The European concept of a garden was unknown to the Amerindians. Europeans had no interest in the innate state of nature and they sought to transform it in their gardens, usually in an ordered and rectilinear way. The Amerindians, on the other hand, thought it abhorrent to modify the sacred order of things by fencing it in: the space does not belong to them and nature was an infinite garden, unique and divine. Their animist view of the world allowed them to integrate themselves into their environment and to exploit it harmoniously.
In New France there were two main groups of Natives: the Algonquians who were nomadic hunter-gatherers and Iroquoians who were sedentary farmers. The harvests of the latter were used for food, pigments, making clothes, medicine and ceremonies. By the time the Europeans arrived here, the Amerindians had developed many agricultural techniques, particularly plant selection and fertilization. Nomadic or sedentary, gathering plants for food and medicine was an important element for their survival.
The Natives passed on to the Europeans their knowledge of indigenous plants, including how to make syrup and sugar from the sap of the sugar maple. They also passed on their knowledge of other plants such as ginseng, sarsaparilla, capillary and tobacco. The introduction of Amerindian plants transformed Western cooking. They include tomatoes, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, green peas, pâtissons, peppers, pumpkins, corn, sunflowers and wild rice. When the first French colonists arrived, they made use of many Amerindian foods and techniques to insure their survival, but this influence waned as the years went by, as can be seen by the quick elimination of corn flower from their diet. That said, many North-American plants continued to be cultivated in large quantities, such as the pumpkin to which early immigrants and travelers paid particular attention.
Swedish botanist Pehr Kalm (1716-1779) was a student of Linnaeus who traveled through Canada in 1749 and took notes on the gardens he saw there. About the Amerindians he said:
The Savages have another food they eat while traveling as well as at home. When the pumpkins are ripe, they cut them open, remove the pulp in long strips which they dry in the sun or near the fire after having interlaced them in various ways. Once dried, they can be preserved a very long time, over a year. When they want to eat them, they cook them alone or with other things, and it must be quite tasty, very sweet. I believe this readily, having eaten a few pieces so prepared; they tasted quite good and we could well have eaten them dry. The voyageurs often use this food in their travels among the savages. They buy from them such pumpkin strips and eat them.
In the 18th century, Canadian capillary, which was mostly gathered by the Amerindians, was sent to Europe where it was used as a medicinal plant. In 1749, in his Description de plusieurs plantes du Canada (Description of Several Canadian Plants), Dr. Gaultier noted that capillary was collected in large quantities.
Care is taken to dry it in the shade and it is sent to France where it is sold and where it is more highly regarded than in Canada.
– Dr. Gaultier