Decades after her death, Margaret Oldenburg's plant collection could hold answers on Arctic biodiversity

An article from Oct. 31, 1944, published by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, describes Margaret Oldenburg as a botanist who used plants as an excuse for travelling. She documented thousands of plants during her decades in the North, and her  collection is now being studied as a snapshot of Arctic biodiversity. (Submitted by Paul Sokoloff - image credit)
An article from Oct. 31, 1944, published by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, describes Margaret Oldenburg as a botanist who used plants as an excuse for travelling. She documented thousands of plants during her decades in the North, and her collection is now being studied as a snapshot of Arctic biodiversity. (Submitted by Paul Sokoloff - image credit)

Landing unexpectedly on a lake in the Arctic wild was, apparently, a day like any other for botanist Margaret Oldenburg.

Maybe the pilot that day forgot to check the fuel gauges. Whatever happened, as the story goes, Oldenburg and the pilot had to wait until someone came to find them. When they did, Oldenburg was apparently found by the side of the water, where she'd been collecting plants the whole time.

"She was just going about her day, doing her botany, unshaken," said Paul Sokoloff, a botanist with the Canadian Museum of Nature who has recently learned more than he ever expected to about the intrepid adventurer who died a half century ago.

Sokoloff recently made a trip to the Bell Museum in Minnesota. There's a large collection of pressed and dried plants at the museum — "essentially a library of plant biodiversity through the ages," Sokoloff said.

Thousands of those specimens were collected by Oldenburg.

"Some of our core research programs are on Arctic plant biodiversity ... so this kind of became a priority for us, like, 'Let's get these plants into the collection so we can use them,'" Sokoloff explained.

"In doing so, we learned a lot about this really interesting woman."

Giacomo Panico/CBC
Giacomo Panico/CBC

Oldenburg, a self-taught botanist who died in 1972, documented those plants over the course of decades spent roaming the Arctic, often aided by famed bush pilot Ernie Boffa.

A full chapter of Boffa's biography is devoted to his adventures with Oldenburg. Author Florence Whyard described her as "a maiden lady of uncertain age but definite ideas" — a cigarette-smoking "spinster librarian" who hopped on the SS Nascopie one day and disembarked at Churchill, Man. She eventually came to spend much of her time in Aklavik.

In one memorable paragraph, Whyard wrote that on one particularly busy day, "despite her huge bags of collected specimens, Margaret Oldenburg just ran her strong brown hands through her short-cropped hair, lit another cigarette, and said, 'Me? I just go along for the ride.'"

As fascinating as Oldenburg's life was, it's what she left behind that has Sokoloff's full attention: the plant collection that offers insight into years of biodiversity in the Arctic.

Submitted by Paul Sokoloff
Submitted by Paul Sokoloff

"By having this, it's essentially this data point that tells us, OK, well, we know these plants were here — maybe we can use that to help us tell, are they moving in the future? Are they contracting in the future? Is their range contracting?" Sokoloff explained.

"All of this data helps us build a more complete picture of Arctic biodiversity through space and through time."

The collection even includes the first plant Oldenburg ever collected: a lousewort from Hebron in Labrador

Sokoloff said they plan to build a database with all the information they've collected. From there, they'll be collaborating with the Bell Museum to write a paper about Oldenburg and her botanical legacy.

"I think that'll be a really fitting tribute to all of those years that she spent making these really important collections," he said.