A Banner Year for Orchids and Other Wildflowers

Text by Janis Ringuette
      Photos by Norm Ringuette

A bumper crop of wild orchids blooming in the grassy meadows of Beacon Hill Park amazed sharp-eyed visitors and pleased native plant enthusiasts in 2007.

A patch of Ladies' tressesOne Ladies' tresses blossom

Tall, slender Ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) orchids, shown above, grew in abundance in the tall dry grass of early August. The orchid’s white to greenish-white blossoms grow in spiral fashion, tightly packed on a spike. That distinctive spiral, which somewhat resembles braided hair, inspired the plant’s name.

“Most of the plants haven't bloomed for the last ten years,” explained Roy Fletcher, a long-time Victoria resident and Friends of Beacon Hill Park board member. On August 6, he noted a “very large crop” of Ladies’ tresses south of the Heywood Avenue sports field. More Ladies’ tresses grew in the grassy field south of the totem pole. According to Fred Hook, Parks Environmental Technician, the smaller size of orchids in that location “may be because the field is dryer in the deep soil layers than the rest of its range in the park” and because the soil is more compacted. Tourists taking photographs of the totem pole tramp through the grass, squashing orchids in the process, but in Heywood meadow, most walkers keep to the paths and are less likely to crush orchids.

Rein orchid in an unmowed August meadowRein orchid blossom closeup

Another tall slender orchid species--the Elegant rein orchid (Piperia elegans)--shown above, bloomed by the third week of July in the tall grasses of Heywood meadow and also west of Arbutus Drive near Southgate. The beautiful design of the tiny white blossoms on each stalk can best be appreciated with a magnifier. These endangered plants produce a strong perfume, but many people can’t smell them at all. According to Fred Hook, the ability to smell orchids might be determined genetically. Hook is one of the lucky ones; he can locate rein orchids in the field by smell, especially in the heat of the afternoon when the odor is strongest. (The photo below of Fred Hook was taken by Debra Brash for the Times Colonist and is used with permission.)

Fred Hook checking Chocolate Tip plant

Fred Hook has managed mowing schedules in city parks since he was appointed the city's first Parks Environment Technician in October, 2005. One of his goals is to allow native plants to complete their cycles before fields are cut. Timing varies year to year, according to weather conditions and plant variations. “Orchids tend to take rest years,” he explained, “and in those cases, mowing earlier is appropriate.” If orchids ripen early, he will schedule mowing those fields shortly after Labour Day. Previous park managers routinely mowed too early. Hook’s knowledgeable, careful management is exactly what botanists called for in past decades, but rarely got.

“A good plan for managing the park would be to delay mowing of those meadows until the wildflowers have finished flowering and seeding,” Dr. Robert Ogilvie, curator of botany at the Royal B. C. Museum, advocated in 1989. “If we want to have these flower meadows flourish and increase and do better, the simple way to do it would be to delay mowing. Cutting too soon weakens the plant, because it chops off green tops and doesn’t allow them to manufacture more food to go down to the bulbs.” (Times Colonist, July 6, 1989, p. B1) At the time, Dr. Ogilvie worried that Harvest brodiaea (shown below left) was being destroyed. “Harvest brodeia is a very attractive, very striking flower. It grows in the wild grassy areas of Beacon Hill Park...It is just coming into flower now,” he explained in July. In the 1990's, botanist Dr. T. Christopher Brayshaw and the Friends of Beacon Hill Park developed specific mowing schedules and maps for the city's Parks Department which would allow the park's native plants to complete their cycles. Most of Beacon Hill Park’s mowing continues to follow those guidelines today, Hook said.

Harvest brodiaeaFool's onion flowerHooker's onion

In 2007, the purple-blossomed Harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria) and white-blossomed Fool’s onion (Brodiaea hyacinthina), shown above left and centre, were plentiful by mid-June. Both Brodiaeas grew along the northwest ridge gravel footpath. Fool’s onions by the hundreds could be seen in the grass south of the chip path near the Mayors Grove sign in Heywood meadow. The northwest ridge was also a good location to see Hooker’s onion (Allium acuminatum), shown above right.

Chocolate tip blossoms

The purplish-chocolate flowers of a robust Chocolate tips (Lomatium dissectum) plant can be seen in this photo taken in early May. There were only two Chocolate tips in Beacon Hill Park this year. More of the impressive perennial's fern-like foliage is visible in the Fred Hook photo above.

Closeup of white fawn liliesField of white fawn Lilies

Early blooming wildflowers, like camas and White fawn lilies, have a better chance to complete their cycles before mowing machines arrive. By mid-April, 2007, the corner at Southgate and Arbutus was a solid blaze of White fawn lilies (Erythronium oregonum).

Common camas blossom

By the end of April, blue fields of Common camas (Camassia quamash) were spectacular on the north side of the Hill and in the meadow east of the hill, shown below. Camas was sparse again on the much-trampled south side of Beacon Hill.

Magnificent field of common camas


Large White trilliums (Trillium ovatum) were in full bloom by March 20 in a hidden glade of ferns and cedars northwest of the Cameron Bandshell. By April 15, the blossoms were turning pink with age, as shown in the photo to the right.

Most surviving Chocolate lilies (Fritillaria lanceolata), below left, grow tucked against shrub oaks in Beacon Hill Park. They are difficult to find compared to bright red Shootingstars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), below right, in open meadows.

Chocolate liliesShooting stars

Gairdner's yampah (Perideridia gairdneri), shown below, is a tall, slender perennial with small white flowers. This member of the carrot family blooms even later in the summer than park orchids, so delayed mowing is essential to its survival. In mid August, yampah could be seen in the dry grass near Japanese Sakura trees planted along the west edge of Circle Drive by the totem pole. More yampah plants bloomed in the northwest corner of the park, west of Arbutus Way near Southgate Street. A few were found in the grassy field east of the Children’s Farm.

Straits Salish aboriginal people pounded the root, known as yampah, to make flour, according to a popular plant field guide. Explorers Lewis and Clark described the flavour of yampah as similar to anise seed. The plant was named after Meredith Gairdner, a Hudson’s Bay Company surgeon and plant collector. (Plants of Coastal British Columbia, Pojar and MacKinnon, p. 221)

Yampah blossoms in tall grassYampah blossoms with spider

Not everyone is happy with unmowed fields. Some residents want tall grass cut for easier walking; others think brown fields look messy and ugly. A more serious concern is the danger of fire. The City of Victoria’s Fire Department wants tall grass mowed when meadows are very dry. Those two different priorities--mowing to reduce fire danger and not mowing to allow native plants to finish their cycle--have often been difficult to reconcile in the past. Happily, in 2007, wet, cool weather in July and August reduced the fire danger and native plant areas could be left alone. A banner year of wildflowers was the result.