The month of May is PENÁW̱EṈ for the W̱SÁNEĆ (Saanich) and Lekwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt) people – the month for the camas harvest; the month of the camas moon. Camas bulbs, ḰȽO,EL, were a traditional staple food, carefully grown in plots that were passed down within families and across generations. It was the day after the new moon, the camas moon, and we were gathered at the parking lot at Beacon Hill park in downtown Victoria staring at the back of a peacock.
(The first peacock at Beacon Hill arrived in 1891, shortly after the establishment of a zoo there. Today about thirty of the birds roam freely at the park, sometimes traipsing into neighbouring James Bay, at other times huddling together near the current iteration of the zoo on especially cold winter days. Male peacocks raise and shake their trains in a spring mating ritual meant to entice the female; this particular bird seemed to have mistaken our group for such a peahen and was vigorously shaking his hindquarters at us, feathers aloft. I wondered for a moment about the deeper significance of this: that during the Indigenous month of the camas moon we were experiencing a colonial peacock mooning.)
Really, it was a fitting bit of symbolism to start the day. We were at Beacon Hill for our Wild Harvesting class, to observe the blooming camas fields – but also to think and talk about an undercurrent of tension in permaculture between imported perennial plants and native ecology.
We meandered south through the park, towards the water, stopping here and there to examine new growth. In the scrub of a bush stood a single wild rose, the first of the year – a nice bit of class phenology. Common camas (Camassia quamash) can begin to flower here as early as March, with great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) coming later; mixed in among these graceful spikes of blue flowers were the creamy white bells of meadow death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum), a highly poisonous plant whose bulbs are indistinguishable from those of the edible camas. Great care is needed to make a correct identification, as camas bulbs are harvested only after the colourful flower heads have died back and gone to seed.
A breeze dappled the stalks of meadowgrass as we moved through the camas fields and reached the fringe of a Garry oak savannah. We sat. A jogger plodded by on the path. Spittlebugs dripped foam from sanicle leaves next to my knees. Hannah, our instructor, gestured around expansively and pointed out that we were actually sitting in the middle of a highly managed landscape. Indigenous peoples – the Lekwungen here at present-day Beacon Hill – had carefully planted and propagated these camas fields, fertilizing them with seaweed and then burning them over after harvest to kill back brush and seedling trees, leaving the remaining dormant bulbs unharmed.
And it was true: to my settler’s eye, these meadows looked “wild”. Early Europeans likewise wrongly assumed this land, unfenced, untilled and unseeded, was unused and languishing, ripe for agriculture. Cattle and pigs were loosed to graze, and controlled burns were prohibited. Today, invasive grasses and exotic trees continue to choke out native species and acidify the soil, and place-based reminders of this once-bountiful food system are increasingly tenuous.
Of course, one of the most critical components of foraging is restoration – to build the land, even as one takes; to ask “What do the plants need?” as much as “What do I need?” In another context, picking plants for the garden, I’ve tried to ask myself “Is there a native plant that can do this job?” But this can sometimes be an uneasy dance: for although there are abundant cultural and ecological imperatives for the preservation and restoration of native ecosystems, a pragmatic permaculturalist might rightly point to the effects of anthropogenic climate change and suggest that answering “what do the plants need?” today demands an equally urgent and interventionist approach.
Plants have shifted across the landscape in response to climatic changes for millennia. But as contemporary climate change accelerates, there is concern among plant scientists that plant populations may now need to migrate faster than their natural ability permits.
This has prompted a push, in some circles, for what is termed “assisted migration”: the movement of species and populations to facilitate natural range expansion in direct response to the effects of anthropogenic climate change. In Victoria, where the impact of a changing climate is expected to result in generally more volatile and extreme temperature swings, this favours a two-pronged approach: aiming to trial imported species on both ends of the climate spectrum. For a local permaculturalist taking a long-term view when planning a food forest, this might mean growing warm-weather loquats alongside cold-hardy apples. If it gets significantly hotter in future years, the loquats will fruit; if it doesn’t, the loquat will still bear medicinally valuable leaves and the apples may thrive.
Of course, this strategy presents a host of thorny ethical, legal, political, and ecological challenges. Our ability to predict the full impact of imported species on native ecosystems is badly imperfect, as the dense throngs of invasive scotch broom and English ivy that blanket the forest understorey and highway’s edge in southern Vancouver Island well attest.
Proponents of assisted migration argue that instead of using resources and energy to try to sustain native species that are losing their ecological foothold to the effects of climate change, careful selection of new imported species can actually better help to preserve biodiversity. By this logic, taking climate change into consideration when considering introduced cultivated and wild species plantings – particularly for long-term perennials and trees – is common-sense permaculture.
In the meantime, as an ethical wild harvester, the best one can sometimes aim to do is simply to pull up invasives and use them for something good. Back in Vic West for the afternoon, we harvested some lilac from a laden bough that hung over the top of a fence along the sidewalk. For this class, we’re currently working on a project to choose local invasive species to harvest and make into medicine, food, tools, or art – sitting at the kitchen table at Hannah’s place, we tossed some ideas around while picking off the individual lilac blossoms to mix into a cordial.
We tried to recall the plants we’ve encountered in our wild harvesting class so far this year, and in fifteen minutes we’d come up with a good list: lomatium, lemon balm, ocean spray, cleavers, skunk cabbage, miner’s lettuce, dogwood, dandelion, spring gold, cattail, horsetail, chickweed, sorrel, lovage, licorice fern, saskatoon, silverweed, salmonberry, mugwort, stinging nettle, plantain, scotch broom, Labrador tea, usnea, Oregon grape. I’ve probably forgotten as many again.
As the day wound down, we sipped on some spruce tip lemonade and talked more about the camas meadows at Beacon Hill, introduced species, and our responsibility as wild harvesters. Sitting amid mason jars containing both native and imported plants simultaneously releasing their colours and aromas into the mix, I didn’t feel any closer to an answer; but it all felt appropriately and pleasantly messy.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.