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History Hunter: Martha Black’s wildflowers and the Mayday Tree

Michael Gates & Kathy Jones-Gates

Michael Gates & Kathy Jones-Gates

With the arrival of spring comes a profusion of aromatic white blossoms that can be seen all over Whitehorse. They burst out on the European bird cherry (Prunus padus), a flowering shrub in the rose family, commonly known as the Mayday tree. They can grow to heights of 16 metres when mature.

One of these shrubs, standing beside City Hall, attracted widespread attention last year when it was announced that it would have to be cut down to make way for the construction of a new city hall. Why all the hubbub over a tree? This one is special because of its association with one of the Yukon’s most well-known historic figures: Martha Black.

Martha Munger Purdy who came from a privileged upbringing in Chicago, stampeded to the Klondike in 1898, during the gold rush. She had time to explore the land along the way to Dawson City, identifying various species of wildflowers that she encountered. Once she arrived in Dawson City, she indulged her spare time by roaming the countryside looking for and collecting wildflowers. In 1904, she married prominent Dawson lawyer, George Black.

Mrs. Black put her interest in wildflowers to good use when, in 1906, the Yukon territorial government announced that there would be a competition for the best collection of Yukon floral specimens, which would be put on display at the World exposition in Seattle in 1909. There was also a cash prize of $250. She entered the contest, having assembled 464 specimens, and won.

Before exhibiting them at the world’s exposition, she took selected specimens with her when she visited friends and relatives outside the Yukon, and gave passionate lectures about the abundant wild flower species in the Yukon. Such lectures became a frequent occurrence during the rest of her life. She also wrote about her interest in Yukon wildflowers and her technique for mounting specimens, which she called “artistic botany,” in newspaper and magazine articles, including an article in the Canadian Geographic magazine in 1933.

When Martha and George left the Yukon from 1909 to 1911, she spent two summers traveling through the Canadian Rockies, collecting and mounting specimens of the wildflowers for the Canadian Pacific Railroad. “As I travelled through this stupendous grandeur,” she wrote, “ I was filled with the joy of living, a reverence for the Almighty, the Creator of this wondrous beauty.” She trekked through canyons and bogs, mountain streams and high alpine meadows gathering samples of the abundant floral display. Before placing her artistic botany in the chain of CPR hotels, she gave one of her now famous lectures to a women’s club in Vancouver.

The Blacks returned to the Yukon in 1912, when Mr. Black was appointed Commissioner of the territory. As chatelaine of Government House in Dawson, Mrs. Black now had access to a government greenhouse, in which she grew a wide variety of species of grasses, bulbs, flowers, berries and vegetables (her annual seed orders from outside suppliers were usually half a dozen pages long). The flower beds surrounding the official commissioner’s residence were filled with a wide variety of annuals and perennials, and resplendent in vivid colours.

Special events in the commissioner’s residence were decorated with flowers grown in the greenhouse, using whatever happened to be in bloom at the time.

The call of war drew them away from the Yukon in the fall of 1916, and Martha accompanied her husband overseas. While he was training and subsequently fighting in the battlefields of France, she remained in London doing volunteer service.

On June 18, 1917, Martha was elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London for her many Yukon-themed lectures across Canada and the United States, and for her work with the wildflowers of the Yukon and the Rocky Mountains. During the following years in England, she travelled widely, giving talks about the Yukon, profusely illustrated with hand-tinted glass lantern slides from photos taken by her husband. Wildflowers were always an important feature in her presentations.

During their years of service in Parliament (both George and Martha were elected to the House of Commons between 1921 and 1949), she commissioned different printers in Canada and London, England, to produce personalized note and post cards, each adorned with the image of a species of Yukon wildflower,

In 1940, Martha Black’s lifelong affair with Yukon wildflowers culminated in the publication of a small book, titled “Yukon Wild Flowers,” which included photographs, taken by George, of 75 different species found in the territory. The proceeds of the sale of the book were donated to the IODE chapters in Mayo and Dawson to assist in their war work.

Times changed for the Yukon – and the Blacks. In 1944, they purchased and moved to the former residence of T.C. Richards on Front Street in Whitehorse. This became their Yukon home for the next dozen years. Now advancing in age, Martha slowed down, but could yet be seen in the small flower garden in her front yard, where, among the plants was a small seedling given to Martha by Simon “Sam” Mason-Wood of Mayo - a cutting from a Mayday tree - which he had imported into the Yukon from the United Kingdom in 1940.

This gift took root in the front yard of the Blacks’ Whitehorse home, and flourished. After the death of Mrs. Black in 1957, the building was sold to the Department of public works the following year. When it was put up for disposal in 1971, Whitehorse resident Mrs. Henry Breaden suggested that the tree be moved to a local park or city hall. The tree was subsequently transplanted to its current location beside City Hall, as a “memento of Martha Louise and George whose colourful careers were so much part of the history …”

In 1997, a plaque explaining the tree’s significance, was unveiled beside it by Mayor Kathy Watson. Two years later, the tree suffered the indignity of damages from vandals. Some limbs had to be sawn off, but the tree survived, blossoming each spring and bringing joy after a long, cold winter. It still stands proudly beside city hall. A decision to build a new city hall has been put on hold, so this proud seventy-year -old tree, at least for now, has received a stay of execution.

We tried to obtain an update from city officials on the fate of the Mayday tree, without receiving a reply before submitting this article. Regardless of its eventual fate, Martha Black’s Mayday tree will live on for many years to come. Last fall, hundreds of Yukoners lined up to receive cuttings from the famous shrub, and it is safe to say that in years to come, it will be blooming in many Whitehorse neighborhoods, and beyond. A fitting tribute to the Yukon’s First Lady, who loved Yukon wildflowers.

Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His next book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is due for release in September. You can contact him at Kathy Jones-Gates is a researcher, historian, writer, and former co-editor of the Klondike Sun newspaper.