A research & learning centre for conversations spanning traditional indigenous knowledge, modern science, and contemporary culture for new policy, environmental planning, ecological design, and public art with a focus on the Salish Sea and its Gulf and San Juan Islands between the mainland of the North American West Coast and Vancouver Island email@example.com
Garry oak, Quercus garryana, is the oak species native to Western North America with the largest distribution: from a small corner of south-western British Columbia to a small corner of northwestern Baja California. On the northern margins of West Coast Quercus, in drier areas around the Salish Sea, Garry oak, and associated meadows dominated by forbs and shrubs rather than grasslands, is more often associated with a fire-dependent ‘disclimax’ the total area of which has shrunk under fire suppression. Current and historic data suggests that Garry oak on its northern margins is highly variable, from year to year, in the extent of acorn production. After progressively warmer, drier and longer summers, more similar to those in the centre of this species’ distribution, this year saw exceptional levels of acorn production, at least on the Gulf Islands. Unfortunately, the tree that has produced this particular acorn is also stressed from sea level rise and saltwater intrusion.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Soapberry, Shepherdia canadensisis 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.
Five plant species native to Salt Spring Island have been in rapid decline in recent decades because of historically elevated populations of deer, Odocoileus hemionus columbianus, largely because of predator suppression:
both species of native camas, Camassia leichtlinii and C. quamash;
Menzies larkspur, Delphinium menziesii;
common wooly sunflower, Eriophyllum lanatum; and
springbank clover, Trifolium wormskioldii.
Today, these once abundant populations are often reduced on the larger Gulf Islands, areas with large deer populations, to the following sites:
well-fenced exclosures such as the three small areas in Mount Maxwell Ecological Reserve constructed in the years following its 2001 expansion);
rocky cliffs difficult for deer to reach; and
some tiny strips near busy roads and urban areas that deer avoid (including Grace Islet near Ganges).
The two large predator species, that have primary ecological relationships with populations of black-tailed deer were wolf, Canis lupus, and cougar, Puma concolor. In the last fifty years, outlier wolves have had only a sporadic presence on some of the smaller Gulf Islands (recently Chatham Islands and earlier Saturna) with the last large pack on central Salt Spring Island exterminated in the 1930s. There are wolf packs not far from Salt Spring Island, above the Cowichan Valley. But those packs are separated from the Gulf Islands by the Island Highway and increased travel barriers from suburbanization. A small number of cougars survive at higher elevations on Salt Spring Island but may be isolated and quite possibly in-bred. Migration corridors away from Salt Spring Island have not been determined but may include the Stony Hill and Mount Tzouhalem just across Sansum Narrows.
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.
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.
Garry oak, Quercus garryana, leaf in front of the sun on this morning’s 89% eclipse in the south-western corner of Ruckle Provincial Park, east of Grandma Bay, down the road from KEXMIN field station on Salt Spring Island.
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