Camas Country

By Janis Ringuette

Illustration of camas harvest
Lekwungen women harvesting camas bulbs on Beacon Hill.
Illustration by Victoria graphic artist Gordon Friesen.

When Chief Factor James Douglas saw six square miles of open camas meadows surrounding Victoria (then called Camosack), the search for the site of the new Hudson’s Bay Company fort was over.

Sailing the schooner Cadboro along the south coast of Vancouver Island in 1842, Douglas examined other possible sites. The harbours of Sooke and Esquimalt were superior, he reported, but were “surrounded by rocks and forests, which will require ages to level and adapt to agriculture.” Victoria’s open landscape appeared more suitable for farming. “It was this advantage,” he reported to the Company, “which led me to choose the site.”

The verdant grasslands were a spectacular sight in spring. Millions of butterflies--at least 40 abundant species--filled the air. Native grasses and clover grew tall and lush. Colourful blue camas mixed with golden paintbrush, white fawn lilies, chocolate lilies, lupins, buttercups and violets.

“The place itself appears a perfect ‘Eden’ in the midst of the dreary wilderness of the North,” Douglas enthused to his friend James Hargrave. “One might be pardoned for supposing it had dropped from the clouds into its present position.”

British newcomers wrongly assumed the open meadows they “discovered” were “natural” and unused. They viewed unfenced, unploughed and unseeded land as “waste,” available for “civilized” use.

In fact, Coast Salish ancestors of the Songhees First Nation (Lekwungen) had cultivated and maintained the shrub-free grasslands for centuries. They worked to enhance the growth of camas, their staple root crop, and other edible native plants.

It was the aboriginal inhabitants’ bad luck to have created an oak-meadow landscape which exactly matched the 19th century English ideal of a perfect “picturesque” countryside. University of Victoria’s Dr. John Lutz wrote: “Ironically, it was the open camas prairies, maintained by the Lekwungen’s regular burning that attracted European settlement to their territory.” Camas meadows--irresistible to the British--decided the location of Victoria.

The Beacon Hill area was “one of the most productive camas territories on Vancouver Island,” according to Dr. Lutz. The Lekwungen harvested bulbs for their own food and traded large quantities with west coast Nuu-chah-nulth people. They harvested the bulbs of both the Common camas, Camassia quamash, and Great camas, Camassia leichtlinii, but carefully avoided the poisonous white flowered Death camas, Zigadenus venenosus. Below is an "above ground" camas illustration by Gordon Friesen.

Camas plant illustration

The importance of camas to aboriginal people went beyond food and trade. Harvesting was a seasonal social and cultural activity and a time of reunion. In May and June, families paddled canoes to the shores of Beacon Hill to set up temporary working camps. Early settler Gilbert Malcolm Sproat described the festive harvest scene: “The gathering of the gammass [camas] is the most picturesque of all Indian employments. One could hardly wish...for a pleasanter dwelling than the little bush camps which the natives form in the gammass districts..”

Families owned and cared for individual camas plots. Dr. Nancy Turner, author of Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, detailed the work: “Each season the families cleared their plots of stones, weeds and brush, often by controlled burning. Harvesting took several days, with entire families participating. The harvesters systematically lifted out the soil in small sections, removed the larger bulbs and replaced the sod. Even in this century, families would collect four to five potato-sacks full at a time.”

Beneath-the-surface view of a camas bulb

Aboriginal women harvested bulbs measuring two to three inches across. The bulbs, which look like small onions, were steamed in large pits for a day and a half until they were “soft, brownish and sweet.” One white settler compared the taste to “baked pear.” To the right is a “beneath the surface view” of a camas bulb by Gordon Friesen.

White immigrants’ cattle, horses and sheep soon grazed the tops off Beacon Hill camas plants. Pigs rooted up the bulbs. Acres of prime camas fields near the Park were planted in oats, wheat, potatoes and carrots. Burning--essential to maintaining healthy open meadows--was prohibited. Gilbert Sproat wrote: “One of the bitterest regrets of the natives is that the encroachment of the whites is rapidly depriving them of their crops of this useful and almost necessary plant.” Camas--merely pretty blue flowers to white settlers--began its decline.

Visitors to Beacon Hill today find no description of this history. Carved into the summit’s granite monument is the early settlers’ wrong assumption: “When Victoria was settled in 1843, this area was a natural park.” A more accurate interpretative sign acknowledging centuries of First Nations cultivation and use of the land is long overdue.

In 2005, the breath-taking “solid blue carpet” stretching from the top of Beacon Hill to the shoreline is gone. “I have watched the camas becoming thinner year after year,” Dr. T. Christopher Brayshaw, Emeritus Curator of Botany at the Royal British Columbia Museum, said sadly. Dr. Brayshaw has tracked camas decline for the last 49 years.

A consultant report presented to City Council in May, 2004 agreed: “Camas is in general decline due to human impact.” The Beacon Hill Park Heritage Landscape Management Plan recommended protecting meadows “from overuse and compacting.”

Can the health of the meadows be improved? A five year study of the ethno-ecology of camas and oak-camas parklands by University of Victoria’s Dr. Brenda Beckwith demonstrated camas plants and bulbs respond to better care by growing larger and more vigorously. Beckwith attempted to replicate the work done by aboriginal women in their camas plots. She weeded, loosened the soil by digging and set late-summer fires to burn off vegetation. She found bulbs grew larger in a nursery environment. A few bulbs weighed over 100 grams and were the size of tangerines. It is probable those growing conditions better mimic indigenous harvesting beds than today’s neglected wild camas habitats.

Signs directing walkers to stay on designated paths are a necessary first step to limit more damage. Botanists Adolf Ceska and Beckwith agree compaction of soil by foot traffic is a major problem and damage is cumulative. Brayshaw hopes a lesson on carrying capacity was learned from Finlayson Point, where overuse reduced a verdant meadow area to dirt and weeds. “We should not confuse the right of use with the right to cause damage,” he cautions.

Workers accidentally damage native plants and habitats during normal maintenance and development, ethno-botanist Nancy Turner points out. Maps of Beacon Hill Park’s rare native plants recently completed by Dr. Ceska will pinpoint sensitive areas for staff to avoid. Ceska advocates mowing schedules be changed “to support camas” and Beckwith adds, “Some form of management needs to be found that would increase the productivity of the native wildflowers but negatively impact the introduced grasses.” The increasing density of exotic grasses could be discouraged by special mowing “or even small, prescribed burns.”

Brayshaw wants exotic trees and shrubs removed from the Hill, especially 110 pines which block views, deprive camas of sunlight and acidify the soil.

Preserving and revitalizing the historically and culturally significant landscape on the south slope of Beacon Hill requires a “commitment on a long term scale,” Beckwith explains. She favors a positive approach to get people “excited about these ecosystems..." rather than “doom and gloom.” She advocates “more Camas Days, more festivals that celebrate our native flora and cultural heritage in the park...The return of camas harvesting to the park by Lekwungen peoples would be wonderful.”

Maybe, just maybe, some spring day in the future, visitors to the summit of Beacon Hill will see a “solid blue carpet” stretching to the sea. And, above the meadows, a cloud of butterflies.