One W̱SÁNEĆ community nearby still protects one remaining plant and the only viable population, on Salt Spring Island, is associated with a relatively old cultural landscapes called, in the nineteenth century, ‘the Old Indian Lookout’. The richness of the reliance on this wild cucumber, for medicine, has only partially been made public.
Salish fruit tree species of the Gulf & San Juan Islands: Overview of ongoing research
Around the Salish Sea, there were more than six native, tree species that have been harvested and often carefully cultivated and stewarded for fruit, technology, and medicine. These orchards and respective cultivation practices span a rich set of Salish communities and languages. By ‘fruit tree’, we describe a relatively small deciduous tree that has been maintained by families and communities. With heights ranging from a meter and a half to three meters, these trees were often kept low in order to stimulate fruit production and allow for ease of picking (and more often through shaking with sticks). For some Salish fruit species, cultures and sites, orchards were maintained through planting of seed, transplanting, pruning, and light burning.
Of all of the fruit trees around the Salish Sea, this indigenous crabapple produced the most food and provided crucial amounts of carbohydrates and vitamins. Crabapples were eaten raw and preserved in water or eulachon oil in cedar boxes. And of the five, indigenous North American apples, only Malus fusca, is in the primary gene pool of the cultivated, Eurasian apple. Malus fusca grows near the coast of the North Pacific from central California to Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and possibly to Hokkaido. Nancy Turner (2014: 59, 65) went as far as suggesting that this species was spread by early human migrants and consistently collected information from informants confirming that crabapple “[t]rees [were] tended pruned, lopped, and transplanted” (Turner 2014: 189).
Perhaps more than any of the other native fruit tree species around the Salish Sea, crabapple trees were “owned” (Turner 2014: 189) often passing from mother to daughter. And in some North-West Coast indigenous cultures, Pacific crabapple was considered a particularly powerful plant central to a complex conception of transformative twigs (as in the cuttings and vegetative propagation so central to Salish horticulture) leading to magical expansions of life into entire ecosystems for human benefit (Turner 2014: 344). In turn, crabapple orchards or ‘gardens’ were often well maintained and pruned.
This species of cherry tree is native to every province and territory in Canada. This particular cherry is relatively rare on the Pacific coast largely confined to the Salish Sea. Along the Pacific coast, from Salt Spring Island southward, this species is associated with better-watered sites in Garry oak woodlands and savannahs with this species, though perhaps a different subspecies, reappearing again near marine shorelines in Mendocino County, California.
This, the most bountiful of the cherries of north-western North America, has close Eurasian relatives extending to Western Europe. Around the Salish Sea, chokecherry were widely harvested, traded (Turner 2014: 124), and tended (Turner 2014: 189). Chokecherry bark was a crucial ingredient in a number of medicinal decoctions (Turner 2014: 437). Distinct varieties of this species were recognized by some Salish communities. So far, the specimens recorded around the Salish Sea have been consistent with the North-West Coast subspecies, Prunus virginiana ssp. demissa.
“The fruit of this ‘bitter cherry’ tree was not widely harvested but its wood was prized for knife handles and its bark was crucial for basket weaving” (Turner 2014: 124).
Two species of black hawthorn
On the Gulf and San Juan Islands and other areas around the Salish Sea, there are two distinct species of black hawthorn:
Indigenous communities around the Salish Sea harvested the fruit and stewarded the two species of black hawthorn (Turner 2014: 272). “The dry sweetish fruits were eaten by the Island Salish groups, usually in the early fall. The Songhees ate them with salmon roe (Boas, 1890).[Turner & Bell]”
Crataegus douglasii var. douglasii is often more associated with the mainland and interior of British Columbia, and occurs more often as a large shrub with some tree forms on the Gulf Islands. In contrast, the island subspecies or species of Black hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii var. suksdorfii (with a distribution more centred on the coast extending to Alaska), is more often in a taller, tree form.
The label Crataegus douglasii var. suksdorfii in Canada corresponds to a species identified in the United States including for the San Juan Islands as Crataegus suksdorfii differentiated from the interior-centred black hawthorn, as a distinct species, because “It is diploid versus tetraploid for Crataegus douglasii.” As well as subtle but consistent differences in the leaves of these two species, a simple differentiation can be made by examining the centre of a blossom. The flowers of “Variation douglasii” nearly always have 10 stamens with ovaries that are more often hairy whereas the flowers of “Variation suksdorfii” have 20 stamens and the ovaries are usually smooth.
California hazelnut occur near the West Coast of North America from California to Alaska and are closely related to Eurasian hazelnut species that occur as far west as north-western Spain. Within the populations on the North-West Coast of North America, there were two subspecies. The involucral ‘beaks’ attached to the nuts of Corylus cornuta var. cornuta are twice as long as the actual fruit / nut. In contrast, Corylus cornuta var. california fruit has beaks that are half that length and roughly the diameter of the sometimes larger fruit (that might be the result of indigenous domestication, stewardship, and ecosystem management).
Hazelnut was transplanted on the BC coast (Turner 2014: 203 – 204) and groves were sometimes managed through burning (Turner 2014: 198). Hazelnut were sometimes transplanted (Turner 2014: 365). There are records of historical orchards in northern areas such as the lower Skeena Valley that well into the twentieth century were defended by First Nations who asserted dietary dependence, ownership and stewardship. Around the Salish Sea, records of significant groves are for sites near indigenous settlements and historical population centres. On the Gulf Islands, a significant record of ‘wild hazelnut’ was around Beaver Point Hall on Salt Spring Island just above the Tsawout / mixed Saanich and Cowichan village on the island’s south-east shore.
“Taxonomic Key to Corylus
native, north-western North America
1. Twigs sparsely to moderately hairy, sometimes slightly glandular; silicles completely enclosed by bristly bractlets…………………C. cornuta
Eurasian and where volunteering in North America, a cultivar
1. Twigs both hairy and glandular, silicles not completely enclosed by the thinly downy, lacerated bractlets……………………………C. avellana”
And on areas such as the Gulf and San Juan Islands, there is some evidence of hybridization between the Eurasian cultivar and native hazelnut.
Of the native species, C. cornuta,
1. Involucral beaks about twice as long as the fruit; silicles thinly short-hairy; twigs sparsely hairy…………… var. cornuta
1. Involucral beaks about equal in length to the fruit; silicles glabrous; twigs hairy, sometimes glandular…………… var. californica (A. DC.) Sharp”
Along with chokecherry, two other species are common in many interior regions of British Columbia and further east in Canada, and are thought to have been more common around the Salish Sea before 5,000 b.p.
Saskatoon berry, Amelanchier alnifolia was transplanted by some First Nations in the region (Turner 203 – 204) as late as the early 20th Century.
Soapberry, Shepherdia canadensis is thought to have been more common on the Coast and more important dietarily than it is now (Turner 2014: 140 – 144). Along the coast and in the interior, soapberry patches were “maintained by landscape burning, bushes pruned, berries scattered” and “occasionally transplanted” (Turner 2014: 191)
hybridization & introgression of Eurasian cultivars and Salish species (in the same gene pools)
All of the Salish fruit tree species, aside from Saskatoon berry and soapberry, are part of circumpolar gene pools with millennia of relationships with human beings and domestication processes — on both sides of Beringia. But there are some distinct differences between each side of the North Pacific. Nearly all of the petals of the Eurasian domesticates are one and a half to twice the size of the North American species. Another general difference between ‘wild’, traditionally stewarded, and indigenous, North American and domesticated and Eurasian, primarily north-western Europe, sides of those gene pools is this simple dichotomy:
aside from the Island species of black hawthorn, Crataegus douglasii var. suksdorfii / Crataegus suksdorfii, which blossoms simultaneously with slow leafing, the North American native fruit trees nearly always leaf-out a week or two BEFORE blossoming
the Eurasian domesticates nearly always produce blossoms before they leaf out.
And on the Gulf Islands there are circumpolar hybrids where blossoming and leafing are more simultaneous such as a probable,
hybrid of native bitter cherry, Prunus emarginata, and introduced, north-western European blackthorn or sloe, Prunus spinosa, that began to reproduce without cultivation starting in the twentieth century on Salt Spring Island [today seen on the west side of Reynolds Road north of Weston Creek], where blossoms and fruit begin with a double cluster several inches from the end of each branch like bitter cherry, with petals large like a European domesticate, and blossoming and leafing relatively simultaneous.
The Turner 2014 references above refer to the most definitive survey, so far, of indigenous tree crops in British Columbia:
Nancy J. Turner. 2014. Ancient Pathways, Ancestral Knowledge: Ethnobotany and Ecological Wisdom of Indigenous Peoples of Northwestern North America. Volume Two – The Place and Meaning of Plants in Indigenous Cultures and Worldviews. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.
Volume One is also crucial for understanding the human relationships with these species of fruit trees.
We are fortunate to have in publication the fruits of the traditional knowledge of W̱SÁNEĆ elders, Elsie Claxton, Dave Elliot Senior, Chief Christopher Paul, and Violet Paul published as, Nancy J. Turner and Richard J. Hebda (editors). 2012. Saanich Ethnobotany: Culturally Imporant Plants of theW̱SÁNEĆ People. (Victoria, BC: Royal British Columbia Museum). The information at KEXMIN field station reflects such key publications as these along with mentoring by Chief Paul (1893 – 1972), studies of the Belly-Rising-Up cultural site that for many decades was stewarded by Elsie Claxton, and field studies in recent decades.
One of the loveliest of the relatively uncommon groves of chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, the only tree (and fruit tree) that is native to every province and territory in Canada (and the northern half of the continental USA). While small clumps of chokecherry trees are common across Canada, they are uncommon on the BC Coast. The other part of the West Coast where this species occurs is in Mendocino Country in Northern California. This grove in Mount Maxwell Ecological Reserve in the Hwmet’utsun Conservation Area on Salt Spring Island, has relatively old trees, verging on more than a century, along with large fallen trees, and saplings.
The bark is the source of the medicinal in traditional cherry cough drops and the berries are good to eat (for both humans and crows). While I have seen no other large groves such as this, there are many young trees on Salt Spring Island most likely because the species is poisonous to deer which here is often in relatively high numbers because of predator suppression.
This grove of chokecherries is in a landscape with archaeological sites going back well over 5,000 years and Salish (Cowichan Tribes) presence continuous until well into the 20th Century and ongoing harvesting of some food resources. The sites with the chokecherry trees have signs of historic food processing.
The lines of holes in the bark are from woodpeckers and are common for the older trees.
While the focus at KEXMIN field station is often on wild native species, especially food plants stewarded by the Salish, the Eurasian apple cultivar, Malus pumila, such as the one recently planted here, is in the primary gene pool of Pacific crabapple, Malus fusca, the native apple of North-western North America (that continues to thrive from California, along the Pacific, to north of Japan). In contrast to the red in the buds of this European cultivar, those of the Pacific crabapple are a uniform ivory with not even hints of pink.
While we are engaged in propagation of Pacific crabapple, scores of individuals and a number of ‘groves’ thrive nearby.
These rectangular stone enclosures, at 80 metres elevation on terraces above the village site of W̱EN,NÁ,NEĆ on Salt Spring Island, suggests cultivated beds of bulbs, such as camas and chocolate lily, and carrot-like roots including KEXMIN (Lomatium nudicaule) and yampah (Perideridia gairdneri). The small size of these beds, with each less than 80 cm X 40 cm, and the lack of deep earth suggest horticultural more than funerary sites.
There are numerous other archaeological sites in nearby valleys, hills and islands that go back at least 7,000 years. W̱EN,NÁ,NEĆ was occupied for millennia until residents were forcibly evicted from their own homes by the Government of Canada in 1923. The W̱EN,NÁ,NEĆ village site, established as an Indian Reserve in 1873, is not currently inhabited but continues to be carefully protected and stewarded by the Tsawout First Nation of Saanichton, British Columbia.
Planting KEXMIN seed, Lomatium nudicaule, in the field station’s roughgarden, with the waxing of the full moon, with the small dark seeds of giant camas, Camassia leichtlinii
ripening Pacific crabapple, ḴÁ¸EW̱ (SENĆOŦEN), Malus fusca
audio (scroll to 372 & 373) * This is one of those very old words that is often similar in all of the 12 Salish languages.
This crabapple fruit is ripening quickly in the recent summer heat (after a late spring) and is roughly four to six weeks from maximum size (roughly twice the size of the fruit in this image) — along with optimal sugar content and ‘crunch’. After that peak of ripeness, the crabapples will become soft and by late October will begin to drop — as well as the seed being dispersed through various fruit-eating birds and mammals.
location: Salt Spring Island on the north side of Beaver Point Road between King and Forest Ridge Roads
Canada’s rarest and most threatened plant species, with only one viable populations on a steep ridge above Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island, is,
coastal manroot, Marah oregana (Cucurbitaceae – Cucumber family).
This is the more northerly of the six manroot species and this particular population is the most northerly occurrence of this species. Manroot have large perennial roots that live for centuries, can take two decades to become reproductively mature, and require two roots to reproduce (like any good cucumber!), and is relatively rare. On Salt Spring Island, the 3 to 6 metre vines extend from the roots every April and dry out and disintegrate by the time that the cucumber fruit mature in September. Unless most other cucumbers, the seeds are relatively large and heavy. From the Gulf and San Juan Islands this species occurs sporadically near the coast as far south as the mountains of Los Angeles County.
At the northern end of this species’ range, the Salish cultivated this wild cucumber and used the fruit as one of their most powerful anti-viral medicines — crucial after the coming of syphilis.
This population remains unprotected. This population above Fulford Harbour was declared ‘endangered’, federally, in 2009 but the Harper Cabinet could not bother to give it legal protection. A few years ago, one of the landowners for this area bulldozed some of the old roots but the population is hanging on and shifting down the hill above Fulford Community Hall.
photograph by Alex Grünenfelder & Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram
This was the first or second day of the bloom of the grove of Pacific crabapple, Malus fusca, at Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island — on May 6, 2017 (in an unseasonably cool and late spring). Part of the Cowichan village of Xwaaqw’um that is increasingly used as a tribal educational site, this grove persists through millennia of Salish land stewardship, propagation, and ownership. Today, this crabapple grove more often goes un-noticed and is vulnerable to sea level rise.
This is the only North American crabapple species that is in the primary gene pool of Eurasian apple landraces and cultivars with a distribution that extends along the North Pacific from central California to just north of Japan.
At KEXMIN field station, we are studying traditional small-tree stewardship and harvesting as well as both Salish and modern propagation approaches.
This is another Pacific crabapple blossom, at the same grove as above, at the old Cowichan village of Xwaaqw’um, Burgoyne Bay, Salt Spring Island on May 11, 2017. (photograph taken jointly by Jan Steinman, Ecoreality Cooperative & Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram, KEXMIN field station).
For other Canadians having very mixed feelings about next week’s 150th anniversary of the modern Canadian state (including its massive repressive apparatuses), perhaps we need an alternative symbol. This is the only native tree that is in every province and territory in the country: chokecherry, Prunus virginiana. Chokecherry was known in nearly every indigenous language was the first fruit after the glaciers receded, has medicinal bark (for the original cherry cough lozenge), and produced the preferred poles for teepees. And in contrast the syrupy sweetness of maple syrup, the chokecherry fruit is more nutritious and with a slight bitterness. (2017 May 7, Ruckle Provincial Park, Salt Spring Island * photo by Alex Grunenfelder & Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram)