World-renowned botanist John Macoun explored the prairies as a field naturalist before Saskatchewan was a province and collected and classified many of the plant species found here. He was enthusiastic about the beauty and potential of the prairies. Both the village of Macoun near Estevan and Lake Macoun in northern Saskatchewan are named after him.
All told, Macoun spent eight summers in the west. From 1872 to 1881, he took part in five government surveys of western Canada at the time when decisions were being made about building the transcontinental railway and opening the west to farmers. His various reports and public lectures portrayed the prairies as fertile and ideally suited for agriculture. Previous reports on the region by John Palliser and Henry Youle Hind had described the southern plain of Saskatchewan as desert like and unsuitable for cultivation. Though the southern prairie route for the Canadian Pacific Railway main line was chosen essentially for strategic reasons, Macoun's positive findings were used as support for that decision.
As botanist to the 1872 Sanford Fleming railway route expedition, Macoun prepared the first comprehensive catalogue of prairie flora. In his journal of the 1879 expedition, Macoun referred to the Last Mountain Lake area as 'The Flower Garden of the North West', and commented on the abundance of the Red Lily. On his first sight of the prairie he wrote, "I was astonished for as far as the eye could reach stretched a grassy plain without a fence and nothing to be seen but grass and flowers. In less than an hour I found 32 new plants."
After visiting the Pine Creek area of the Cypress Hills in 1880, he wrote "in all my wanderings I never saw any spot to equal in beauty the central plateau of the Cypress Hills."
In 1882, Macoun was appointed to the Geological Survey of Canada as Dominion botanist and began a study of the range and distribution of Canada's entire flora. In this role, he spent three more summers on the prairies. He collected widely and thoroughly and worked with intensity from dawn till dusk. His collections were the first extensive ones made in most areas and were made before the land was settled and disturbed.
Macoun established a Dominion Herbarium of over 100,000 specimen sheets and catalogued approximately 1000 previously undescribed species, 48 of which were named after him.
Macoun's collection of Canadian flora and fauna became the foundation for the National Museum of Natural Sciences. Historian W.A Waiser's book on Macoun, The Field Naturalist, credits the development of an early strong natural history focus in Canada to his passion and drive. He calls him the Dean of Canadian naturalists.
Macoun's autobiography, republished in 1979 with maps and additional notes, allows many of his collection sites to be located accurately. Macoun also published a three volume Catalogue of Canadian Plants and, with his son, the Catalogue of Canadian Birds.
Macoun began his botanical learning after coming to Canada from famine-riddled Northern Ireland in 1850. His professional career was based at Belleville's Albert College and later Ottawa. Through his extensive field work in Saskatchewan and Alberta a lasting record of the original ecosystems remains.