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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ice Lady Cometh

Air Date: Week of

Diana Beresford Kroeger in her garden. (Courtesy of Diana Beresford Kroeger)

In honor of Earth Day, Living on Earth updates some favorite stories from the archive. This week host Bruce Gellerman talks to botanist Diana Beresfor-Kroeger. But first we hear her in the story of a horrendous Canadian ice storm that damaged billions of dollars of property and acres of forest. The story was produced in 1998 by reporter Bob Carty.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman. All this month, to commemorate Earth Day, Living on Earth is revisiting and updating some of our award-winning stories from years past.

Today we go back a decade to the Ice Storm of 1998. The storm swept across the northeast U.S. and southern Canada, battering homes, devastating the power grid and destroying wide swaths of forest. Reporter Bob Carty braved the ice storm and traveled deep into the woods of South Ontario to Merrickville, where he met a passionate gardener laboring to save hundreds of rare plants from the freezing disaster.


CARTY: It looks like something out of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I feel a little bit like Ichabod Crane. The farm lane is darkened by a canopy of trees, and they are covered by a two-inch coat of ice. They creak inside their crystal chains. The wind howls, and the branches reach out toward you like tortured limbs.


CARTY: It took 16 men a full day to clear the broken trees from the farm road and the lane so that the owners of this farm could get out – if they wanted to. But at the end of the lane, where it opens up to a snow-covered garden by the farmhouse, the owners are surveying the damage.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Oh my goodness, look at this. It's just a devastation zone here with the trees. It's like they're like toothpicks. The elm, the ash, the hickories are probably the worst hit, I would think.


BERESFORD-KROEGER: Lift the weight of this ice. You can't lift it. The Manchurian apricots, they're absolutely down, down on the ground. It's just a disaster zone, look at it.

CARTY: The disaster is what Diana Beresford-Kroeger and her husband Chris call Carrigliath, Gaelic for Grey Stones Gardens. Diana Beresford Kroeger is no ordinary gardener. She's a classical botanist, with a Ph.D. in molecular biology, plus a background in heart research and some experience as the host of a radio gardening show. Nor is hers an ordinary garden. Every year, thousands of plant lovers and agriculture students come here to see one of the biggest organic gardens in Canada.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: What is special about this is the huge collection of endangered and rare and heritage species that I have here. Like, I’ve collections of old varieties of gooseberries, cherries from Siberia, the chocolate peony, chocolate-smelling black peonies.

CARTY: (Laughing) Sounds delicious!

BERESFORD-KROEGER: (Laughing) They are! They're wonderful, wonderful species.

CARTY: Diana Beresford- Kroeger has been building her garden for 20 years. She scouts the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes forests looking for rare tree or plant species long thought lost to deforestation. She's been breeding them here and giving out the seeds to try to rebuild natural populations. But then, the ice storm of '98 hit.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: When it first started freezing rain I thought well, this is all. Heck, this is going to be one horrible day; it's going to be very difficult to get out of here. But when it kept going for about ten hours, no this was not normal freezing rain. The partridge were trying to walk up the walls of the house, and they don't do this. There was an ocean of wildlife, of birds, in front of the house, and they were behaving in a very extraordinary way. They had lost their territoriality towards one another. They were all coming together in a great group of flying creatures, and I saw this phenomenon, and I have only seen it personally once before when we had a small tornado coming through here.


C. KROEGER: See the cedars in through the forest. You see how the tops have broken and split right down, and this stand of cedars in behind here are in excess of 125 to 150 years old, and it seems 90 percent of the cedars the tops are broken out. And unfortunately it’ll take another 150 years to grow them again.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Course, the wind catches them, swings them, and off they go. They're snapped.


CARTY: It's cold that wind!

BERESFORD-KROEGER: It is freezing cold.

C. KROEGER: Let's get you back inside.


CARTY: Botanists say the forest is where we will see the long-term consequences of the ice storm. Damage to the crowns of trees could mean that traditional varieties will not be the ones to reproduce. It may take 100 years before the forest looks like it did before. There's little Diana Beresford-Kroeger can do right now about the damage outside. The reason she has stayed here without electricity is the plants and seeds inside the house.


BERESFORD-KROEGER: A nice big old clock, no, that's a bit of maple. All right, that’ll burn well, got to keep that fire going. (Laughs)

CARTY: Inside, it's only 43 degrees. You can see your breath. We take off just one layer of clothing, and then Diana reaches into the oven and pulls out a towel.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: There now, you see, look now here.

CARTY: What are you doing? Oh!

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Onto your carotids.

CARTY: That's lovely! What did you just do?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: I put a warm towel around your neck and I held it tight so that your carotid arteries would be warmed.

CARTY: That feels wonderful.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Aha! And I'm going to do it to myself.

CARTY: It's just like a wave of warmth.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes, ten percent of the flow in your body is going up there.

CARTY: The view from the woodstove is a traffic jam of chairs and a row of large buckets of melting snow and water. Over in the adjoining room, the floor is covered by potato sacks and plants: hundreds of plants. When the ice storm hit, Diana could only sit by her window and watch her precious trees fall to the ground. But inside, she and Chris divided their farmhouse in half, sealing off the bedrooms to keep all the heat in the 2 rooms near the fire. Then they marshaled all the plants and seeds from storerooms, porch, and bedrooms into the area that gets some glow from the stove. Diana takes me on the tour.

Flowers from the Ptelia trifoliata. (Photo: Josh McDill)

BERESFORD-KROEGER: And now we're going into the, into my garden room. It's totally packed. In fact, you probably can't walk around here. In fact, it's been an awful lot of work looking after all of these and getting them in and making sure that they're in the right position so they don't freeze. So the species that I know that I can hang about plus five, plus four, plus five degrees are in a four or five degree area. That's the area right in front of you. Those that are nearer the windows can take a degree of frost, like the cacti can take a few degrees of frost.

CARTY: And you have some very rare plants here.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes. I've got some geraniums, which are 150 years old. These are very, very old geraniums. And next to this, then, we have the gladiolas that I have bred. They are insect-resistant gladiolas; they are resistant to thrips. Those beautiful white daisies, that's from South Africa and it is also a medicinal plant. In fact, coming to think of it, everything in here is medicinal.

CARTY: And this is the main reason Diana has been putting up with the cold and the lack of electricity. As a botanist she loves her plants. But it’s her medical background that makes her passionate about preserving and propagating rare and old species. There are potato sacks and plastic bags on the floor. Diana opens one up to show me the nuts of a black walnut tree.


BERESFORD-KROEGER: Black hennae, hen's eggs. Now, what –

CARTY: They're enormous!

BERESFORD-KROEGER: They're enormous, yeah, they’re like, they're bigger than an egg, actually, they're about a three-ounce nut. And the oils in this nut are very, very good for heart metabolism. Very, very good for young children. Very, very good for brain development in children and in older people.


CARTY: Why are you keeping them going?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Because I think it's important that we have genetic material. We keep genetic diversity going for year to year. We may not need them from a health point of view this year or next year, but your child and my child might need these in the times to come. 50 percent of all of the medicines in the multinationals come from vascular trees and plants, and that's why I am keeping these.

CARTY: And there's one more reason Diana is putting up with the heated towels and lack of a good shower. She's put a lot of effort into finding and breeding species that are disease-resistant, like the damaged elm tree in the front yard that is impervious to Dutch Elm Disease. She believes her collection could help Mother Nature through another ice storm. Ice storms are natural. But the forest they affect is not. In this part of the country a lot of tree cover has been cut. Almost none of what remains is virgin. And everywhere, species diversity has been highly reduced. That lack of biological diversity should be a concern Diana Beresford Kroeger contends. Because global warming could dish out weather like we've never seen before.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: What I worry about is the unpredictability of the climatic changes. Today may very well be the ice storm. Maybe in a week's time we'll have the grid down again. So consequently, what we have to have, is we have to have an eye to this variability. So you cannot plant, for instance, trees in this area which will not take frost. We have to put in disease-resistant and frost-resistant species back into the forests. Because if we don't do that, everything will go.

CARTY: Shall we get warm?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes, let's go and get warm. Go by the fire again.


CARTY: Are you getting tired?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes. I have battle fatigue. I think my brain cells aren't working very well, such as they are. Right now my feet are like lumps of ice, and I'm going to have to make another hot water bottle to warm them up. And my kidneys are getting cold, so I'm going to have to wrap myself again.


CARTY: Diana and Chris accompany me back outside to the wind and the ice. I apologize that I'll be getting into a warm car while they go back to a 43-degree home. They are tired, but their spirits are still high. They invite me back in the summer. And as we walk down the lane, Diana notices that not all is lost.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: These are all walnuts called the Gananoque walnuts.

C. KROEGER: A few branches off.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: A few branches down, but I'm very pleased with how the walnuts have stood. So you know, I'm -- there are disasters, there are things that warm your heart. And all and all you just have to take the good with the bad.

CARTY: Will the garden survive?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Nature has a second hand, and the second hand of Nature is greening. The first hand is destruction, and the greening of spring is really my one hope.


CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in eastern Ontario.

GELLERMAN: For his story ‘The Ice Lady Cometh’ Reporter Bob Carty won The 1999 Gracie Allen Award from the Foundation of American Women in Radio and Television.

Now ten years later we revisit the ice lady, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, to learn how her rare plants and trees have fared since the storm.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: The forest really has been devastated. And it will be a good 100 years, if not a little more, to have the forest back to where it was.

GELLERMAN: What about the cedar?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: The cedars have not recovered. Now, my observation of the cedars has been kind of an interesting one in that all of those with a pyramidal form, with the shape of a pyramid in growth, all of those have survived, and in fact those have had very little damage. So within the forest, in the past ten years since the ice storm, there has been a natural selection for the pyramidal form of these trees.

GELLERMAN: How about all those plants you brought into your home – the black walnuts, and the geraniums that are 150 years old?

Diana Beresford Kroeger in her garden. (Courtesy of Diana Beresford Kroeger)

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Ah, yes. Yes, well I had a huge amount of nuts. I had resistant nuts, and the butternuts, too, which are disappearing off the continent at a frightening rate. And I was not prepared to have those die from frost. I had huge amounts, and that was the basis for my enormous millennium project, which went across this North American continent. It was the biggest millennium project of trees, and I gave out from my garden three-quarters of a million, both trees and nuts and small seedlings. And these were to start epicenter forests across the country, and they have done that.

GELLERMAN: Epicenter forests. What are they?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: What that is is that you plant a tree – one tree, two, three, four trees – you protect them from all kinds of predation, and the trees within ten years will start producing seedlings, and the seedlings will make the forest.

GELLERMAN: In our story you were worried about the effects of climate change ten years ago. What changes have you noticed since then?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: You know, as a gardener, as somebody who spends time with a shovel and an acorn, I’ve noticed the quality of the sunlight is stinging; the ultraviolet radiation is stinging on the skin. It has a detrimental effect on the Earth. The soil has got microrhiza in it, and the microrhiza are being damaged. That’s just – it’s just that simple.

GELLERMAN: Are there any species that are doing better than they were before?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yeah! Yeah, yeah, yeah (chuckles). All of the people who were drinking wine are drinking a whole lot more wine and better wine. Another set of species, a subset of species, are doing extremely well too – these are all the nuts. All of the nut trees – these are the shagbark hickories, these are the black walnuts – the, all of the nuts are doing extremely well.

GELLERMAN: It’s interesting. When people think about a hotspot for biodiversity and native species, they, you know, Canada doesn’t come to mind immediately. Why do you do this type of work there, and not, say, South America?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Alright, okay. If you decide down in the United States that you have got to replant the forests, you cannot go south to bring your species north. The nuts from my garden and the seeds from my garden can go south, but the southern ones will not succeed up north.

GELLERMAN: And why is that?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Because the trees are clocked into the sun, and it’s called a Circadian rhythm – that clocking thing is Circadian rhythm, and it is equivalent to one’s brain. Let’s say, the serotonin type compounds – these are compounds that actually regulate your life on a 24-hour basis – also regulate the trees’ life on a seasonal basis.

GELLERMAN: Diana, what are you working on right now? What’s your most exciting project?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Oh, good heavens. I have an extraordinary tree in the garden, and it is called the sacred tree of the first nations. And this tree is a lost tree. I have one of the very few species of Petalia trifoliata. It has got a compound in it that we never, never, never knew existed. It is a synergistic compound, and it is like ginseng. And that synergist actually acts to multiply the action of the brain, the heart, the kidneys. And, for instance, Bruce, if I – if you had a headache today, right now, and you said, oh Diana give me an aspirin, and I give you an aspirin and a little piece of Petalia trifoliata, you would have been taking a hundred aspirins. That is the synergistic effect of it. And the oncologists are getting terribly excited about this tree. We did not know there was a piggyback material like this in the world.

GELLERMAN: And you’ve got one in your front yard.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: I have got one, and I am looking for its first cousin. It is called Petalia trifoliata crysidefolia. That one will be better than the one I have. And really if my other book “Arboretum Borealis” does very well – and I’m keeping my fingers crossed – I will take some money from my royalties, and I am going to go searching for the crysidefolia. And when I do, I’ll tell you, people like you and people like me will have that medicine. I am sorry, you multinationals, you’re going to not get this stuff from me. Ordinary people are going to get the health from me and the medicines from me.

GELLERMAN: You know, Diana, what type of advice would you give to people who want to do something like you’re doing, but don’t have the time, the energy, the inclination to do it?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: I have the answer for you, folks out there, absolutely. You can put something into a little flowerpot. You can have something on a balcony. You can help somebody who is a gardener. So, let’s look at the vision this way. All of the people on the continent who have gardens and who have public spaces: put in our native species of flowers and trees. Look after them. Don’t put pesticides on these things. Keep them growing, and by having them grow, we will hold hands across this continent, and the songbirds and the butterflies can migrate up, and they’ll have lots of nectar and lots of things to eat, and we will sequester carbon dioxide just by doing that.

GELLERMAN: Diana, you’re fluent in Gaelic, right?



GELLERMAN: Do you talk to your plants in Gaelic?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes I do. I even talk to my fish in Gaelic in the water garden.

GELLERMAN: Well, how do I say Gaelic for good-bye?


GELLERMAN: Slàn leat. Is that right?

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Yes. That’s right, you’ve got it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Diana. Slàn leat.

BERESFORD-KROEGER: Slàn leat, Bruce.


BERESFORD-KROEGER: And may you be well, and may you have bounty in your life.

GELLERMAN: Diana Beresford-Kroeger is the author of “Arboretum America”. You’ll find more details at our website: L-O-E dot org.

[MUSIC: Vashti Bunyan & Rodge Glass “The Fire” from Ballads Of The Book (Chemikal Underground Records – 2007)]

GELLERMAN: Coming up – I think that I shall never see a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps, unless the billboards fall, I'll never see a tree at all.

Don’t Leaf! Arbor Day is just ahead on Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for the environmental health desk at Living on Earth comes from the Cedar Tree Foundation. Support also comes from the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund for coverage of population and the environment. This is Living on Earth, on PRI: Public Radio International.



Diana Beresford Kroeger is featured in the television series “Recreating Eden”

Find out more about Diana Beresford Kroeger’s book “Arboretum America”

Click here for more information on Ptelea trifoliata


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