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Medlars as a Colonialist Artifact in Menzies' Journal
c 2018 Paula Johanson
In the summer of 1792, Archibald Menzies kept a journal during his voyage on Vancouver's ship Discovery, in which he twice reported seeing medlars on the Pacific coast of what is now Canada's province of British Columbia. Though his journal is considered a marvel of botanical accuracy and is still referenced today in botanical journals and websites, Menzies was in fact wrong on this point. These small hardy deciduous fruit trees are common in Europe, but in the 18th century there were no medlars growing on the Pacific coast. The question of what trees Menzies did see, and why he mistook them for medlars, can be answered with a search of his journal in electronic format, and online resources for medlars (Mespilus germanicus), as well as two similar trees present on the Pacific coast: Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) and serviceberry (Amelanchier florida or alnifolia).

Online resources for medlars include historical and cultural references for this fruit tree, planted by Charlemagne in every city he took over as emperor. Cultural references for medlars describe them as present in every botanical garden established by Charlemagne and spreading into uncultivated lands, yet the fruits were marginalized and an object of scornful jokes, eaten only when people did not have access to fruits which were considered superior.

It is worth considering that Menzies might have called the trees he saw medlars because he thought the trees were an uncultivated food resource for Kwak'wak'w First Nations people in that region. He didn't write of seeing anyone harvesting from the trees he called medlars. His journal entries were written in June and August, but in summer there are no medlar fruits ready to harvest – and he would have known that, because he was familiar with botanical gardens in Europe.

It is likely that Menzies assumed the trees he saw were medlars because of their visual appearance. The Pacific dogwood has a large, wide-petalled flower that could be mistaken at a distance for blooms on a medlar tree, and oval leaves similar to a medlar. The serviceberry has similar leaves, but its flowers are smaller and have narrow petals. In one of his two journal entries mentioning medlars, Menzies wrote of seeing serviceberry as well, so he was clearly familiar with Amelanchier trees.

It seems that Menzies did not bother to scramble up steep rocky slopes on that coastline to look closely at trees that seemed as ordinary as serviceberry and medlar. It is surprising to imagine Menzies not making that effort, when during that same voyage he climbed mountains in Hawaii while making botanical observations. Perhaps climbing these coastline cliffs would have been just too dangerous for what he assumed were mere familiar trees. What could be new or interesting enough about these trees to get him to make a risky climb? Nothing. And because of his assumption, he did not record observing a new species. When Menzies wrote of these scrubby trees growing on steep mountainsides as medlars, it was an indication that he was interpreting the coastal plant life from a Eurocentric and colonialist perspective.


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