Flower teacher

Jeffersonia dubia. Original plant purchased from Rundle Wood Gardens 8 years ago. All photographs B. Wanhill iPhone X, 2022.

Last week on bus duty, I came across three young girls stomping their feet up and down and loudly yelling something. I went over to see what was going on and they were trying to kill an ant.

I told them to stop and when they asked why, I told them ants were beneficial. When they asked what they did, I told them they had an important job in bringing air to the soil – but bus duty is busy and I left it there. I certainly did not have time to tell them the story of my garden ants.

Our garden is built on the less than ideal clay bed the suburban developers left behind after they harvested the top soil from their development. My husband and I spent a few years digging some of it out with a pick axe and when the dump truck showed up to haul the small yard sized mound away, he was impressed that it had all been dug out by hand.

Then came years of adding brick retaining walls, patio stones (and lots of sand) compost, zeolite, manure and seasons of fallen leaves and dead plant parts and now after 15 years, the garden is host to a diversity of plant life and other-than-plant life. It is my oasis from the realities of living within acres of suburban vinyl siding and lawn.

I don’t know if it is the sand that drew the ants or if they were always there, but for years I battled them. I first noticed their annoying presence when they would bury and kill small plants with the earth they dug up while doing their work underground. There were two areas of the garden that were particularly bad and yet it didn’t matter what I tried: ant killer, boiling water, borax – they always came back and continued (from my perspective) their destructive work.

At the same time, I was admiring a newly acquired spring ephemeral from a favourite independent local garden nursery. I had seen two sets of striking butterfly-like leaves when I was walking the Rundle Wood garden and Rodney told me it was Jeffersonia dubia. He dug it up, I paid $20 and brought it home to tend to my new, delicate and expensive(!) plant baby.

If you live in Calgary, you get to know that if you plant the right plants and give them the right conditions, they will be absolutely fine regardless of their fragile appearance. And that was the case with my beautiful Asian Twinleaf.

One spring I was surprised to see those unmistakable leaf forms showing up in miniature around other parts of the garden. When I told Rodney about it, he mentioned that this was the work of ants.

In the last two years, life circumstance, learning about Indigenous worldview and the importance of developing biodiversity where we can has helped me see ants from a more empathetic and even wondrous viewpoint.

I have now made peace with where they have formed colonies. The one most active is now sheltered by the hollow base of my grandmother’s birdbath. The other ones I know to leave spaces open for them. They are fascinating to watch and last summer I was surprised to learn that some people even keep ants as a hobby!

Ants have greater purpose than helping reproduce beautiful plants in my garden, but it was the story of the Twinleaf seeds that inspired me to look at their existence from a different perspective.

Stories of small get me every time.