Lyndon Penner: Lessons from wildflowers and wild places

Presenter Lyndon Penner and tail guide Jon Koegler are silhouetted as dawn breaks over Bellevue Prairie at Waterton Lakes National Park. They were leading a group of participants on the Wildflowers at Sunrise hike, part of the 2017 Waterton Wildflower Festival. - photo by Faye Bayko

Presenter Lyndon Penner and trail guide Jon Koegler are silhouetted as dawn breaks over Bellevue Prairie at Waterton Lakes National Park. They were leading a group of participants on the Wildflowers at Sunrise hike, part of the 2017 Waterton Wildflower Festival.

Taking ownership of wild places will help save them – Penner

Photo and story by Faye Bayko

(edited for length)

Lyndon Penner loves plants. He defines what they do as amazing, a word he peppers through his bubbling conversations. This enthusiasm is contagious and has made him a popular columnist, author, and speaker.

I caught up with Penner over drinks June 14th at the Bayshore Inn in Waterton Lakes National Parks, Alberta.  I knew Penner from last year’s wildflower festival when my husband and I had attended his Wildflowers at Sunrise walk.  Penner was in the park, once again this year, as a presenter and guide for the week-long Waterton Wildflower Festival.

FB – What got you involved with plants?

LP – It’s something I’ve always done. I think, in part, it’s genetic. Some families are very musical and some families are very athletic. I come from a long line of gardeners.

My great-grandparents were market gardeners, all my great-aunts garden, and my grandmother talked about her parents gardening. So, from the time I was very little I was out in the garden, or I was reading about plants, or I was at the library at school looking at (plant) books.

FB – Do your family live in Alberta?

LP – No. My family’s in Saskatchewan. I grew up just north of Saskatoon, with cattle. We had room for everything. If I wanted to make a (flower) border somewhere it wasn’t like we didn’t have space.

My family was not wealthy. We were farmers. But, my mother, my grandmother, and I, we would garden together, and we would order things out of the seed catalogue. It was because it was cheap, right? But the unexpected benefit was that I learned how to grow absolutely everything from seed. And, I still use that skill.

If I wanted to grow an interesting rare perennial that I couldn’t get at the local nursery, well, I bet we could get a catalogue from somewhere. So, I used to write letters to all the seed companies and gardening magazines and botanic gardens. Do you have a seed exchange? Do you have a catalogue? And, we’d get a catalogue in the mail and it’d be all Latin names.

FB – So, your family were strong mentors. Did you have others?

LP – I had a librarian at school, she would bring stuff in for me. Which now, I think is remarkable. I didn’t think so at the time. I just thought that was what librarians did. She would say things like, ‘You have read this book about Eastern Canada’s wildflowers four times. Let’s see if we can get another title for you.’ And, she would.

FB – Were there any authors who directed your gardening interest?

LP – One of the field guides that I use, that I’ve always used, is Wildflowers Across the Prairies, by F.R. Vance, J. R. Jowsey, and J. S. McLean.

I started using that field guide when I was about eight or nine and I still use it. You can still buy that book.

This is a weird point of pride: the fact that 90 per cent of the things I’ve seen in that guide, I’ve seen in real life. But, there’s that little percentage of them that I’ve never seen that live in my memory, like, a motivation.

FB – How did you transition from a young gardener to a popular columnist for CBC?

LP – It was accidental. The University of Saskatchewan had a garden line. If you have a plant in your yard, or a weed, you can’t identify, or a weird bug you found, you could call the garden line. Or, you could bring it in and they will identify it for you. And, there’s no charge for it. The garden line has been around forever.

They used to bring in horticulture students to work in the garden-line room as a form of training because somebody was going to bring you a diseased tree, some weird bug. This was a good way to use what you’d learned in a practical way.

I’d been asked to work on the garden line for a couple of days, and I did. I got a call one afternoon and they wanted to speak with (the supervisor) and this woman said, ‘I’m calling from the CBC in Regina.’

It was when there was that huge outbreak of Spruce Budworm Prince Albert National Park, and she said, ‘We’re having a panel on the show tomorrow. We’re having an entomologist and a park’s employee, and we’d like to have somebody who could speak to the botany or the horticulture of these trees. And we were hoping to get Patricia.’

I said, ‘Well, she’s out of town but I will try to help you as much as I can. Like, what did you want to know?’

And she said, ‘I have a list of questions here.’

We went through them. I answered all of her questions and she said, ‘Would you mind being on the panel tomorrow? Like it’ll just be by telephone.’ And because I grew up with the CBC in the background noise of our life: It was on in the barn, in the tractor, in the house. So, the fact that it was CBC on the telephone calling, it was like Hollywood calling.

I think I was 20 or 21. And I was like, this is amazing! And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’

Then, after the show, Coreen Larson, who was the producer she called me and she said, ‘We’ve gotten so much feedback from our listening audience about how great you were. We loved having you on this panel this morning and we’ve actually been looking for a columnist for the morning show. Would you be interested?’

And I about dropped the phone.

So that’s how that started.

The CBC was a really fabulous institution in my life for a very, very long time. It was great to have something I grew up with become part of my profession.

FB – I understand you’ve published a book?

LP – I have done three. The first one, titled The Short Season Yard has two editions. We did a Chinook edition for Calgary, Lethbridge, and Southern Alberta; and we did a Prairie edition for Northern Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba. So, The Short Season Yard, as far as I’m concerned, is one book because I wrote it as one book.

Then we did Garden Designs for the Short Season Yard, and Native Plants for the Short Season Yard.

FB – What keeps you interested in plants?

LP – I’m so astonished and amazed by plants and what they’re up to and what they’re doing. And, the more I know, the less I actually know. Because the more I know, the more questions I have. And, the more I find out, the more astonished I am.

There’re so many things with plants that the answer is: Well, no one really knows. Why does this plant produce this toxin? Why is this plant designed to be pollinated in this way? Who is the pollinator for this plant? Who is the audience that this is meant for?

Plants don’t really care one way or another if you like how they look. They have an agenda. They are here to produce more of themselves. So, who’s it for? A plant that is meant for a beetle will be shaped very differently than a plant that is meant for a bee. Why does an orchid look different than a rose? They’re meant for different audiences. What the rose wants is not what the orchid wants. And I just find that so interesting.

The people who think flowers are pretty things to look at, I feel a little bad for those people. Because, they’re missing out. It’s so much more interesting.

I’ve done this since I was five years old; I’ve never been bored. I will never grow everything. I will never get to a point where, ‘And now I’ve achieved all the knowledge about gardening.’ Never. Plants are always doing something fascinating.

FB – Was it your love of plants that got you involved with the Waterton Wildflower Festival?

LP – Sort of. It’s quite funny. I started hiking in Waterton when I first moved to Alberta (2007). And I used to take pains to avoid the Wildflower Festival because I didn’t want to be in the park when it was busy. Then my friend Madison said to me one day, ‘Lyndon, you idiot, you could be getting paid to hike!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I could!’

I think my first festival that I worked was either in 2011 or 2012. I’m not sure. I’ve done every festival since.

FB –What makes Waterton park special to you?

LP – I love this park. I’ve hiked in Banff. I’ve hiked in Jasper. I’ve hiked in Kananaskis. And they’re beautiful. But, from the first time I showed up in Waterton, I felt like I was home. I was like, I’m going to be able to get on board with this place.

So, yea, I do feel a sense of ownership here. I pick up garbage when I’m in the park. I have directed people otherwise when I’ve seen them doing things in the park they shouldn’t be doing. One of the reasons I do the festival is because people will only protect and preserve what they care about. People will only save that which is valuable to them. And, if I don’t play some part in making people value and respect this place, they won’t save it. And, I can’t bare the thought of that.

It’s still a wild place. It will never be what Banff is. We’re never going to have a Louis Vuitton store in downtown Waterton, thank God. But the world’s population is increasing, dramatically, and I think people are so hungry for real, and wild, and authentic experience.

So much of what we experience in our day-to-day life is an illusion, plastic, it isn’t real. Waterton is a real place where you can still have an eye-to-eye encounter with a predator, where you can still feel the harshness, they would’ve felt in the 1800s; those cold winds and those unexpected snow storms.

This is an inhospitable place that still has wild creatures, and still has native wild flowers. And, it still has some of that retro charm because it hasn’t been commercialized to death.

I think people are so desperate for a connection with nature, and a sense of belonging, a sense of place. And this is our province. This is our home. This is our wildlife. These are our native species. There’re very few places that we can go where we can see this kind of biodiversity.

And, I also have a sense of responsibility with Waterton because I know what I know. And, if I don’t make an effort to educate people, or to enchant people, or to give people a good experience in this park; If I don’t make that effort and Waterton comes to ruin in some way, I am complicit in that. And, I couldn’t live with myself if I did that.

I think that even if people don’t know it, people need wild spaces and I have an obligation to educate people about those places and also stand up for them.

FB – So, what happens now, after your park has been burned?

LP – I said to somebody in Lethbridge recently. She said, ‘I don’t want to go to Waterton this summer.’ She said, ‘It’s going to be so ugly now.’

And I said to her, ‘If somebody you loved was in a car accident and they were facially disfigured, would you still love that person?’

And, she said, ‘Of course.’

And I said, ‘How is Waterton different?’

And she just kind of looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know.’

So, I feel the park, she has some battle scars now.

Charlie Russell said last year that the park will never look the same in our lifetime.  And that’s true. You can still see the scars on Sulphur Mountain from the fire in ’98. You can still see the evidence that there was a fire there. I think it’ll be very interesting to see at what rate the park changes, how it changes.

We don’t like to talk about death in the culture we live in. We go out of our way to avoid talking about death and it’s as much a part of life as anything else.

FB – if you were writing this article, what would you want me to make sure got out there?

LP – I know what I want to say but it sounds really overly dramatic.

Our survival as a species depends on how we treat natural spaces, and important spaces like this. How receptive we are to the lessons it has. How we approach nature and how we approach the natural world is what will determine whether or not human beings as a species are able to endure.

What I always tell people too, is, ‘It matters.’ The decisions that you make matter. You are only one person but you have a voice. And, it is critical that we elect people who are going to pick our values and bring them to government. That’s really important. That we put people in power who recognize these special places. I think that is essential. And, I think, you know I get really depressed about the amount of litter that I see and about people going off-roading and tramping into ecologically sensitive territory; either ignorantly or willfully. And, I think that matters. Your actions matter.

Somebody said to John Russell once that one person is too small to make a difference, and his response was, ‘Have you ever shared a sleeping bag with a mosquito?’


Lyndon Penner is a self-employed gardener, writer, and guide who currently makes his home in Lethbridge. His is working on his next book, which will have a different concept than his previous ones.

His blog is at:

About Author

Faye Bayko
I am a writer and photographer currently working out of Port Alberni, BC.