with fly-away grey hair, wiry eyebrows, and a wry smile. Her garden is beautiful and full of purpose. These trees and flowers are her experiments. Some of them don’t even exist anywhere else — like her black peonies, which smell like chocolate, and which she bred from two tiny clones. 

Beresford-Kroeger's house and gardens. Photo: Sarah Harris
Beresford-Kroeger's house and gardens. Photo: Sarah Harris
They would be absolutely magnificent in another three weeks," Diana says. "So in another three weeks you could expect me every single morning to have my breakfast tea, I come out with my breakfast tea and I have a little chat with my chocolate peonies. Because I always say to them, 'oh my goodness, you’re looking so beautiful.'" 

"Is that fair, shouldn’t you say that to all the plants?" I inquire, smliing.  

"No, no I love those chocolate peonies!" she replies with a laugh. "It’s taken me so long to develop them and breed them." 

All of Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s trees have a story. Her Russian apple trees can withstand the extremes of climate change. Some are rare, native North American species. Some produce nuts and medicine. 

"This is the sacred tree of the First Nations here,this is a species of tree that had been used once upon a time from Florida up to North America and it’s good for Zone 3," she explains, plucking some dead leaves out of a crevice and sprinkling them onto the ground.

"It is a member of the lemon and the orange and the grapefruit family and it’s the only one in eastern North America that is a member of that family that grows so well here. And that family is called the Rutaceae family."

Beresford-Kroeger explains that native Americans used this tree to make other plant medicines stronger. Trees, she says, have more complex genomes than humans do. And people and trees have co-existed for millions of years.  Beresford-Kroeger says forests hold the answers to modern problems: to climate change, to health and medicine. 

"And when you’re taking the medicines," she says, gesturing at a small tree branch, "because you’re interested in this medicine, you take it from the south, you take it from the north, the back side of the tree, the east and the west. The south has the strongest medicine, the north has got the least strong medicine, the west is the next, and the east is following." 

Beresford-Kroeger had an unusual childhood. She was orphaned at a young age and brought up by elderly relatives, who steeped her in old Irish traditions and knowledge. 

"So I become everybody’s child. And all of the learned people of my mother’s family, now they were all 80 and 90 year olds, and they spoke Latin and Greek and Gaelic, no English. And they brought me up and they taught me all of the old things in the ancient Celtic world. And I was to carry that knowledge into the new world, that’s the world of now. And they told me that when I was in the world of now I was to speak of these things because they would be needed then."

And that explains her outlook. Beresford-Kroeger has a PhD in molecular biology and chemistry. She’s lectured at universities all over the world. But she doesn’t want to be part of the ivory tower. Instead, she spends her days writing books about plants and natural philosophy. She experiments in her garden. A documentary film currently in production, 10 trees that can save the world, follows Diana and her husband as they tour the earth’s great forests. And if that’s not enough, she’s compiled the master plans to create a living library of tree DNA. It’s her deep knowledge that drives this work, a knowledge where spirituality and science go hand in hand. 

Afternoon tea. Diana crocheted the tea cozy, which she calls "perfectly ugly." Photo: Sarah Harris
Afternoon tea. Diana crocheted the tea cozy, which she calls "perfectly ugly." Photo: Sarah Harris
After our tour of the garden, we go inside and drink bottomless cups of tea. 

Beresford-Kroeger says it was essential to give herself permission to break away from the academic world and to think broadly about science and medicine. 

"I firmly believe, I honestly believe, that we are not just lumps of human flesh here," she says. "I really do believe that and I will not compromise that thinking. I think all religions are sacred. I think people are sacred, children are sacred, life, the world, the gift of this world is fantastic and phenomenal. The molecular working of the world is extraordinary, the mathematics of the world is extraordinary. And no, you won’t take that thinking away from me, because that’s the thinking toward renaissance, and renaissance makes it better for everybody. So, I do think sacred and science go together."

We talk late into the afternoon: about Ireland and global warming, about medicine and family. Diana Beresford-Kroeger has one of those kitchen tables you never want to leave. Just being around her makes you want to learn all of old secrets the natural world has to teach us.

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