In my last post I wrote about the Native Plant Workshop I attended last week put on by the Campus Community Garden. Elder Earl Claxton Jr and Education Coordinator PEPAḴIYE Ashley Cooper came from PEPAKEN HAUTW (Native Plant Nursery and Garden) and brought with them 4 potted plants as well as Thimbleberry clippings and Stinging Nettle seeds. In this post I will dive a little deeper into each of the 6 plants, detailing their properties, traditional uses and where they can be found. Saanich Ethnobotany includes the SENĆOŦEN names for each plant but I will not be adding them as I don’t have access to correct letters with their accents. Check out the book if your interested in seeing each plants SENĆOŦEN names.
Devil’s Club is an erect to sprawling spiny shrub that can grow up to three meters tall, with thick often tangled light-grey stems. The wood has a sweet odour. The large leaves are shaped like maple leaves; they alternate along the stem on long stalks. Each leaf has seven to nine pointed, toothed lobes and the undersides are spiny long veins. The small whitish flowers grow in a dense pyramid shaped cluster at the top of the shrub. They ripen into bright red, strong smelling berries.
Where they are found: Not known to occur on the Saanich Peninsula, but is found in the mountains of the Malahat and Sooke Hills. It is very common on the wetter parts of Vancouver Island and the mainland. It grows in moist, shaded woods, in wet seepage areas, along streams and in avalanche tracks at low to mid elevations.
Traditional Uses: Elsie Claxton said that Devil’s Club spines are poisonous, and that you should not touch them. She said she would never drink or eat something containing it because she believed tat the entire plant was poisonous. Violet Williams thought that Devil’s Club was used to make a medicinal tea for diabetes. Dave Elliot said that “The roots were pounded, boiled and used as a poultice for rheumatism and other aches. The prickly stems were beaten against the skin for sore limbs.” Elsie, Violet and Dave all recalled that the charcoal from this plant was used as a (ceremonial) face paint for dancers. It was powdered and mixed with grease. It was also used for a bluish tattoo. (Saanich Ethnobotany pg. 92-93)
Nodding Onion is easily recognized by its onion-like odour if if you crush the leaves or stems, and by its grassy leaves and pink, nodding flower heads. The bulbs are long and narrow with a flat plate at the base from where the true toots grow. The bulbs divide readily, so that often you will see a cluster of plants growing together. The leaves are somewhat succulent and grass-like, growing up to about 20 cm in length. The flower stalks are often taller than the leaves, some reaching up to 40 or 50 cm. The stalks bend over at the top so that the flower heads no. The flowers are pink in round topped clusters of 10 or more on one head. Flowering occurs from May to August depending on the elevation. The mature papery seed capsules release hard black seeds when ripe.
Where they are found: Nodding Onion thrives in open sites (such as coastal bluffs), in dry open woodlands and on gravelly beaches above the tideline. It is often associated with Douglas-fir and Garry Oak. Its distribution is somewhat patchy, but it can be found in many locations in W̱SÁNEĆ territory.
Traditional Use: Christopher Paul said that the W̱SÁNEĆ people used to paddle or row across Saanich Inlet to harvest Nodding Onion from the Bamberton area before the cement factory was built. The bulbs could be washed and eaten raw. But more often they were cooked and eaten with other foods due to their strong flavour. (Saanich Ethnobotany pg.117 – 118)
Blue Camas is in the lily family, and have edible bulbs located deep in the soil. Bright green leaves grow from the base of the plant and appear grass-like. The flowers are usually deep blue but sometime pale blue or even white. Plants usually bear many flowers, all six-petalled and arranged in an elongated spike at the top of the flowering stalks. The seed capsules are elongated and split onto three sections to release black, glossy seeds. After the seeds have germinated,it takes several years for the plants to grow old enough to flower.
Where they can be found: The blue camas species can be found on grassy slopes and moist meadows, at low to mid elevations.
Traditional Uses: Blue Camas was the most important root vegetable for the
W̱SÁNEĆ people. It was the only widely available source of carbohydrate in a diet that consisted of mainly meat and fish. The W̱SÁNEĆ used to dig up many of their bulbs on the smaller Gulf Islands. Areas over rock such as along rocky cliffs by the sea were preferred harvesting sites because the bulbs were not too deep. Bulb beds were usually dug between June and August. The entire family including men, would be involved. The harvest usually lasted for several days. Sometimes harvesting was done in connection with fishing trips to the islands or to Boundary Bay. The bulbs were dug up with a pointed stick of Yew or Oceanspray and placed in baskets carried on the back with a tumpline over the forehead. The soil was lifted out in small sections, and only the largest bulbs, at least 5 cm across were removed. Bulbs were collected when seed pods were dry. This is when the bulbs are the largest and most nutritious. Bulb beds were usually burned after harvest to increase yield in the following years. The bulbs were usually cooked in enormous circular steaming pits on the beach. (Saanich Ethnobotany pg. 118-123)