We are fortunate to have six species of attractive native flowering onions in British Columbia. Nodding onion (Allium cernuum) is widespread. But Hooker’s onion (Allium acuminatum) or taper-tip onion is uncommon BC but widespread on the continent.
Hooker’s onion of the Lily Family (Liliaceae or more recently Amaryllidaceae) grows as a bulbous perennial. The generally creamy to light brown true bulb has the shape of a slightly flattened globe. It is small, less than the size of a thumb nail on average 1.5 cm (0.6″) across. Wild, bulbs occur in clusters of about the size that would fit easily into the palm of a hand. Each bulb bears two to four channeled leaves which are predominantly grey-green with a reddish base. At first the leaves stand erect, but by the time they reach 15 cm (6″) long they reflex. By onion standards, the leaves seem nearly insignificant reaching a maximum of scarcely half a centimetre across and 30 cm (12″) long or less. Leaves usually dry out and break off by flowering time.
Flowers are borne on a firm rounded stalk which ranges from 10-30 cm (4-12″) tall. Two papery bracts surround the bud which contains five to 30 flowers. The blooms sit upon more or less equally long stalklets (called pedicels by botanists), so that the head forms a loose umbel reaching about 7.5 cm (3″) across. Each flower consists of six perianth segments, three petal-like sepals and three petals. The lance-shaped petal-like sepals reach about 1 cm (0.4″) long. Their tips notably reflex especially with age. Six short anthers surround a slightly crested ovary which bears a clearly visible stigma. Mostly the sepals and petals are pink, but may vary from intense rosy purple to nearly white.
In mild coastal climates the first signs of life appear in early February as leaf tips emerge. In Victoria, this occurs well before the end of winter, and sometimes the snow and frost may freeze back young shoots. During April, leaves continue to get longer and reach their maximum length. By the end of the month the first flower stalks poke out of the ground reaching up to 30 cm (12″) tall in June when flowers open. Capsules split in July to reveal black seeds which are easy to harvest by sharply shaking seed heads into a bag.
Hooker’s onion ranges from southern British Columbia to northern California and eastward to Colorado and Wyoming then southward to Arizona. In BC its distribution includes dry parts of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland extending into the Fraser Canyon. In our region Hooker’s onion clearly favours dry rocky sites, typically growing in pockets of soil on rocky knolls and coastal headlands. Sometimes it survives in only about 5 cm (2″) of mossy crust cover over bedrock, yet it flowers reliably every year. Occasionally this onion thrives under Garry oaks (Quercus garryana), albeit in very shallow stony soil.
These bulbs are little cultivated and rarely available, yet they thrive under appropriate conditions and produce a pleasing display. The site must be in full sun, sharply drained and with a sandy soil. Avoid summer watering. Rock gardens, the front of dry perennial beds and pots of gritty soil suit Hooker’s onion well in the milder parts of southern B.C.
Plant bulbs about 5 cm (2″) deep about 5 – 7.5 cm (2-5″) apart so that the flower heads touch. Divide the clusters every five to ten years in late summer.
Order Hooker’s onions from specialist native plant suppliers or grow them from fall-sown seed. Do not dig this relatively rare plant in the wild.
First Nations of coastal British Columbia savoured various wild onion species including Hooker’s onion. Bulbs were eaten raw or steamed in great pits. In some areas the pits were lined with pine boughs and covered with lichens and alder boughs. Bulbs and shoots have a mild onion flavour and smell.
Hooker’s onion may be hardy to as low as zone 4 in BC, but its natural distribution suggests zone 5 or higher. We have several native onion species in the Native Plant Garden of the Royal B.C. Museum which flower mainly in June
Many of the vegetables we eat came originally from Europe, Asia and Latin America. The aboriginal peoples of British Columbia were unfamiliar with these food plants, nevertheless they feasted on several indigenous green vegetables. The most widely eaten among these was the cow-parsnip (now called Heracleum maximum, recently known as Heracelum lanatum), also referred to as Indian rhubarb or wild rhubarb.
Cow-parsnip belongs to the Parsley Family (Umbelliferae or Apiaceae) and grows in the form of a gigantic perennial herb. A thick hollow stem stands 1-3 meters (40-120”) tall and bears large broad leaves. Stems are lightly ridged and woolly. Each leaf is divided into three segments with coarse teeth. Leaves occur at the base of the stalk and along it. Sometimes you will see big swollen structures at the leaf bases. These are flower buds just waiting to emerge.
The stem top is crowned by several handsome, flat-topped flower heads. Each head consists of numerous umbrella-like clusters of small white blossoms that vary in diameter from 0.5 to 1 cm (0.2-0.4”) across. There are five creamy-white petals in each flower. The blooms circling the outside of each cluster are usually larger and often slightly irregular in form. Five spindly stamens bearing greenish anthers surround a greenish pistil. Cow-parsnip produces robust flattened seeds which remain on the stalk well into the summer.
Cow-parsnip thrives in rich moist soil along streams and rivers, roadsides and in meadows. You will often find it forming large colonies. It has a wide climatic tolerance, growing from sea level to the alpine zone. The Parsnip River in east central British Columbia is named after this plant. Cow-parsnip may be seen almost anywhere in North America in suitable habitats.
Almost every First Nations group in British Columbia ate cow-parsnip as a green vegetable. Before the flowers appeared in spring, young stalks and leaf stems (petioles) were peeled and eaten raw. Sometimes they were boiled, steamed or roasted. Bruised cow-parsnip plants emit a strong smell but the stems are sweet and juicy, somewhat like celery. Coastal people ate cow-parsnip with eulachon fish grease.
According to Saanich Elders Violet Williams and Elsie Claxton, the stalks had to be collected for eating before the flower buds opened. Otherwise they were tough to chew and tasted too strong.
Be aware that members of the parsley family, especially water hemlock (Cicuta douglasii) and poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) contain terribly strong poisons which can kill a human. You must be certain that the plant you intend to eat is a cow-parsnip.
Cow-parsnip plants can make a bold addition to your garden but you must give them room. They are best raised from seed, collected as soon as it is mature, and planted in a rich moist soil. You may be able to carefully transplant very young seedlings too, but I suspect that this technique is not often successful.
Cow-parsnip has one characteristic you should be wary of. Like its gigantic relative, giant cow-parsnip or hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), cow-parsnip contains chemicals that may cause severe skin inflammation known as dermatitis. The sap of the plant has particularly strong activity. Ultraviolet rays from the sun activate the compound and may cause the skin to redden and even produce permanent discoloration. Not all people are so affected but be warned to handle the plant carefully especially on a hot sunny day.
The plant supposedly obtained its name after the Greek god Heracles (Hercules). The previously-used species name “lanatum” refers to the “woolly” leaves and parts of the stem.
As you see great stretches of cow- parsnip along our province’s highways, think of it not as a roadside weed but as a valuable food of British Columbia’s First Nations. Cow-parsnip is hardy to zones 2-3 in Canada.
Wild nibbles make a pleasant treat while hiking in the bush. Most often the tasty treat consists of berries of one sort or another, but the occasional green provides a refreshing chew. Mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) can spare a leaf or two for the adventurous alpine wanderer.
This delightful hardy herb grows from the top of a tenacious stout tap root. Fleshy, kidney-shaped leaves arise on leaf stalks attached to a short erect stem. Leaf blades range from 1-5 cm (0.4-2”) wide, their stalks 4-8 cm (1.6-3.2”) long. Normally they are coloured bright green but may turn greenish red as the season advances or in really tough sites. There is usually also a single leaf on the stem. The leaves have a sour, but refreshing, acid taste, hence the botanical name Oxyria derived from Greek the word “oxys” which means sharp.
Like all members of the Buckwheat Family (Polygonaceae), mountain sorrel has small hard- to-see flowers. They cluster irregularly along a 10 to 60 cm (4-24”) tall, narrow flower stalk. Each green to reddish flower consists of four tiny “petals” joined at the base. Two of the petals are keeled, the other two are not. Inside the flowers reside six stamens and a two-parted pistil. Flowers appear from June to August according to elevation and latitude. At maturity, the fruit is broadly winged, turning a showy reddish purple. The fruit is mostly translucent and literally shines when the sun’s light passes through it.
Mountain sorrel ranges throughout the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, south to New Mexico and California, and north through Alaska and the Yukon and across the Arctic. It also inhabits most of the mountains of Asia and Europe. In our province, mountain sorrel thrives in alpine scree and rock crevices and can be found in suitable habitats on almost every high mountain, to the elevation where no other plants can survive.
Surprisingly this delightful little mountain nibble will grow in lowland rock gardens. It needs a relatively moist gritty run for its root and full sun. In our coastal lowlands mountain sorrel probably needs to be sheltered from full scorching mid-day heat. Plants are best raised from seed sown carefully in the site where it is to grow. Sow the seeds in very stony and moist, but not rich, soil.
Okanagan First Peoples ate fresh raw leaves, but never too many at a time because the oxalic (sour) acid in the plant can be harmful if taken in large quantity. This sorrel contains abundant Vitamins A and C and was used against scurvy in Europe. Like other wild and cultivated sorrels it was widely cooked as a pot herb. A few leaves add a spritely bite when mixed into a salad.
This amazing plant has an incredible story to tell about the glacial history of our province. Studies of the chloroplast DNA by Royal BC Museum and University of Victoria reveal that the genetic makeup of the alpine herb in BC is surprisingly diverse. Within BC, the high diversity and the occurrence of ancient genetic forms suggest that high elevation mountains in the north escaped the last glaciation, contrary to widely accepted thinking.
Mountain sorrel is hardy to zone 0 in Canada. In fact,it is pretty much the hardiest of all plants in the world.
*Originally published in the Winter 2014 issue of What’s inSight Magazine.
British Columbia is home to shrubs with many uses. For example our Oregon-grapes (Berberis or Mahonia species) make excellent year-round ornamentals, whose fruits produce tasty jelly. Few of our shrubs however can match the thimbleberry of the Rose Family (Rosaceae) for utility. Not only does it have tasty fruits, but this shrub produces edible shoots, soap from its stems, and is an attractive and widely-adapted subject for gardens.
Thimbleberry forms waist- to head-high thickets of numerous erect stems. The stems are thorn-free, unlike the closely related raspberries and blackberries. The bark is distinctively flaky and especially hairy on new growth. Maple-like leaves, 10-30 cm (4-12″) across occur at the ends of the stems. Each one has seven to nine lobes and a texture like soft sandpaper.
Open flower clusters, containing three to eleven blooms develop at the ends of the branches. Each bright white flower can be as wide as 7-8 cm (3″) across. Five long greenish sepals surround five clear white oval petals. A ring of many stamens encircles a central fleshy dome. This dome is the swollen end of the stem, and attached to its surface are numerous tiny greenish pistils. Once the egg in each pistil is fertilized, the pistil transforms into a tiny red fruit with a hard seed inside. The mass of little fruits forms a shallow “thimble” over the central dome, looking like a thin raspberry. The velvety thimbles are somewhat dry but usually taste very sweet.
Thimbleberry grows throughout much of British Columbia except the far north. On the continent you can encounter it from Alaska to northern Mexico and eastward to Ontario and Colorado. Typical haunts include open sites, often at the edge of woods, roadsides and shorelines. Surprisingly thimbleberry inhabits both moist and dry sites and occurs across a wide range of elevations from sea level to the high subalpine zone; a widely-adapted plant. Notably, it is one of the species to colonize early after disturbance particularly along highways.
Thimbleberries are excellent subjects for naturalizing in corners of suburban lots. They seem not to be choosy about soil conditions and will grow on raw unprepared surfaces. In fact, in some places they will appear on their own, presumably inoculated from bird droppings. They will grow in full sun to part shade. These shrubs quickly form thickets, generating wildlife cover and stabilize the soil. Butterflies love the flowers and birds relish the fruit.
You can often purchase thimbleberries from the local nursery or garden centre by asking them to order it in. There are several suppliers in British Columbia. This native species has recently become available through mail-order from seed and nursery catalogues. Thimbleberries can be raised from seed sown in place in the garden in the fall for germination in the spring. Rooted offset stems will also transplant in a dormant state.
First Nations of British Columbia used thimbleberry for many purposes. Fruits were eaten fresh by most groups or pressed and dried into cakes for later. People of the west coast of Vancouver Island gathered canoe-loads of sweet and juicy spring shoots, peeled and ate them raw. Okanagan people lined their steam-cooking pits with the large leaves. Shuswap Carrier First Nations used the leaves to separate different types of berries in a picking basket. The Cowlitz of nearby Washington State boiled the bark for soap. Today hikers nibble on the wild fruit during their wanderings.
The technical name “Rubus” is based on an ancient Roman name for a related plant. The species name “parviflorus” means “small-flowered”, hardly appropriate for the large attractive blooms produced by thimbleberry.
Thimbleberry is a widely adapted native shrub for most gardens in the province; fruit, vegetable, ornamental and soil healer all rolled into one. It is hardy to Zone 3 in Canada.
Have you sometimes wondered what the wild ancestors of our highly-bred food plants may have looked like? The wild apples that spring up in hedgerows on Vancouver Island are often as large as our cultivated forms. Our cultivated crab apples, though they may seem closer to the wild than regular apples, are still the result of breeding. British Columbia’s native Pacific crab apple (Malus fusca or Pyrus fusca), however, may look very much as the ancestors of cultivated apples did many thousands of years ago. Bearing scented blooms, edible fruit and growing to a small stature, it has much potential as a garden and landscape plant.
Pacific crab apple, also known as Oregon crab apple, forms shrubs to small trees from 2 to 12 m (6½ to 40 ft.) tall. Plants branch widely and often form extensive thickets. Distinctive, spine-like, short shoots line the branches but are not nearly as vicious as those of black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii) or English or common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). The grey bark becomes scaly or deeply fissured with age. Oval and pointed leaves look as if they are a cross between those of the domesticated pear and apple. These weakly-toothed leaves sometimes may be lobed near the base.
Delightful blooms have an apple-blossom scent and appear in flat-topped clusters in the spring. Most flowers are white or creamy, but sometimes they take on a warm pink blush and can be very showy. Each flower is about 2 cm (slightly less than an inch) across. The five petals extend well beyond the cluster of stamens in the centre. As in apples and pears, the ovary is inferior, meaning that it is located below, not on the inside of the petals and sepals. In late summer, bunches of oval to cylinder-shaped fruits dangle from long red stalks. Each fruit is about the size of the end of your little finger. An open-grown tree can be “dripping” in fruit similar to some cultivated crab apples. At first the fruits are green and shiny but within a few weeks they turn yellow, pinkish and sometimes even purplish-red. Ripe fruit clusters, especially those well exposed to sunlight, are very attractive. The fruit tastes pleasantly tart when coloured up. After frost it turns brown and mushy but sweet.
Pacific crab apple occurs along the British Columbia coast well up many of the main river systems from Alaska to Vancouver Island and on the adjacent mainland to elevations as high as 800 m (2600 ft.). The full geographic range extends all the way from the Aleutian Islands to northern California. The natural habitat tends to the moist side and includes damp woods, stream sides and coastal bogs. These amazing bog trees resemble large gnarled and twisted “creatures” that seem to hail from some distant prehistoric times. They also occur frequently just inland of the ocean shoreline, especially behind beaches and at the edges of estuaries, which suggests that they tolerate salt spray. On some outer coast islets, exposed to the full influence of the sea, our native crab apples may be the only broad-leaved tree among a mass of Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) and other conifers.
The hard wood of the Pacific crab apple was widely used along the coast. From it, First Nations people fashioned tool handles, bows, sledgehammers and smaller items, such as spoons and fish hooks. The Nisga’a of northwest B.C. pegged their house boards in place with crab apple wood. The fruit was harvested in early fall and eaten fresh or stored in boxes under water. Apparently, this stored fruit sweetened and softened over time. Medicines, often in combination with other plants, were made from the bark. These medicines were used for a range of internal and external ailments such as stomach problems and skin complaints. The bark and other parts of the tree release hydrogen cyanide, so use only with caution. The flesh of the fruits apparently does not produce much cyanide.
In the garden, Pacific crab apple features best as a specimen tree in an open area. Slow growing, the crown eventually spreads farther than the tree reaches in height. Leaves turn gold and then even red in the fall and combine very attractively with the colours of the ripening fruit. The fruit makes excellent jelly and can be added to other jellies as a natural source of pectin. Wild birds enjoy the ripe fruit, too. Closely planted trees can from a fine dense hedge, and might be good candidates for hedges near the seashore. Plants are best raised from seed sown in the fall in pots and left outside. Seedlings normally take two years to become large enough to plant out.
Up to now the native plant literature has not given much attention to Pacific crab apple, but it has considerable possibilities. The attractive form, flowers and potential for heavy wild fruit production all point to a valuable native species for the garden landscape. Pacific crab apple is hardy to zones 5-6 in Canada.
Numerous plant species release strong scents when brushed. In the past, these smells were taken as a sign that the plant may have medicinal properties. Even today, some popular remedies still depend on aromatic compounds from plants. For example several brands of cough candies contain derivatives of the eucalyptus plant notable for its distinctly flavoured oil. Many strongly-scented plants thrive in British Columbia, including common or white yarrow (Achillea millefolium), a species well known around the world for its healing value.
Yarrow, a member of the Aster Family (Asteraceae), grows as a herbaceous perennial with leaves and flowers arising from creeping underground or near-surface root stocks. The aromatic fern- or feather-like leaves are finely divided and feel soft. Leaves cluster mostly at the base of the flowering stalk; these leaves are mainly 10-15 cm (4 – 6 inches) long. Many soft small hairs cover the plant making it appear greyish-green.
Tiny flowers crowd into small flower heads, that are further arranged into flat-topped clusters on stalks up to 100 cm (40 inches) tall. Each small flower head in the cluster consists of three to eight tiny ray flowers with a strap-shaped petal, and disk flowers with only reproductive parts. The flowers are white to pinkish and appear from May to October depending on the local climate. On south Vancouver Island they even bloom as late as December. The flower tops dry and turn brown by the end of summer, producing many one-seeded, smooth and flattened fruits.
Yarrow occurs from low to high elevations and often becomes weedy in disturbed settings. This herb thrives in coastal meadows and the arid sage brush steppe of the interior of BC. We also encounter it often in the lower part of the alpine zone during our studies of BC’s mountain flora. You can find yarrow throughout British Columbia and over much of North America. It also occurs across northern and central Europe and Asia.
Yarrow has been valued as a garden plant for centuries. Various forms are available for you to purchase as plants from garden centres and through mail order. Seeds of many colourful selections, especially red and pink shades, are sold through seed catalogues. Plants are easily raised from seed sown into light seed compost or peat pellets in the fall or spring. Rhizome divisions transplant easily too.
Dwarf varieties thrive in rock gardens. Larger types are suitable for mixed borders, perennial beds and the cutting garden. When mowed regularly, yarrow forms a soft-scented ground cover especially valuable for dry lawns. Yarrow is also an excellent subject for the xeriscape garden. This tough plant has been suggested for erosion control on slopes too.
Many First Nations Elders of the B.C. interior value yarrow as a medicine, especially to treat sores. Ulkatcho people of the west Chilcotin soak the leaves in hot water, then apply them in a poultice to sore muscles. This same poultice can also be used to treat saddle sores on horses. Washed and crushed roots were recommended for toothaches. Various teas and concoctions were prepared for internal problems and as a general tonic. Fresh leaves crushed and rubbed on the skin or put to smoke away in a fire act to repel mosquitoes.
Herbal users should be aware that yarrow is “phototoxic.” Skin exposed to crushed or rubbed yarrow may become irritated when exposed to strong sun.
The name Achillea derives from the Greek hero, Achilles, who well knew the medicinal properties of the plant. The finely divided leaves are responsible for the species name “millefolium” meaning “thousands of leaves”. Yarrow is hardy to zone 2 in Canada.
Traditional garden plants often have substitute native species, often hardier, less invasive and easier to manage. The native tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) is an excellent alternative to many cultivated shrubs for mass bedding for example. With a few exceptions, native perennials have yet to replace imports or join the display in more formal settings. Woolly sunflower (Eriophyllum lanatum) is a multi-use native prospect for British Columbia and the west coast of North America.
Woolly sunflower is a spreading fibrous-rooted perennial herb, resembling a restrained version of dusty miller (Artemisia stelleriana). Several hairy stems scramble upwards from the base and bear numerous much-divided silvery leaves. Robust mature plants reach to 60 cm (24”) tall but most often wild specimens rise about 30 cm (12”).
Buttery yellow blooms, 5 cm (2”) wide, face brightly upwards like miniature sunflowers. As is typical of the Aster Family (Asteraceae) the flower is actually a flower head of numerous florets. The rays or outside flowers have narrowly oval petals 1-2 cm (0.4 -0.8”) long. About 8-13 of these frame a disc of tightly-packed inner florets without the showy rays, just as you find in a typical garden marigold. Flowers are borne singly on long stems rising well above the silvery blue foliage. Flowers appear from early May to August, generally in June in southwest BC.
Woolly sunflower populates relatively dry open habitats such as bluffs and rocky slopes, largely being confined to low to mid elevations. In BC, it ranges along the coast southward from Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland, and inland to the Fraser Canyon with a population in the southern Interior. In the United States, the range extends well into California and eastward to Montana and Wyoming. The inland occurrences of woolly sunflower suggest a strong potential for BC interior gardens.
This marvellous plant has several garden uses. First, it thrives in the dry and sunny rock garden, even on poor stony soil. Although it may take a year or two, your plants will become established, persist, and flower from year to year. A patch placed in raw subsoil mixed with gravel has grown for more than 15 years at the Royal BC Museum Native Plant Garden. I have spread it widely along my driveway where it thrives! Woolly sunflower grows well in pots too, as a perennial surrounded by annuals planted freshly year after year. April Pettinger and Brenda Costanzo in their excellent book Native Plants in the Coastal Garden recommend woolly sunflower for shoreline plantings, use in repeated drifts, and in containers. They also note its resistance to deer.
Woolly sunflower is grown in many native plant nurseries especially in the western United States and is known even in Europe. You can propagate it by root cuttings in late winter, seeds sown in fall and crown divisions. I multiply my woolly sunflowers by pulling out rooted stems or digging out small plugs at almost any time of the year and replanting. Once in while pull out invading grasses and other weeds from the spreading mats.
The First Nations people of the Thompson River region knew this species as either yellow flower or as “friend or relative” of the much larger and related Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata). In Washington State, dried flowers were used as love charms and the leaves could be rubbed on one’s face to prevent chapping.
Eriophylllum lanatum is also known as Woolly Eriophyllum and Oregon Sunshine. In Canada it is hardy to Zone 5 meaning it likely will grow in many gardens throughout the south.
Take a chance on the wild side and try growing woolly sunflower in your garden. Experiment with it as a replacement for silvery-leaved ground covers and enjoy the annual display of golden blooms.
Heathers (Calluna species) and heaths (Erica species) are popular ground cover plants worldwide. True heathers and heaths are not native to British Columbia, but many heather relatives and heather-like plants thrive in our province, some under harsh inland climates. Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) (also known as curlew-berry and crake berry) is an excellent, extremely hardy, heather substitute that fulfils the role of ground cover and produces abundant attractive black berries.
Crowberry plants consist of scrambling woody stems rising to 20 cm (8″) tall, and enveloped in wooly hairs and short evergreen leaves. Small roots anchor the stems into the soil. Often a mass of better developed roots associated with a loose crown in the middle of a patch provide a firm grip. Numerous needle-like leaves are arranged in alternate fashion or grouped in fours. These grooved leaves extend 4-8 mm (0.15-0.3”) long and have their margins rolled under.
Tiny purplish flowers appear early in spring, scattered along the stem at the base of the leaves. There are male and female flowers, which sometimes occur on separate plants. Each flower has either one tiny ovary, or three purple stamens, sometimes with up to three purplish petals, all cupped in tiny sepals and bracts.
Unlike the inconspicuous blooms, the shiny black bead-like fruits are easily visible and very attractive. These globe-shaped berries are fleshy and juicy, about half a centimeter (1/5 “) across. On loose leafy plants the berries often occur singly, spaced along the stems. On low growing plants they cluster in bunches and appear to nearly smother the plant. The berries contain large white seeds and are a favourite food of bears.
Crowberries are widespread plants with a most hardy constitution. You can find them almost anywhere in our province in suitable habitats except in the dry lowland climates of the southern interior. Plants have been observed to nearly 2500m (about 7750 feet) above sea-level in BC. Crowberry’s geographical range extends across all of Canada, southward on the west coast to California and around the northern hemisphere. It is largely a plant of full sun environments. At low elevations, especially on the coast, it inhabits bogs and openings in bog forests. Inland you may encounter it in conifer forest openings and almost everywhere in the alpine tundra and subalpine turf as well as on dry rocky mountain knolls. Crowberry favours acid to very acid soils usually with abundant organic debris.
This creeping shrub has great potential as a ground cover species in most BC gardens. It is especially suited to interior gardens in regions with cold harsh climates. On the coast it is better suited to open moist rock gardens or bog gardens where it will grow into a loose luxuriant mass of heather-like stems. Plants are most easily grown from root-bearing stem pieces planted in moist sandy peat soil until well rooted. Nursery material has also been grown from cuttings and fresh seeds sown in the fall. Crowberry is hardy to zone 1 in Canada.
Crowberries were eaten widely throughout British Columbia. Anyone who has munched a crowberry on a wilderness hike knows they tend to be somewhat watery and slightly tart, but pleasant nevertheless. On the coast crowberries were mainly eaten fresh by Haida and Tsimshian peoples in whose lands they can occur in great abundance. Haida Elders thought that eating too many of them might lead to internal bleeding. In the northern interior many First Nations people ate the berries because they are available all winter long under the snow. Some Carrier people mixed the berries with bear grease. Berries were also prepared by mashing them and cooking with heated stones in spruce bark troughs. Dried mash was soaked in water and consumed later. Mixed with sugar the berries can be used for pies and jellies.
Crowberries are an excellent heather-like ground cover for coastal and especially cool interior gardens, despite the absence of showy flowers. And unlike true heathers you can nibble tart fruit in fall and even in winter. So, enjoy this widespread native in the wild and maybe find a spot for it in your garden.
British Columbia forests are renowned for the trees they grow. Within these great forests there are other botanical treasures that live on the forest floor. Among these the bunchberries (Cornus spp.) are among the most widespread.
Bunchberries belong to the Dogwood Family (Cornaceae) along with our provincial floral emblem the western flowering or Pacific dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) and red-osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera). Bunchberries grow as low, carpeting herb-like shrubs. A root-stem system (rhizome) spreads just below the ground surface and from it arise 5-20 cm (2-8″) tall flexible stems. Each erect stem bears a pair of small highly reduced leaves about halfway up, and a whorl of 2-8 cm (0.8-3.2”) long oval leaves at the top. The leaves are usually dark green and somewhat glossy but may yellow in full sun. The veins appear to be well pressed-into the leaf surface. Tear through the leaf and you will see several thin whitish strands along the torn edges, a characteristic of dogwood leaves.
A flower head develops in late spring to early summer at the top of the stem. Four to six modified leaves called bracts surround the cluster of tiny flowers in the centre. Most people think that these white bracts are the petals but they are not. True flowers huddle cheek-to-jowl in a central clump. Each mini-bloom consists of a tiny toothed tube of greenish sepals which in turn surrounds a tiny funnel of four purplish petals. The pistil hides within the throat of the flower. Four spindly stamens poke out from the mouth. The berry-like fruits mature in late summer and early fall into a bright red bunch (hence the common name). Alaskan bunchberry differs from the common and widespread bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) which has greenish white petals and no well-developed leaves on the stem.
Alaskan bunchberry haunts moist old-growth forests and thickets of British Columbia’s coastal strip. It thrives on acid soils rich in humus, draping over rotting logs and crowding under shrubs at the edges of bogs and in the sub-alpine zone. The geographic range of the species extends both north and south along the coast into Alaska and the northwestern United States. Common bunchberry replaces Alaskan bunchberry east of the Coast Mountains.
Alaskan bunchberries were much savoured by First Nations people of the coast. The berries were eaten raw, with eulachon fish grease and with sugar. Haida occasionally steamed the fruit, mixed it with water and grease and stored it for the winter. Although the berries have a pulpy texture and a large seed, their taste is pleasantly sweet.
Bunchberries make excellent garden subjects especially in moist shaded settings under trees and on the north side of buildings. They combine well with shrubby members of the heather family (Ericaceae) such as rhododendrons or azaleas. They need moist, airy and humus-enriched soil to thrive and do not enjoy warm sunny settings. We have grown bunchberries with tall ferns under a tree in the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum but they never seemed to flower the way they do in the wild.
Raise Alaskan bunchberries from seed or buy them from a garden centre or nursery where they are occasionally available. Sow the seed in the fall in a pot of peaty soil and leave over the winter. Plants with a vigorous root system raised in a pot succeed best.
The name “Cornus”, an ancient name for dogwoods, may be derived from “cornu” an old name for horn, because of the very hard wood of some of the tree dogwood species. The species name “unalaschkensis” recalls that the plant was named after Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Islands.
Northern North America is not known as a source of important of fruit crops. Most of our familiar fruits such as apples, plums, and cherries originated elsewhere. Several of our native species, such as coastal strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis) have been used in breeding programs. However, Saskatoon (also Saskatoon serviceberry), a showy shrub of the Rose Family (Rosaceae), provides wild fruit and is now grown as a commercial crop.
Saskatoon grows as a medium shrub to small many-stemmed tree reaching to 7 m (23’) high. The smooth stems are reddish brown to dark grey, and young twigs often silky. The 2.5 – 3.0 cm (1-1.2″) long leaves have an oval outline, but may be slightly pointed at the tip and heart-shaped at the base. Small teeth line part, or all the leaf’s margin. Young leaves are bright green but turn bluish green with age.
Bright white flowers occur in leafy clusters toward the ends of the branches. Somewhat hairy sepals form a base for the 1-2 cm (0.4-0.8”) long strap-shaped petals. About 20 stamens choke the throat of each flower, where they surround four to five styles.
The ovary of Saskatoon, like that of the apple or pear, is placed in an inferior position. This means that the sepals and the petals arise from the top of the ovary rather than below it, as is the case in a superior ovary.
The fruit is about 0.5 to 1.0 cm (0.2-0.4”) across, and globe shaped. Its colour ranges from purple to nearly black, often covered by a greyish blue bloom. Good quality fruit is juicy and sweet, however on the coast some of the berries dry out quickly becoming mealy or crunchy with little flavour.
Saskatoons thrive throughout British Columbia. The continental range extends along the coast from Alaska to California, eastward to New Mexico and north through the plains and prairies into Canada’s Northwest Territories. This shrub favours open to lightly shaded sites such as thickets, fence rows, clearings and edges of woods. A well-drained soil is essential.
Saskatoons were and are widely picked by First Nations. The Nlaka’pamux (formerly the Thompson) people recognized several types of bushes. Some types were gathered and dried for winter use. Other types were cooked to a jam-like form before being dried. Edible roots of other plants were sometimes soaked in Saskatoon juice to make them more flavourful and sweeter. Dried and rehydrated berries were added to dried vegetables and cooked into soups and puddings.
Many parts of the Saskatoon plant were used. A drink was made from the bark for stomach problems. Bark and twigs were turned into a medicine for recovery after childbirth and, in combination with other plants, to make a contraceptive. The tough hard wood made excellent arrows. Other uses included digging sticks, spear shafts and handles for tools. Saskatoon sticks were used to spread out cleaned salmon for drying, and the branches to construct shelters.
Today many British Columbians eat fresh berries off the bush or bake them in tasty pies. You can buy Saskatoon bushes specially bred for the home garden. These varieties produce bigger and sweeter fruit than most wild plants. In the prairies Saskatoon plantations yield the raw material for a regional specialty, Saskatoon wine.
Growing Saskatoons is an easy matter if you have a sunny well-drained site. In the late winter or early spring, buy a bush from the garden centre or order it through the mail. Plant the sapling in a moderately rich, but not heavily-fertilized, soil and mulch around the base. You may have to water during the first year to help the young plant settle in. Saskatoon shrubs can be used in many parts of the garden; the spring flowers are stunning and the bright yellow to red fall leaves provide a cheerful accent. Plants can be grown from seed and dug up as self-sown seedlings too.
The origin of the name Amelanchier remains unclear. The species name “alnifolia” means alder-leaved.
Saskatoon is an outstanding native shrub widely adapted to B.C.’s varying climates. Not only does it yield tasty fruit, but it serves well as a showy garden subject. To see Saskatoon berries visit the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, B.C.
Spring arrives early in southwestern British Columbia, and many plants waste no time producing flowers. June or Indian Plum, known botanically as Oemleria cerasiformis or not long ago as Osmaronia cerasiformis, is one of the earliest of all shrubs to bloom.
June Plum (also called Oso berry) is a deciduous shrub in the Rose Family (Rosaceae), which grows from 2-5 m (6.5-16.5’) tall. Stems and old branches are grey, but young branches appear dark wine red. The branches form a graceful upswept pattern. Thin, bright green leaves unfold as early as February. Tapered and oblong, they are usually widest above the mid-point. The leaf margin is smooth-edged and the lower surface paler than the upper. Leaves alternate along the branch, often standing erect when young. Crushed leaves smell like cucumber or watermelon rind.
Clusters of flowers dangle from the branch tips as the first leaves appear. A fully open flower cluster may reach 10 cm (4″) long and have six to 12 blooms. Each greenish-white blossom is about 1-1.5 cm (1/4-1/2″) across. Some people describe the flowers as almond-scented, whereas others call them bad smelling! In any case, once you have smelled them, their scent will be forever recognizable.
Five small greenish sepals and five greenish-white rounded petals arise from the edges of a cup-shaped structure, called a hypanthium. The hypanthium is formed from the swollen end of the stalklet bearing the flower. Stamens or pistils reside in the cup of the flower with male and female flowers on separate plants. In the male flower, 15 stamens form three rows at the edge and just inside the cup. Five pistils crowd together in the bottom of the female flower cup.
Male plants, perhaps surprisingly, produce the most abundant and showiest flowers. Having male and female flowers on separate bushes reduces the chances of in-breeding. But a great mystery surrounds the question of pollination. At flowering time there are few if any, bees out. Possibly native beetles do the honour, but even after many hours of observation, the responsible party has yet to been seen for sure.
Small fruits appear in spring. At first these are a pleasant peach colour but soon darken to dark blue or nearly black. Like their distant relatives, the true plums, the fruits are covered in a greyish bloom. A prominent groove marks one side of the fruit. Birds especially Cedar Waxwings gobble up ripe fruit and disperse the seed.
The distribution of June plum, hugs the southwest coast of British Columbia, on south Vancouver Island north to about Campbell River, and on the mainland as far as Yale and Squamish. Moist thickets, open woods and stream banks are its favourite haunts. June plums occur along the Pacific Coast, west of the Cascade Mountains as far south as northern California.
Where the climate permits, June plum makes a fine early spring shrub for the wild or woodland garden. It thrives in the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum where it requires little maintenance. The coloured fruits also draw much attention in early summer.
For flower and fruit display you will need one male and one female plant. This shrub is raised from suckers, twig cuttings or seeds. Seeds need a long, cold moist spell followed by a warm interval to germinate, so best plant them in the summer when fruit ripens and leave until the following spring. You may often find seedlings in fence lines and shrubs where birds perch and pass seed.
Generally, the fruit has a bitter choking taste, though I find fully ripe fruit tasty. Nevertheless, First Nations people around the southern Strait of Georgia and Puget Sound ate small quantities of fresh or dried “plums”. The fruit is not poisonous, although at the Royal BC Museum we get calls from concerned parents whose children have tried it. First Nations of the Saanich Peninsula still boil Indian plum bark (sticks) in water and drink the liquid for diarrhea. Bark is also used in a complex mixture to treat several serious ailments.
Oemlaria got its name from an obscure individual called “Oemler”. The species name cerasiformis refers to the cherry-shaped appearance of the fruits.
See June plum in the Native Plant Garden at the Royal BC Museum at any time of the year. It is at its best in the warming days of late February and March when the first flowers open to greet the sun.
We have long recognized the vital role of shade trees in creating a pleasant environment around our homes. Most shade tree species and varieties hail from distant regions and lands. British Columbia is home to one of the noblest, but for some reason little-used shade trees, bigleaf maple.
Bigleaf, broadleaf, common or Oregon maple grows as a tall spreading tree to 30 m (100′) high, casting filtered shade beneath. In undamaged trees, the widely spreading root system supports a short trunk 60-150 cm (2-5′) across, from which reach out great limbs. However many trees have been cut, and hence grow as groups of tall greyish sapling stems. Old branches are bedecked and festooned with colourful mosses, leafy and crusty lichens. Young twigs are coloured an attractive medium green. Fat green buds end the branches during the winter.
Leaves of bigleaf maple are the largest of any tree in British Columbia. Their form is typical for maples; three to five sharply-tipped lobes with deep indentations between them. Spring foliage emerges soft yellow green in the sun’s light and soon expands to full size, some leaves more than 30 cm (12″) across. In fall the foliage mantles each tree in a rich yellow-orange cloak, before the leaves fall to earth to be crunched underfoot.
The 10-15 cm (4-6″) long flower clusters rival any in the genus of maples. They burst forth in early spring revealing often 50 or more small greenish yellow fragrant blooms. Male and female flowers are separate, but occur in the same cluster. Each flower consists of petal-like sepals, and five petals surrounding either a group of long protruding spindly stamens or a two-parted ovary with two stigmas. The clusters magnetically attract pollinating flies until each tree hums softly like a giant machine. The large fruits have the typical form of maple keys consisting of a wing and body. The spiny hairs, which cover the surface of the body, will penetrate and irritate the skin.
In British Columbia the maple’s natural range includes most of Vancouver Island and the adjacent mainland coast, extending well up major valleys. Bigleaf maple is reported as far north as Alaska, but the main distribution extends from BC mostly west of the Cascade Mountains south to California with an outlying population in Idaho. Bigleaf maple thrives in rich moist soils especially along rivers, streams and floodplains. Curiously you will also find it on moist rocky slopes often rooted in the rubble at the foot of cliffs. The tree grows well in disturbed settings along roads and fence rows.
Although some authors consider bigleaf maple of little horticultural value, it makes an outstanding shade tree. The airy canopy produces light, rather than oppressive shade. Once the leaves fall, weak but welcome winter sunlight can penetrate into the home. Because of its size, this maple may not suit refined urban gardens, but it cannot be beat as a huge specimen tree for a large yard, park or street planting. You can easily raise maple trees from seeds planted in ordinary soil. Often, hundreds of seedlings struggle to survive under majestic parent trees. These seedlings transplant easily in the moist coastal winter and spring. You may have a problem growing a traditional flower garden below the thirsty tree. However, native species such as salal (Gaultheria shallon), Oregon Grape (Mahonia spp.) and sword fern (Polystichum munitum) thrive beneath its umbrella.
Bigleaf maple wood found many uses among British Columbia’s coastal First Nations. From it they made dishes, spoons, rattles, bark shredders, axe handles and numerous other tools. The wood is perhaps best known for the carving of beautiful spindle whorls and canoe paddles. Many aboriginal peoples valued the wood as a fuel, for it burns hot and clean. Bigleaf maple is an excellent fuel tree today too, because it can be cut to harvest the firewood and re-sprout fresh new suckers for future wood production. Well-managed root systems and stumps yield firewood for many decades. Aboriginal people also used the bark to weave ropes and baskets. The large leaves were spread over and under food in steam pits and picking baskets.
Incidentally people have tried to make syrup from spring sap but the sugar concentrations are mostly too low and the day-night temperature changes too slight for a good flow.
The scientific name Acer derives from the classic Latin name for maple. The species name “macrophyllum” celebrates the tree’s most obvious feature, the big (macro) leaves (phyllum). This handsome arboreal giant and other maples were once happily in the Maple family (Aceraceae). Now through the wonders of DNA analysis they have been added to the Horse-chestnut family Sapindaceae.
Looking for a shade tree or an excellent permanent firewood source, try our native bigleaf maple. This under-appreciated native species deserves to be more widely grown. For more information on native species please visit our Native Plant Garden, of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
British Columbia is full of rocks, and rocks are not hospitable places to make a living. One group of plants, the stonecrops (Sedum spp.), have adapted superbly to this often harsh setting. Broad-leaved (also broadleaf) stonecrop (Sedum spathulifolium) is an exceptionally attractive and abundant stonecrop reveling in the stony outcrops on the coast of our province.
Broad-leaved stonecrop of the Stonecrop Family (Crassulaceae), forms low, spreading mats in patches of densely-packed rosettes of flattened leaves. These leaf rosettes arise along a creeping stem called a stolon. Clusters of fibrous roots from the stem cling tenaciously to rocks and shallow soil spreading from crevice to crevice. About 15 leaves form the rosettes which typically reach 2-4 cm (0.8-1.6″) across. The fleshy, greyish-green leaf blades sit almost directly on the stem. Each leaf broadens out wider than the base to a broad tip, hence the common name. Like many plants which survive in harsh dry places, this herb stores water in its thick leaves.
Brilliant yellow flower heads adorn stiff stalks which stand about 10-15 cm (4-6″) tall. Small five-petalled star-like flowers crowd the flower head. The narrow pointed petals surround a cluster of 10 yellow stamens 5 pistils. In British Columbia, the flowers appear mostly from May to July.
Broad-leaved stonecrop grows abundantly on coastal cliffs and dry sites on Vancouver Island and adjacent Gulf Islands but less frequently on the nearby mainland. The range extends southward as far as California. Look for stonecrop along the shore and even well up mountain slopes in dry forest openings.
This stonecrop excels as a garden plant for dry sites. Simply plant a small piece of rooted stem in a little bit of soil. Try it in a rock garden, on a stone wall or next to a stone or gravel path. Even tuck it into a roadside rock face. Can you image what our rocky roadsides might look like covered in brilliant yellow? Once this plant takes hold, it will spread in a most attractive manner plugging cracks between rocks and blanketing rough spots. This species tolerates some shade too, although its form becomes generally looser. Stonecrop needs little attention once established; remove dead stems after flowering if you wish, and keep grasses from rooting in the mat. As the patch expands you will be rewarded with plenty of offsets for new plantings. I have watched a small piece double in size after a month and quadruple after a season. Broad-leaved stonecrop is one of the easier native plants to get because it is occasionally available through garden centres. Indeed, several forms, including some with reddish or purplish leaves, others with a bluish hue, are being sold. A grey-white variety called ‘Cape Blanco’ seems to be widely available. You could create a rock garden of varying hue by planting several different colour forms. Broad-leaved stonecrop is hardy to zones 5-6 in Canada.
First Peoples put stonecrop to some interesting uses. Nlaka’pamux (previously Thompson) People of the Fraser River Canyon boiled the whole plant and used the liquid to soothe cross babies and relieve constipation. Stonecrops, in general, were used to make poultices for treating piles.
The scientific name Sedum apparently was used for stonecrops in ancient times, possibly derived from the Latin “sedeo” which means “I sit” as indeed it does on its favoured stony substrates. Come and see broadleaf stonecrop sitting around on the rocks in the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.
British Columbia is home to a diverse collection of gorgeous native shrubs. Many of them produce edible wild fruit too. Few are as versatile and adaptable to the home garden as the Oregon-grapes (Mahonia spp.) and of these Tall Oregon-grape (Mahonia aquifolium) has the highest profile.
Tall Oregon-grape forms handsome shrubby clumps of few to many upright greyish canes. Wild clumps normally grow half to one and a half metres (20-60″) tall, but straggly individuals can reach 2.5 m (100″). The inside of the stems and roots is coloured brightly yellow. Shiny, compound evergreen leaves, with 5-9 leaflets crowd toward the ends of stems. Spiny teeth line leaflet edges giving rise to the species name “aquifolium” which is a classical name for holly (Ilex spp). Hollyleaved barberry is another name for the plant and as is the case with the holly the leaves can be painful. In the summer, leaves shine lustrous green, but in the winter they turn an attractive bronze or even red. Delicate new spring growth emerges reddish too.
On the coast many-flowered clusters of brilliant yellow blossoms appear as early as late February and persist into April. Often several clusters throng the end of a stem creating a colourful display. In the blooms of this plant, the petals and sepals are both coloured so that each delicately scented flower has three whorls of three petal-like segments. Glands at the base of the segments produce clear drops of nectar. Inside a ring of seven yellowish stamens, each with peculiar projecting “ears”, squats a greenish pistil. Grape-like bunches of small blue berries replace the flowers in late spring and summer. The stunning display of abundant fruits is so appealing that you might be tempted to stuff them into your mouth. Avoid that temptation because the berries are mouth-pucker sour and contain large seeds.
In British Columbia this shrub occurs from Prince George southward in the interior and to the north end of Vancouver Island on the coast. The range extends southward into Oregon and eastward to Idaho. The natural habitat includes open woodland, edges of meadows and, in the interior, sagebrush covered hills.
Tall Oregon-grape was introduced to European gardens in the early 1800s. Generally it is a co-operative horticultural shrub especially for partly-shaded to open well-drained sites. Once planted it may need occasional pruning immediately after flowering to keep a neat form. Cold, drying winter winds kill exposed foliage. Try tall Oregon-grape in a shrub border, hedge, or naturalized thickets along with Nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp.). Landscapers use it widely around institutional buildings on south Vancouver Island. A dense hedge of it may keep out nosy intruders.
Tall Oregon-grape plants are easily obtained from garden centres and nurseries on the west coast. They can be grown from seed too. Sow ripe seed in the fall and transplant young seedlings the following fall into nursery beds. At the Native Plant Garden of the Royal British Columbia Museum tall Oregon-grape spreads widely by seed into adjacent herbaceous beds. Thickets spread outward underground so prepare to keep them in check.
First Peoples knew tall Oregon-grape well. They ate the fresh berries and, on south Vancouver Island, used them as an antidote to shellfish poisoning. Nlaka’pamux (previously Thompson) People of the Fraser River Canyon boiled the outer bark of the roots to make a bright yellow dye for baskets. Liquid from the bark of boiled woody stems helped treat red itchy eyes.
The blue berries make an excellent wild jelly. Use lots of sugar to moderate the tartness, and screen out the large and bitter seeds.
Our Oregon-grapes have been known botanically by two names: Mahonia and Berberis. Mahonia, honours an 18-19th century American horticulturalist Bernard M’Mahon. The name Berberis (barberry in English) originates in a similar Arabic name for barberry fruit.
Tall Oregon-grape is a wonderful coastal landscape shrub. It is attractive all year round and produces edible berries. Look for it and its berries in the wild and come and see masses of it at the Native Plant Garden of the Museum in Victoria.
There isn’t a month of the year where European Wall Lizards are completely torpid here on Vancouver Island. We are nearing the solstice, and lizards are still out and about.
I went out with my wife and daughter to Crumsby’s this weekend, and later, we had plans to do some shopping – and groceries – the usual weekend activities.
But the weather was nice – 7 degrees Celsius and sunny – so I suggested we divert to the Moss Rocks area for a few minutes and see if we could find a European Wall Lizard. My wife now accepts such requests as normal – we may be talking about christmas shopping and trying to entertain our daughter, but she knows I am looking for lizards if it is sunny. At least lizards in a cup, tub, or zip-lock bag don’t smell as bad as some of the road-kill we have collected.
I saw – or more accurately heard – the first lizard just as I stepped out of the car. Within seconds I had evidence of lizards active in December. They were high up on the bedrock wall along May Street. A patient wait of a few more minutes was rewarded by sight of three lizards which crawled out of a cold crevice, and lined up to absorb as much heat as possible from the sun.
Farther along the street was a concrete wall covered in roots – an easy place to ambush a lizard. There were at least 8 lizards on that small concrete wall – I caught these three in two minutes. They now are preserved a cataloged as 2127 in the Royal BC Museum’s herpetology collection as evidence of the winter activity of an invasive lizard.
Interesting tidbit of information was that the lizards were warm to the touch – they must find really effective basking sites to warm themselves that much above the ambient air temperature. The rocks themselves were not that warm.
We report the recent discovery of Oxypolis occidentalis, a species that is new to both British Columbia and Canada, disjunct on the Queen Charlotte Islands.
Kendrick L. Marr1, Geraldine A. Allen and Richard J. Hebda
Aim Late Pleistocene ice sheets are thought to have covered most of western Canada, including all of British Columbia (BC). We examine patterns of genetic variation in an Arctic–alpine plant to evaluate the possibility of full glacial refugia within the area covered by the Cordilleran ice sheet (CIS) and to uncover post-glacial migration routes.
Location Western North America.
Methods We sampled 1030 individuals of the Arctic–alpine plant Oxyria digyna from 117 populations distributed over much of its range in western and northern North America. DNA haplotypes were identified using restriction site analysis of two chloroplast DNA intergene spacer regions, psbA-trnH and trnT-L. We examined the geographical distribution of haplotype diversity in relation to latitude, and also compared various indices of diversity in putatively glaciated and unglaciated regions. Patterns of migration were inferred using nested clade analysis.
Results We detected a total of 20 haplotypes. High haplotype diversity was found in Beringia, in unglaciated western USA, and in northern BC at 57–59° N, well within the accepted limits of the CIS. Ancestral haplotypes were also centred in northern BC.
Main conclusions High genetic diversity of Oxyria digyna is expected in unglaciated regions, but unexpected in northern BC if British Columbia was entirely covered by ice during the late Pleistocene. Our observations suggest the presence of unglaciated areas providing late Pleistocene refugia in northern BC. Such refugia would have important implications for the origins and migrations of many plant and animal species in north-western North America.
The ranges of arctic-alpine species have shifted extensively with Pleistocene climate changes and glaciations. Using sequence data from the trnH-psbA and trnT-trnL chloroplast DNA spacer regions, we investigated the phylogeography of the widespread, ancient (>3 million years) arctic-alpine plant Oxyria digyna (Polygonaceae). We identified 45 haplotypes and six highly divergent major lineages; estimated ages of these lineages (time to most recent common ancestor, T(MRCA)) ranged from ∼0.5 to 2.5 million years. One lineage is widespread in the arctic, a second is restricted to the southern Rocky Mountains of the western United States, and a third was found only in the Himalayan and Altai regions of Asia. Three other lineages are widespread in western North America, where they overlap extensively. The high genetic diversity and the presence of divergent major cpDNA lineages within Oxyria digyna reflect its age and suggest that it was widespread during much of its history. The distributions of individual lineages indicate repeated spread of Oxyria digyna through North America over multiple glacial cycles. During the Last Glacial Maximum it persisted in multiple refugia in western North America, including Beringia, south of the continental ice, and within the northern limits of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Our data contribute to a growing body of evidence that arctic-alpine species have migrated from different source regions over multiple glacial cycles and that cryptic refugia contributed to persistence through the Last Glacial Maximum.
Arctic-alpine plants; Pleistocene glaciations; cpDNA; phylogeography; refugia
Many plant species comprising the present-day Arctic flora are thought to have originated in the high mountains of North America and Eurasia, migrated northwards as global temperatures fell during the late Tertiary period, and thereafter attained a circumarctic distribution. However, supporting evidence for this hypothesis that provides a temporal framework for the origin, spread and initial attainment of a circumarctic distribution by an arctic plant is currently lacking. Here we examined the origin and initial formation of a circumarctic distribution of the arctic mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) by conducting a phylogeographic analysis of plastid and nuclear gene DNA variation. We provide evidence for an origin of this species in the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau of southwestern China, followed by migration into Russia c. 11 million yr ago (Ma), eastwards into North America by c. 4 Ma, and westwards into Western Europe by c. 1.96 Ma. Thereafter, the species attained a circumarctic distribution by colonizing Greenland from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Following the arrival of the species in North America and Europe, population sizes appear to have increased and then stabilized there over the last 1 million yr. However, in Greenland a marked reduction followed by an expansion in population size is indicated to have occurred during the Pleistocene.
ancestral location; arctic flora; circumarctic distribution; migration; species origin
Samples came primarily from western North America, with a few from the Arctic and Eurasia.
We sequenced two chloroplast DNA spacer regions, trnH–psbA and trnS–G, in individuals from 199 populations and mapped haplotype distributions and their relationships using a haplotype network. We calculated genetic and molecular diversity statistics for the seven geographical regions from which we obtained samples.
Fifteen haplotypes were detected, with very little divergence among them. The haplotypes are separated into two main groups by the presence or absence of a 22 bp tandem duplication. Four haplotypes are common, widespread and with substantial range overlap; 11 are rare and mostly unique to one region. Two rare haplotypes were found only in British Columbia (BC). Western North America and Asia have the highest levels of genetic and molecular diversity. Northern and southern BC have different haplotype complements.
Bistorta vivipara has relatively low genetic diversity, with much less genetic structure than we expected for such a widespread species. We expected significant geographical structure due to the combined effects of genetic drift and geographical isolation. The asexual reproductive mode of B. vivipara may facilitate relatively rapid population establishment and spread compared with sexual reproduction by seed. Bistorta vivipara probably originated in Asia and spread to North America and Europe prior to the LGM. In western North America it spread to its modern distribution from Beringia and the western USA following the LGM. Populations in northern and southern BC may have different histories, possibly related to the timing and extent of glaciation. The occurrence of two unique haplotypes within BC suggests that some individuals may have survived in full glacial refugia within BC.
Northern Hemisphere, especially North America.
We sampled Sibbaldia from 176 localities, including 168 for S. pro-cumbens. We analysed sequence variation in three plastid DNA non-coding regions (the atpI–atpH and trnL–trnF intergenic spacers and the trnL intron), performed Bayesian phylogenetic analyses and statistical parsimony analyses on the combined sequences, and analysed the geographical patterns of haplotype distribution and genetic diversity using data from all populations.
Sibbaldia procumbens probably originated in the mountains of South and East Asia. We identified highly distinct clades in Europe and North America, which overlapped on oceanic islands of the North Atlantic indicating long-distance dispersal capability. The North American clade included two lineages, one in California and the other widely distributed across the continent and North Atlantic. Haplotype diversity in the latter lineage was markedly higher to the south, suggesting mid–late Pleistocene southward displacement of North American populations with subsequent migration northwards into previously glaciated regions. In Europe, disjunct geographical regions generally harboured distinct haplotypes.
Multiple Pleistocene refugia for S. procumbens occurred in both North America and Europe. North American refugia existed in California and in the southern Rocky Mountains, but in contrast with most widespread arctic–alpine species we found no evidence for a Beringian refugium. Cryptic refugia may have existed within the Cordilleran Ice Sheet. Episodes of range expansion and contraction and long-distance dispersal have all contributed to the genetic structure and widespread but fragmented distribution of this species.
PREMISE OF THE STUDY: Many arctic-alpine species have vast geographic ranges, but these may encompass substantial gaps whose origins are poorly understood. Here we address the phylogeographic history of Silene acaulis, a perennial cushion plant with a circumpolar distribution except for a large gap in Siberia.
METHODS: We assessed genetic variation in a range-wide sample of 103 populations using plastid DNA (pDNA) sequences and AFLPs (amplified fragment length polymorphisms). We constructed a haplotype network and performed Bayesian phylogenetic analyses based on plastid sequences. We visualized AFLP patterns using principal coordinate analysis, identified genetic groups using the program structure, and estimated genetic diversity and rarity indices by geographic region.
KEY RESULTS: The history of the main pDNA lineages was estimated to span several glaciations. AFLP data revealed a distinct division between Beringia/North America and Europe/East Greenland. These two regions shared only one of 17 pDNA haplotypes. Populations on opposite sides of the Siberian range gap (Ural Mountains and Chukotka) were genetically distinct and appear to have resulted from postglacial leading-edge colonizations. We inferred two refugia in North America (Beringia and the southern Rocky Mountains) and two in Europe (central-southern Europe and northern Europe/East Greenland). Patterns in the East Atlantic region suggested transoceanic long-distance dispersal events.
CONCLUSIONS: Silene acaulis has a highly dynamic history characterized by vicariance, regional extinction, and recolonization, with persistence in at least four refugia. Long-distance dispersal explains patterns across the Atlantic Ocean, but we found no evidence of dispersal across the Siberian range gap.
Key words: AFLP, arctic-alpine, Caryophyllaceae, disjunct distribution, phylogeography, psbD-trnT(GGU) spacer, rpL32-trnL(UAG) spacer, Silene acaulis, trnL(UAA) intron, trnL(UAA)-trnF(GAA) spacer, refugia
We used PCA of morphological characters to confirm the presence of an undescribed Calamagrostis species in Washington and Oregon that has historically been attributed to Calamagrostis vaseyi. We propose to name this grass Calamagrostis tacomensis. It is most similar to C. foliosa although it has often been confused with C. purpurascens and C. sesquiflora all of which have similar lemma awn characteristics (i.e., the awn relatively long, exserted, and bent). Calamagrostis tacomensis has been collected at high elevations (490–2170 m) in the Washington Cascades, the Olympic Peninsula and the Steens Mountains of Oregon. The name C. vaseyi has been misapplied to our new species. The description of C. vaseyi is similar to C. rubescens. We have studied the specimen that has been attributed to be the type of C. vaseyi and it is C. purpurascens. We lectotypify C. vaseyi.
The taxonomically difficult and ecologically and phytogeographically important genus, Calamagrostis, was examined for British Columbia (BC). Morphological characters were analyzed by Principal Components Analysis (PCA) to characterize taxa and to aid in the development of a new key. Eight native species (Calamagrostis canadensis, C. lapponica, C. montanensis, C. nutkaensis, C. purpurascens, C. rubescens, C. sesquiflora, and C. stricta) are confirmed to occur in British Columbia, of which C. montanensis, C. nutkaensis, C. purpurascens, C. rubescens, and C. sesquiflora are reliably distinguishable. Comparison of species distribution to regional climatic and vegetation history suggests that Calamagrostis nutkaensis and C. sesquiflora likely survived in coastal refugia during late Wisconsin glaciations. Calamagrostis purpurascens likely persisted beyond the glacial limits or within nunataks and then spread into previously glaciated sites. Two interior continental species, C. montanensis and C. rubescens, probably spread north and west from the unglaciated zone south of the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets. Calamagrostis lapponica likely persisted north of the ice sheets, and then spread southward into high-elevation sites in northern and eastern BC. Calamagrostis canadensis and C. stricta probably survived south and north of the ice sheets, and then spread into the previously glaciated terrain.
KENDRICK L. MARR, RICHARD J. HEBDA, and WILLIAM H. MACKENZIE
Between 2002 and 2011, we collected vascular plants from alpine areas of northern British Columbia (B.C.). We have found one species that has not previously been collected in the province: Phippsia algida. Collections of an additional three species represent significant range extensions of species already known to occur in the province: Aphragmus eschscholtzianus, Papaver alboroseum, and Montia bostockii. Our collections of Delphinium brachycentrum initially appeared to be the first records for the province; however, examination of herbarium specimens at the Royal British Columbia Museum herbarium indicated that this species had been collected prior to our field work but had been misidentified. We indicate the distribution of this species in B.C. for the first time, and we present a corrected distribution map for Tephroseris yukonensis that includes our
Key Words: alpine vascular plants, new records, range extensions, Tephroseris yukonensis, Phippsia algida, Delphinium brachycentrum, Aphragmus eschscholtzianus, Papaver alboroseum, Montia bostockii, British Columbia.
The distribution of northern British Columbia alpine plants is poorly documented. To improve our understanding of the flora of this vast, remote region, we collected more than 11 000 specimens from 65 mountains during 2002–2011. Most of these locations had not been visited by botanists. Of the more than 400 species we have collected, two are new to the province, others represent significant range extensions. Twelve species share elements of a disjunct distribution that has apparently not been previously recognized and consists of three regions: (1) northwestern North America; (2) Beartooth Plateau; and (3) northern Colorado. These 12 species appear to be absent from the extensive areas of suitable habitat that occur in the intervening areas. The most reasonable explanation for this pattern is that these species, adapted to arctic–alpine tundra conditions, migrated throughout western North America during the Pleistocene, a time when suitable habitat was much more widespread than now, and subsequently went extinct in many areas as the climate warmed during the Holocene.
British Columbia’s moist and mild coastal climate provides ideal conditions for ferns to thrive, so much so that several fern species are obvious and characteristic features of the conifer forest floor. Most abundant of all these ferns is the stately and lush sword fern of the Wood Fern Family (Dryopteridaceae).
Sword ferns grow into a large perennial clump of leaves spreading out from a massive crown. This crown consists of a woody mass of rhizomes (root-stems) buried in reddish brown scales and dead leaf bases. Roots explore the soil outward from the rhizome. In a mature well-established clump the crown may stretch half a meter (20”) or more in diameter.
Dark evergreen fronds stand stiffly from the crown. Fronds reach as tall as 1.5 metres (60”) and up to 25 cm (10″) wide. The lower third of the frond consists of a densely scaly brown stalk, called a stipe by botanists. The upper two-thirds of the frond have numerous narrow, pointed and toothed leaflets. Near the tip of the frond the leaflets become progressively shorter. Young unfolding leaves are at first curled like a shepherd’s crook or crozier, then gradually unfurl and expand.
Ferns are not flowering plants; they reproduce by spores which are microscopic pollen-grain like bits of plant tissue. Spores form inside tiny thin-walled sacs called sporangia. The sporangia of sword fern cluster in brown dot-like structures called “sori” (singular “soros”), which line the back of each leaflet of the frond. These many (= “polys” in Greek) lines (= “stichos” in Greek) of sori give rise to the scientific name Polystichum. The species name munitum (“armed”) derives from the numerous pointed teeth along the leaflets.
Sporangia split open and the spores drift to the ground where they germinate only if it’s moist. The spores grow into small delicate mini-plants called gametophytes with only one set of chromosomes, half of the double set of the much larger and robust parent. Male and female structures develop on the gametophytes and male sperm swim to fertilize the female egg. Once fertilized, the egg develops into a proper leafy fern plant.
In British Columbia sword fern is dominantly a coastal species, occurring more than two-thirds of the way to the Yukon border. The range extends across extreme southern B.C. and adjacent Washington and Idaho in moist climates in the southeast part of the province. The North American range extends along the coast from Alaska almost to the Mexican border. Generally sword fern thrives in the shaded humus of the damp to moist conifer forest floor. In very wet forests you may see it perched on a shady rock face. Sword fern forms a distinctive association with western redcedar (Thuja plicata) on nutrient rich seepage sites. Fern clumps completely cover the forest floor, in a manner somewhat reminiscent of a lush tropical jungle. A stiffer narrow-leaved species of sword fern, called imbricate sword fern (Polvstichun imbricans) grows among boulders and in rock crevices in dry, usually open settings.
Aboriginal British Columbians used sword fern for various purposes. In spring rhizomes were dug, cleaned and roasted in open fires or earth pits. Cooked rhizomes were then peeled and eaten usually with grease or salmon eggs. The fronds were used to line pits for cooking root foods and to line boxes and baskets. Fern fronds also provided a decorative motif for basket designs.
Sword fern is among the easiest ferns to grow in the garden. Since this fern is so ubiquitous in coastal lowland sites, many suburban building lots come with their own supply. If possible it’s best to leave the clump where it sits, making sure there is shade. However the plants transplant readily and many can be easily rescued from development projects. Sword fern is one of the more widely available of our native species. So ask the owner of your local garden centre or nursery to order it in if you cannot get it from a friend or rescue site. Spores spread about a moist and shaded site will yield even more fern plants in a few years.
For best results, choose a shaded to partly open damp setting. In the Native Plant Garden at the Royal BC Museum we have used it in a mass planting under trees between two buildings where it suits the poorly lit situation much better than a high care lawn. Sword fern is ideal for a woodland garden, providing a lush verdant framework for the garden’s further development. Once established, the only care the fern needs is the removal of unsightly dry fronds in winter.
Try ferns in your garden: many are well suited for those difficult shaded sites. Ferns also illustrate how less-advanced plants reproduce without flowers. Visit the Native Plant Garden at the museum and see luxuriant clumps of sword fern and other fern species.
The Heather Family (Ericaceae) is well known in Canada for its many shrubby species such as blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), salal (Gaultheria shallon) and Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum; previously Ledum groenlandicum). We in British Columbia are fortunate to have the only tree-sized member of the Heather Family in Canada, the distinctive and handsome arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) also known as Pacific madrone, madrona and strawberry tree.
Arbutus grows into a multi-stemmed shrub or tree with crooked trunks sometimes twisting their way up to 35 m (approximately 120′) tall. The smooth reddish bark stands out from that of all other trees in our province. It flakes off in the late fall, being replaced by young greenish yellow bark from beneath as the trees begin to swell and grow with fall moisture.
Leathery, oval evergreen leaves cluster toward the ends of the branches. Above they are shiny green, but below they are pale. Typical leaves range from 5-15 cm (2-6”) long, Young shoots bear finely toothed leaves whereas those of mature shoots have no teeth.
Like bunches of grapes, great clusters of creamy or pinkish white, honey-scented flowers adorn the ends of the branches. Each small flower resembles a tiny white bell, pinched in at the mouth. The tips of the petals form five little teeth, a feature common to many flowers of the Heather Family. Within the flower nestle 10 stamens and a single five-parted pistil.
Brick-red berries form in the late fall and persist well into winter. Each fruit in the cluster is about a centimeter (0.4″) across and covered by tiny little bumps. Birds, especially grouse, feast on these attractive fruits.
The geographic range of arbutus hugs the Pacific Coast of North America from southern British Columbia to California. In our province, arbutus occurs on the southern two-thirds of Vancouver Island, especially the east side, and the adjacent Mainland almost to Knight Inlet. Rocky knolls and cliffs provide the classic hang-out for the species. The tree appears to wrest nutrients from the bare rock itself. Arbutus grows extremely well in open dry Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) woodland and forest, where the soils are deeper. On these sites, trees can reach great girth and height at times forming “magical” groves. In Victoria arbutus trees and shrubs appear in boulevards and on roadside banks “inoculated” so to speak, by perching birds
Once established, arbutus makes a superb, undemanding garden and landscape plant. Evergreen leaves, exquisitely attractive bark, beautiful flowers and brilliant berries are outstanding features. The only drawbacks may be the cleanup of the leaves, particularly in the late summer, and the lack of frost tolerance. There is also a stem canker present in the region which can kill branches.
The easiest way to have arbutus on your property is to leave and encourage already established plants. You can raise arbutus with relative ease from seed sown in the fall and covered lightly in a peat-potting soil-sand mixture. If you have a very dry south, or west-facing site, simply spread fruits collected in the fall, and you will be surprised at the rate of successful germination in places where you could never expect to plant a seedling. Arbutus plants larger than 20 cm (8″) tall are almost impossible to transplant and should never be dug up. Move only seedlings from waste sites with loose soils in the wettest part of the winter. Be sure to dig up the entire root and keep as much of the soil attached as possible. Occasionally, potted seedlings are available at garden centres and native plant sales.
Aboriginal peoples put arbutus to assorted uses in technology and medicine. Saanich people used the wood for spoons and gambling sticks. The Sechelt made keels and sterns for small boats from the hard wood. Dye from bark was used to color wooden utensils and camas bulbs in cooking pits. On the Saanich Peninsula, leaves and bark yielded medicines for colds, stomach problems, tuberculosis and birth control.
The dense hard wood is widely used for artistic carving, taking polish very well. It also provides hot slow-burning firewood.
The scientific name Arbutus is the same name as Romans used for a similar and closely-related tree known as the Strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo) The species name, menziesii, honours Archibald Menzies, Royal Navy botanist and surgeon, who collected many plants in our area in the 1780’s and 1790’s.
You can see and learn more about arbutus and many other members of the Heather Family at the Native Plant Garden of The Royal British Columbia Museum, 675 Belleville Street, in Victoria, B.C.
The search for strong growing, attractive ground-cover plants is a major focus in the low-care gardening of the modern day. Many widely used ground cover plants are not native to British Columbia region and have the bad habitat of being aggressive invaders into our natural environment. Periwinkle (Vinca) and English ivy (Hedera helix) are good examples, and are now the target of removal efforts.
These non-native garden plants often do not thrive in the drier colder climates of inland British Columbia. Many native species spread widely and establish attractive and tough natural ground covers but are not nearly so invasive grow more vigorously in our inland climates. Rosy pussytoes (Antennaria rosea) is a widespread BC native species of the Aster Family that offers an alternative ground cover choice.
The pussytoes genus (Antennaria) is not well known to gardeners, yet there are as many as 15 species growing in open and even lightly shaded situations in BC from the hot valley bottoms to the alpine heights. Typically these are low growing plants that hug the ground surface and spread by densely spaced rooting stems called stolons. Rosy pussytoes is typical of this form. It forms a dense interwoven mat with numerous fibrous roots firmly anchoring it to the soil. Numerous spoon-shaped to broadly elongate leaves cover the horizontal stems and persist through the winter. Their gray green hue provides a pleasing textural effect.
Leafy branching stems rise from the matted surface to a height of about 5-40 cm (2-16”) tall. Densely packed wooly hairs cover the stems. Stem leaves are mostly narrow, ranging from 0.5-3.5 cm long and end in a sharp tip.
Half centimeter tall flowerheads occur in tight rounded clusters at the tips of the stems, each flower head soft and firm like a kitten’s toe. The flower head consists of modified leaves called bracts that surround a mass of tightly packed individual flowers. The bracts are very hairy at the base hence the softness. They also provide the colour, in the case of Antennaria rosea varying shades of pink. The whitish, true flowers emerge somewhat from the surrounding bracts in an attractive effect. A close relative and sometimes considered the same species, white pussytoes (Antennaria microphylla) has mostly greenish to white bracts and is also a good garden plant. Males and females are on separate plants and flowers appear from June to August.
Rosy pussytoes is a widely adapted plant growing throughout most of our province except the wet climates of Haida Gwaii and the central and north coast. The geographic range also extends to Alaska, Yukon and eastward to Quebec and southward to New Mexico and California. The natural habitat includes moderately moist to dry slopes, terraces along rivers, openings in forests, grasslands and dry sub-alpine meadows. It grows across a wide range of climates extending from lowland to high mountain elevations. We see rosy pussytoes occasionally during our expeditions to document the plants of BC’s northern mountains, where it appears on south-facing slopes just into the upper part of the subalpine zone.
The species is widely adaptable to uses in open garden settings. In the book by Wendy Mee and other authors Waterwise: Native Plants for Intermountain Landscapes (Utah State University Press 2003) rosy pussytoes is recommended for rock gardens, small spaces and borders. To this I would add small eroding banks with poor soils and in and around paving stones. It tolerates a modest level of foot traffic. Make sure the soil has good drainage. Plants can be propagated like strawberries from rooted horizontal stems, best in the early spring or fall. Plant on loose gravelly soil to get them started. Propagation from fresh fall sown seed is easy, with seedlings ready to plant out in 4 months after germination. Rosy Pussytoes is hardy to zone 2 and can be grown in most gardens in BC.
BC First Nations people of the southern interior had several uses for the plant. Dried roots were powdered, put into hot coals at winter dances and the smoke was believed to drive away bad spirits and revive passed out dancers. The leaves could also be chewed and swallowed to increase male virility.
Expand your choice of ground covers beyond the common and sometimes invasive foreigners. Try rosy pussy toes as a native alternative.
It’s a sunny November 14th, 2016. Halloween is a distant memory. Remembrance Day is still fresh in my mind. And now comes the season where shops compete with dreary songs to get us into the shopping, I mean christmas spirit. I used to hate this time of year – the rustle of dry cattails in my favorite swamps, heavy frost, the puddles with their morning skim of ice, the crisp air, Canada Geese flying off like bomber squadrons over the English Channel… It all meant one thing – snow and cold.
Ah what am I saying, I live in Victoria now, we haven’t had snow in my neighborhood for two years now. Winter here is cool and wet, and on warm, sunny winter days you can still find lizards. Yes, the European Wall Lizard is active in winter as long as it is sunny. On November 14th, there were almost as many Wall Lizards crawling around as in summer. They were intent on basking, and given how warm the bedrock was in the sunlight, thigmothermy must play heavily into their winter behavior. Homeowners along May Street in Victoria say that Wall Lizards poke their heads out of rock walls as soon as the sun comes out in January. Other reptiles here emerge by late February to early March; the amphibians of southwestern BC are active all winter. Elsewhere in Canada amphibians and reptiles hibernate until mid-April at the earliest.
As far as I know, the only month where we haven’t seen wall Lizards is December. Guess what my mission is this year?
Wall Lizards from Moss Rocks Park, collected about 12:40 – November 14, 2016. Cataloged # 2125 in the RBCM Herpetology collection
You guessed it – I am on the hunt for the elusive lézard d’hiver. I hope the solstice is sunny and warm… It’d be really fun to find lizards on the shortest day of the year.
Who doesn’t love Lego™? Lego™ is one of the greatest toys ever imagined by the human brain. Kits range from fantastically complicated, to incredibly simplistic. But the underlying element of completeness is the same. The kit must be complete to be built as the instructions suggest, but that doesn’t mean a Lego™ kit stays in its original configuration.
Sometimes pieces vanish – but you can easily find substitutes. The more changes you make, the more obvious those changes become.
It’s the same with nature. Ecosystems are incredibly complicated (such as the Amazon jungle) while others seem simple (the dune sea of the Sahara). Swat one gnat and you won’t see change in an Amazonian forest, remove a gnat species and you still may not see a change. Each missing species is far more obvious in relatively simple ecosystems. Fortunately, nature is resilient and has recovered from repeated perturbation and mass extinctions (the loss of many pieces (I mean species)) all the way to the present epoch (the Plasticcene ?).
When you replace missing parts in a Lego™ kit, the final product will not be exactly the same, but will look reasonable and will hold together. You can look at the instructions to know what’s missing. You can swap parts from other kits (part 302126 is common to many Lego™ models). You can order replacement parts.
In nature there is no list of parts to identify exactly what’s missing, and once things are lost, there is no mail-order replacement. Once something biological is gone, it is irreplaceable. Given enough time though, nature will fill an ecological void and restructure an ecosystem, but the ecosystem will never be the same. A restructured ecosystem may look unchanged to our eyes, but it is different in both function and species composition. Fortunately for us, change is the only constant in nature. Our origin (and subsequent invention of plastic – and Lego™) and our continued existence on this plastic-polluted-planet, is a direct result of nature’s resilience.
The loss of a Keystone Species changes the ecology of a region significantly. There are parts in each Lego™ kit which are critical to the model’s integrity, and in this sense, they parallel Keystone Species. Lose one keystone piece and your model won’t be as structurally sound, but will still hold together if there is built-in redundancy – in nature, this could represent the death of one cell in a phytoplankton bloom. You’ll never notice its absence. Organisms die every day and populations muddle on as nature permits.
In this Lego™ model, there are several hinge parts per wing which keep the entire model together – the model has built in resilience. Imagine how the model changes as one by one, more of these hinge pieces go missing? Bit by bit, the wing joint weakens. Hinges have to interact with other pieces of the model to maintain the integrity of the entire population of Lego™ pieces. If the population of hinge parts is depleted, the wings will fall off.
In recent years, large numbers of dead alcids are not an uncommon sight in the eastern North Pacific Ocean. The warm north Pacific conditions from 2012-2015 have correlated with mass mortalities all along the North American west coast. Rhinoceros Auklets and Common Murres have washed up right here in the Victoria region – this is not someone else’s problem. This Common Murre was found this summer and was photographed by Allan Eppler. Wings have fallen from our skies.
The fishes that our alcids eat still exist along our coast – so why are marine birds starving? What piece of the ecolegological model is missing? The recent and rapid decline of plankton communities may be to blame. Phytoplankton feeds zooplankton, zooplankton feeds small fishes, and small fishes feed our alcids. These stumpy birds rely on small fishes like sandlance and herring, and in this way, are indirectly connected to phytoplankton (and so are we). Is the decline in phytoplankton populations having a trickle-down effect? Are local zooplankton and fish populations declining in concert with phytoplankton? Perhaps fishes have moved elsewhere (deeper? offshore?) to track phytoplankton and zooplankton blooms? Fishes may only be out of the range of diving birds at an energetically critical time in the bird’s year? Perhaps fishes are now less nutritious with changes in plankton communities? Is this a temporary change? What will be the feedback effect on the marine community if our alcids disappear? And is this the latest ratchet in our environment – a long-term trend in our coastal community creating the “new normal” for our grandchildren? All questions worthy of study.
Temporary and permanent absence of a species has its effect in nature. The long term decline in oceanic phytoplankton communities has gone largely unnoticed by the majority of people – until its impacts rippled up the food chain and hundreds of emaciated birds washed ashore. Dead plankton sinks into the abyss every day – no one raises an eyebrow. But when a beach is littered with dead birds, we sit up and take notice. Each organism, microscopic or not, is a piece in the ecological integrity of our region, and the loss of each piece changes BC forever. Perhaps a Lego™ model is a poor analogy of the complexity of nature, but we failed to notice the loss of countless smaller parts, and only reacted when a continuing number of larger pieces washed up dead on our shores. I have to wonder what BC’s model will look like in 50 years. Have we already become unhinged?
Who has a garden? Many of us do, and many nourish their gardens with manure. Each winter, my wife and I get a heaping truck-load of manure – a mix of sheep, horse and chicken excrement from our friend’s farm up in Central Saanich. Sure our yard is a bit fragrant for a day or two, but the manure matures in winter while our neighbour’s windows are closed. Manure as a source of fertilizer is nothing new.
Watch any nature show on Africa and eventually you see scenes of Hippopotami (Hippopotamusses?) revving their tails to 30,000 RPM to spread their manure in their respective territories. Talk about leaving your mark on a place. But all that manure feeds fishes and is excellent fertilizer to increase productivity in their habitat. Streamside plants grow and the hippos have a convenient salad. Nature wastes nothing – not even waste is wasted.
One of the RBCM’s curators also lives according to nature’s mantra – he wastes nothing. I bet by now you are wondering where this blog post is going.
Every few days Grant Keddie combs through his scientific journals and cuts out articles to distribute to museum staff. This week I received an article from Grant from the journal NewScientist (page 6, 22 October 2016). The photograph tells it all – a Sperm Whale off-loading ballast as it dives, leaving a hazy russet cloud in its wake. The NewScientist article goes on to detail the role of whale feces in pelagic ecology. We rarely think about whale excrement – you know the old saying – out of sight, out of mind. If whales lived on land, we’d probably pay more attention to their gastrointestinal performance.
Nutrients in the intestinal ejecta of cetaceans are a windfall to phytoplankton and perhaps zooplankton. Whale poop fertilizes the sea, boosting phytoplankton and zooplankton populations – I am assuming some crustaceans also are coprophagous (they eat poop particles). Plankton blooms feed krill and fishes, and these of course support a myriad of marine organisms. Krill is now a popular source of Omega-3 oils – hhhmmmm.
We’ve known for ages that most of the deep sea is dependent on a flurry of fecal matter and decaying organisms from near the surface. Only the deep sea hydrothermal vent communities live independent of such gifts from the surface. But it surprises me that we are only recently celebrating our largest neighbors colonic contribution to oceanic ecology.
The authors of the NewScientist article state that phytoplankton blooms supported by whale feces can help fight climate change (phytoplankton sequesters CO2). That seems to be a bit of a stretch, but their other claim that whales can increase local productivity and enhance fisheries certainly is interesting. In some areas of the world today (Norway, Iceland, and Japan), and within my lifetime here in BC, we have killed whales for oil but also to avoid sharing the ocean’s bounty. Yes, we killed whales to limit their impact on our fish harvests. If whale wastes enhance fisheries, removal of whales starved our coastal community.
In John Ford’s handbook of Marine Mammals of BC, he states that 25,460 whales were killed in our waters in the 20th century. I don’t have the global harvest estimates from the 1700s to present day, but whale losses run in the hundreds of thousands. In terrestrial terms, imagine trying to grow a garden without fertilizer? Now think how removal of a significant number of whales impacted the marine phytoplankton community. I have always wondered about the effect of losses of thousands of whales (and hundreds of basking sharks) on planktonic communities in BC, but the ecological joke is on me. I always looked at it from the top down, not the bottom up.
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For a few years now I have known of European Wall Lizards (Podarcis muralis) along the back of Borden Mercantile here in Victoria. There are adults and yearlings in spring, and by late summer, many newly hatched lizards can be seen running around in old pallets and in the rubble behind the store. My student Kelsey also let me know that European Wall Lizards could be found along rock retaining walls at 1000 McKenzie Avenue in the same general area as Borden Mercantile. The first lizard I saw at Borden Mercantile dates back to 2014.
Obviously I needed to explore and find out whether these were isolated introductions, or part of a larger population at the Quadra-McKenzie intersection. When my wife and I are picking up garden supplies at Borden Mercantile, I don’t get much time to explore for lizards. We have a 3-year-old who keeps us busy. It was hard to find the time to wander around the region at the Quadra Street-McKenzie Avenue intersection to see how far the lizards had spread. Until now.
The Google Earth image below shows the result of an afternoon’s exploration (Monday April 25th, 2016). Yes – I went for a walk and did some “lizard watching”. The original locations I knew about are in GREEN. The RED dots are new.
The Saanich municipal yard is crawling with lizards – so that begs the question – did wall lizards arrive at the municipal yards first, and then spread to Borden Mercantile? It seems likely since the Hartland Landfill and Saanich itself is now infested with these invasive lizards. We’ll never know how the lizards travelled to this area. Perhaps they were stow-aways on trucks that move between the Hartland Landfill and the municipal yards. They could have been dropped there inadvertently by homeowners dumping lizard infested garden waste. Who knows. But the fact is, this area now has a firmly established population. In a short afternoon’s walk I saw juveniles from last year, adult males and females, and plenty of gravid females – so the annual population boom will happen again as this year’s eggs hatch.
The lizards also are easy to find along the isolated rocks and bedrock outcroppings along the Lochside Trail. Perhaps that trail and the ditch that runs through the Saanich municipal yards will serve as dispersal corridors. It is almost a straight line along the Lochside Trail to Swan Lake Nature Center – I wonder how long it will be until that nature reserve is overwhelmed by invasive lizards?
Whenever we receive new specimens at the RBCM, we hope to have enough collection data to make the specimen valuable to science. The bare minimum we need is the date collected, a description of the collection location, and if you have latitude and longitude for the collection site – GREAT. Our Mammal and Bird Preparator was sorting through some of the newer specimens in the receiving freezers – and this label stuck out:
There’s the date, a location, even a cause of death – a drowning victim.
That’s a source of mortality that someone should study – in-ground pools as a man-made source of wildlife mortality. I remember seeing a Barn Swallow trying to swoop low and drink from a pool on a still summer day. It lost track of the surface and “landed too low” (if I remember my WWII aviation slang correctly). It actually did an end-over-end into the pool when its beak dug too deep into the water’s surface – and since we were in the yard, we were able to save the bird.
But I digress.
A key feature of a specimen label is clarity. I am just as guilty as anyone else in our modern day rush-rush society – and have scribbled labels much to fast. The above label is great – it looks like 49°48’06.148″W, -119°30’15.217W – or is that North? Woah – 119°N? The earth must be doughnut shaped… I remember a student giving a lecture on cod when I was a grad student and she said that Arctic Cod (Boreogadus saida) ranged to 95° North. Could it be true? Is the Earth doughnut-shaped and its coordinate system goes beyond 90 North?
Old museum labels also suffer from the same problem – before we printed labels, we relied on perfect handwriting to make sure that 100 year old labels would still make sense. When the pen fades, it can be a real challenge to decipher the original content on an oily bird label. Signatures are easy to figure out – they usually show each researcher’s distinctive flare. But a lazy 6 or a 9 can look like a zero, a faded 7 can look like a 4, a 1 like a 7, a Z like a 2, etc…
To all citizen scientists – please write your labels as clearly as possible or print them out on your home computer. Our collection’s scientific value is totally dependent on your data.
Yea – I know this specific label is detailing a location in Upper Mission at 49°48’06.148″N; 119°30’15.217″W – but if the N and W were obvious on this label, we’d have not had such a chuckle. It does however, highlight how handwriting can seriously change the interpretation of a label.
It is always fun (as a sci-fi fan) to find things in the RBCM’s collection which take me away from tasks like fish vat inventory, to allow a brief respite in geekism.
Sure there are simple things – like finding specimen 2187 and making the nerdistic reference to Finn’s stormtrooper number and Princess Leia’s jail cell. In the vertebrate collection, 2187 is the catalog number for a Columbian Ground Squirrel collected in 1937, and a Mallard Duck from 1915. There is no reptile or amphibian with that number – the highest catalog number in the herpetology collection is 2007. There’s also no fish with that number; fishes have complex catalog numbers which reflect the year the specimen was collected, the sample lot in that year, and the nth species in that specific lot. I plan to simplify the fish catalog numbers – so eventually there will be a fishy 2187 and it will have a fin.
But in January, while sitting with my head in a vat of fishy alcohol, counting far too many flatfishes, I found a few little gems that made me snicker. The same cannot be said for my volunteer – she just rolled her eyes – and said “Nerd” (or something like that…).
The following photos are of some flatfish I found in vat 16. This Arrowtooth Flounder (Atheresthes stomias) is number 7 of 9 in its respective sample (980-00573-004). Cue the snickers from the Trekkies. Resistance is futile.
Another fish, the Pacific Sanddab (Citharichthys sordidus) – the genus is pronounced Sith-a-rick-thees – Yes, it’s a Sith-fish… it has a dark side and a light side… and the Star Wars fans go wild with excitement. Smiling now? It just goes to show that with nerdy humour, a little dab’ll do ya.
Yes, there are days where work is frantic and the day flies by – no complaints there. Then there are days where 4:30PM seems like a lifetime away. On those days, doesn’t matter where you work – little moments of levity go a long way. Nothing beats a slow but productive day punctuated by silly humour. Life is too short to be serious all the time. Seriously.
I did not expect this much attention when we developed the prototype Pocket Gallery here at the RBCM. Who’d have thought that the Assfish would go viral. This morning (January 19, 2016), I received an email from Dr. Andrew Gates of the SERPENT Project, Southampton, with a video of a live Assfish from 2601 meters off Africa’s east coast.
Now we can see the fish in its natural habitat – swimming lazily over a soft substrate – until it was startled by the ROV/submersible.
Their home page can be found at:
And here is CHEK news’ This Week in History on the Assfish:
The Assfish has proven itself very popular – no if’s, and’s, or but’s.
Whether we notice or not, we rely on natural cycles for our very existence. While many pay scant attention to nature, it provides life-support services (food, timber, clean water, flood control, pollination, fresh air) as well as spiritual functions (serenity and beauty)(Heal et al. 2001).
Only in Science Fiction can you find a planet with plenty of food and air but no green-spaces. Where does that atmosphere come from? Is all the food shipped in from other planets? Call me crazy, but I’d rather be on the 4th moon of Yavin (it looks strangely like the Yucatan region).
The stability of our planet’s ecology is based on diverse ecosystems. Even seemingly barren habitat, as found in alpine lakes, is far more complex than first glance suggests. In these low-productivity (oligotrophic) lakes there can be complex communities of predatory and grazing zooplankton, as well as a diverse assemblage of algae and microbes.
At home in my urban yard there is a lot of diversity – and we’d like to attribute that to our lawn-removal plan. A complex environment – even if only a veggie garden, should attract more wildlife. This last weekend (November 8th) we had a Wilson’s Snipe hang around, in addition to the usual birds like the Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos that forage in our garden on a daily basis. We estimated about 30 birds on the food forest this morning – Juncos, Golden-crowned Sparrows, and a Towhee – but not a single bird on the nearby lawns. It made me wonder what we could do for North Americn bird populations if everybody abandoned the concept of a lawn and grew a garden that was far more complex and full of food.
We also get a few mammals in the autumn – Grey Squirrels, Norway Rats, Raccoons, and Mule Deer – actually they live year-round in our neighbourhood. We get the occasional Cougar as well, but I have never seen one. The Cougars must be after the Mule Deer, Eastern Cottontails and domestic cats that are allowed to roam free. Predator-prey interactions are commonplace even in urban environments. I have seen many people walk by oblivious to life-and-death “dog-fights” between Cooper’s Hawks and small passerine birds. These interactions add richness to our communities and can make a short stroll very exciting.
During these grey rainy winter days (or snowy days elsewhere in Canada), it is hard not to daydream about summer, or a tropical get-away. But even in the daily rush to and from work, you can admire the resilience of nature – from Equisetum poking through newly patched sections of sidewalks in Victoria, to a Common Redpoll adding its dash of colour to a frosty prairie hedge. Take the time to appreciate nature as it prepares for the shortest days of the year.
Redpoll photo by By Cephas (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Heal et al. 2001. Protecting Natural Capital Through Ecosystem Service Districts. Stanford Environmental Law Journal 20: 333-364.
Taractes asper – the Rough Pomfret – is a fish you don’t meet every day. I have to admit I had a song by the Pogues running through my head when I made up this blog title. The Rough Pomfret looks exotic – and feels it too. Each body scale has a small crest, and the combined effect makes this fish feel almost like a rasp-file or pine-cone.
Drawing by Norman Eyolfson, from the first specimen discovered here in BC.
This fish is a brown to blue-black colour and ranges from near the surface to 550 meters depth. The dark colour suggests to me that they are a deeper-pelagic fish that perhaps migrates to shallower depths to feed at night – but very little seems to be published on eastern North Pacific specimens.
They are widely distributed from a single record near Kodiak Island, Alaska, south to southern California, and west to Japan. Here in BC they are known from scattered records published by Peden and Ostermann (1980), and Peden and Jamieson (1988).
The RBCM records of Taractes asper (with data) are from the following locations:
52°N, 131°W – 1st found in BC (RBCM 979-11058) (Peden and Ostermann 1980)
47°18’N, 128°12’W – 1 specimen (RBCM 985-478) (Peden and Jamieson 1988)
46°44’N, 130°58’W – 1 specimen (RBCM 985-480) (Peden and Jamieson 1988)
46°36’N, 130°54’W – 7 specimens (RBCM 985-479) (Peden and Jamieson 1988)
38°25’N 162°23’W – 1 specimen (RBCM 987-00206) (near Hawai’i)
We have another 7 cataloged specimens that appear to lack any information on when and where they were collected. We’ll have to find them in the collection and see if there is any information on the specimen labels themselves. If these 7 lack any information, then they will be deaccessioned and offered to university collections as teaching specimens. I can’t waste space on specimens with no information.
This new one was dropped off this week by Scott Buchanan from Archipelago Marine, with thanks to their marine observers program. It is now fixing in formaldehyde and will eventually be stored in ethanol. It came aboard the Viking Enterprise, October 5th, 2015, at 50°25.91’N, 128°37.16’W, from west of Quatsino Sound at about 250 meters depth.
Normally we photograph the left side of a fish – it is the picky scientific standard. But in this case the right side was in better shape, and since this is an informal publication, I thought I could stretch the rules. For a Stormtrooper, I can be quite rebellious.
It joins the 11 others in the RBCM Ichthyology collection, and helps flesh-out what we know about the diversity and distribution of fishes here in our coastal waters. This Google Earth image shows where Taractes asper has been taken in BC waters. It also is known from one location in Alaska and so the species appears to be continuously distributed, but rarely collected.