By Susannah (2020 Pacific Horticulture College student)
Ethnobotany is a funny word. Defined as the plant lore of indigenous cultures, it fails miserably at capturing the heart and living essence of its subject matter: how indigenous peoples connect to and cultivate native plants. I learned this firsthand working on a restoration project for the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific’s W̱SÁNEĆ Ethnobotany Trail.
Dedicated to the W̱SÁNEĆ ancestors, elders, knowledge keepers and children, the trail teaches you about the significance native plants played in the W̱SÁNEĆ culture as food, medicine and technology. As someone with British and Scottish ancestry, restoring the trail gave me much to reflect upon in terms of the colonialism, truth and reconciliation, and environmental stewardship. At the Pacific Horticulture College, a large percentage of plants we learn about are not native to the Pacific Northwest. Prized for their beauty, adaptability and pest (aka deer) resistance, these plants are friendly visitors like most of us. Pollinators might enjoy feasting on them, but their uses and cultural significance belong to countries far away.
Working on the trail gave me the chance to connect with the W̱SÁNEĆ culture, deepening my appreciation to their approach to environmental stewardship and the role native plants play in creating a sustainable future. For this reason alone, I encourage everyone to explore the W̱SÁNEĆ Ethnobotany Trail the next time you’re at the HCP. Here are a few treasures you’ll find:
Thimbleberry: Its edible shoots and berries are a staple food for the W̱SÁNEĆ and wildlife. Tip: when folded, the leaves make the perfect berry holder.
Wild Black Gooseberry; Traditionally used in a fruit cake paired with salal berries. Roots were used in reef nets and the thorns can be used as needles/tweezers.
Desert Parsley: A spiritual and sacred plant to the W̱SÁNEĆ, desert parsley grows in sandy places and is still harvested and used. When you see it in the wild, please protect it.
Oregon Grape.: Edible and tart, oregon grapes have medicinal uses and the inner bark is used for natural dye.
Swordfern: The fronds are used in traditional pitcooks and make a great cutting board for salmon and other slippery food.
Plants, People, and Places: The Roles of Ethnobotany and Ethnoecology in Indigenous Peoples Land Rights in Canada and Beyond by Nancy J. Turner
Saanich Ethnobotany by Nancy Turner and Richard Hebda