The Weaver Plant
At the Reford Gardens, the coastal plant nursery has found an ecological solution to shoreline erosion: lyme grass.
In 1926 Montrealer Elsie Reford began to transform the grounds of her summer house in Grand-Métis, Québec. One plant at a time, she created luxurious gardens, inspired by her love for her family and her trips to England. Under the care of her grandson Alexander, director of the Reford Gardens, this impressive collection of plants continues to thrive to this day.
Elsie would surely be proud to know that her project has been carried on by a member of her family, keeping with her values and respect for nature. Conservation is part of the DNA of the gardens, as evidenced by their coastal plant nursery program, which has begun cultivating a truly remarkable plant: sea lyme grass.
The gorgeous riverbanks in Bas-Saint-Laurent, where the Reford Gardens are located, have been hit hard by shoreline erosion. This phenomenon has multiple causes: freeze/thaw cycles, waves, tides, strong rains, storms, rising sea levels, destruction of natural vegetation, and more. Climate change has only exacerbated all of these factors.
As Alexander Reford says:
“Shoreline erosion is a big problem here. For us, it began with a disaster: during the high tides of 2010, an enormous work of art fell into the sea and we had to get it out of the water. There was all kinds of debris on our beach — several truckloads’ worth. It cost us an arm and a leg.”
December 6, 2010, is a date that’s been etched in the collective memory in Bas-Saint-Laurent. Squalls and unusually high waves caused a surge of water along the shore. In addition to the substantial damage caused to local infrastructure, hundreds of people had to be evacuated from the area.
“We have to accept climate change. This place is almost like a laboratory! People who don’t believe in it can come see. We notice it in the actions of the river: we lose a metre of land each year, and soon we will lose an 8,000-year-old archaeological site at the mouth of the Mitis River,” says Reford. Digs conducted in the area have shown traces of Indigenous presence as far back as the Late Paleoindian period. These encampments were found on ancient marine terraces that stood anywhere from 20 to 100 metres above the current river level. These historical traces are at risk of being erased by erosion.
Reford and his team got together to consider ecological solutions to slow the erosion.
In 2011 they began cultivating lyme grass, a hardy native plant, also known as sand ryegrass or sea lyme grass, which grows on sand, gravel, and in the crevices of cliffs and rocks.
This ultra-resistant plant protects the shoreline, up to a point: “We planted lyme grass along the mouth of the river where there are dunes, and it has proven itself. On the other hand, we also have to recognize that nature is stronger than us. It’s not a concrete wall. We have to accept that the river overflows from time to time. This is a humble response to the river, to climate change,” says Reford.
Lyme grass has long bluish leaves. Pale yellow spikelets adorn the ends of its stems. The underground rhizomes and powerful root system are what make this plant so adept at stabilizing the banks and halting erosion.
In short, lyme grass weaves a safety net to protect the landscape.
This plant, which is native to Québec, grows all along the North Atlantic coasts. It adapts quickly to most ecosystems and requires little maintenance. In recent years the coastal plant nursery has produced around 35,000 lyme grass plants in its greenhouses each spring. These are sold to environmental organizations such as the ZIP Committees (ZIP stands for zone d’intervention prioritaire, or “area of prime concern”) in Bas-Saint-Laurent and Gaspésie, who organize planting days with volunteers. “Citizens can also purchase our plants,” says the director of the gardens. “They do need to be reserved because they get bought up quickly. We are already taking reservations for next spring.”
Reford promises that this tradition — which has been met with such enthusiasm from the community — is here to stay. Each spring, the team at the nursery will continue to produce thousands of lyme grass plants, to be planted on the shores of Bas-Saint-Laurent and Gaspésie, in the hopes that their weaving will preserve our majestic maritime landscapes for as long as possible.
Mélanie Gagné writes even when she is not writing. Whether on the shore, in the forest, on a mountaintop, or in a public market, she records her inspirations, always remaining attentive to the seeds of things. She divides her time between her roles as a mother, a French teacher, and a writer. She dreams of one day writing a collection of poems.