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)
colonial-era, circumpolar hybrids
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.