Beacon (Camas) Hill, Victoria BC

After the Indigenous Plant Walk the day before, my Airbnb hostess Kelly Kerr invited to show me around the Beacon Hill Park, a 200 acre mix of both natural areas, formal flower beds, but above all else the site is of great cultural significance to the Lekwungen People (now known as Esquimalt Nation and Songhees Nation). In fact, the City of Victoria has adopted 2017 as a Year of Reconciliation, and a traditional longhouse will be built on a hilltop site! When the British arrived they wrongly assumed that the open meadow landscape was “natural” and unused. In fact, the Lekwungen had cultivated and maintained these shrub-free grasslands for centuries. The meadows were worked to grow camas which was their most important root crop, as well as other edible wild plants. Both common and great camas (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii) were used. This habitat was reminiscent to the English of the ideal 19th century parkland landscape that they recognised from home and was instrumental in Victoria being founded at this site!
The Beacon Hill area was apparently “one of the most productive camas territories on Vancouver Island,” The Lekwungen people both harvested bulbs for their own use and also traded with other west coast peoples. Thankfully, it is now likely that these productive and butterfly rich grasslands will be gradually restored. The album of pictures were taken in the park and along the adjacent shoreline where native families would arrive in the past for the harvest. They would harvest the bulbs in summer when the seed heads were ripe. Only the largest bulbs were harvested and the others replanted. Invasion by shrubs was minimised by regular burning. Each family had its own designated area. The practice of farming natural areas in this way was commonly practiced around the world by native peoples.

The first shooting stars (Dodecatheon)

Lomatium utriculatum

Indigenous plant walk in Victoria BC

On 1st April 2017, I visited the Compost Education Centre in Victoria BC, Canada, where I’d enrolled on an indigenous plant walk around the grounds, lead by Ashley Cooper (Tsartlip First Nation) and is working to revitalize important cultural knowledge and practices in her community and beyond.
The centre has a small garden, but it is packed with many traditional and indigenous useful plants. It is a non-profit organization providing courses and workshops on organic gardening and composting in the Greater Victoria area (see Here are a few pictures and a couple of videos of Ashley talking about camas and stinging nettle!
The coastal peoples harvested and semi-cultivated the wild stands of camas, both Great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) which was commonest around Victoria and common camas (C. quamash). In Victoria, Beacon Hill (see separate post) was an important site as were small offshore islands, where soils weren’t deep over rock and hence easier to harvest (my garden is perfect in that respect!). The beds were divided into individual plots maintained over the generations by different families.
Camas is said to have often been the only source of carbohydrate in the past for these coastal peoples who mostly ate fish and meat. Each year, the plots were cleared of stones and were burned to maintain the meadows. The bulbs were steamed in earth pits to convert the inulin to easier digested carbohydrates.