Planting Seeds of Knowledge

In Spring 2015, the Natural History Centre worked to develop our Ethnobotanical Native Plant Demonstration Garden. The garden was carefully tended to by Norma and Neil Wilson, making it easier to maintain and more clearly defined and inviting to visitors.

Gardeners and gatherers have long sought out plants for medicinal use and sustenance.  Many spend their entire lives locating and learning about plants and their uses. For millennia, the Coastal First Nations who have inhabited this region developed knowledge and understanding of the local plants, and which ones could help them survive.

This little garden demonstrates a vital link between common native plants and how they contribute toward sustaining life for creatures on the planet. Further, the garden fulfills the Natural History Centre mandate “to inspire people of all ages to develop a deeper personal relationship with the natural world”. Because planting the garden is not just about seeds in the ground: it is about ideas taking root.

A History of the Garden

Joy Jeffries, the founder of the Natural History Centre, felt that a botanical component was important for the Exhibit to be truly representative of “natural history”. Initially, the idea of a herbarium was considered, but it never came to fruition. When the garden adjacent to the Hornby School suffered severe storm damage in 2009 and the prized ornamental cherry trees were removed leaving a scarred stumped space, a new idea took root. “The place became evident and the timing perfect – what better way to heal that space than with an ethnobotanical garden,” Joy explained.

Garden project work party, 2010.

Garden project work party, 2010.

The project required many helping hands: Joy put an ad in the First Edition requesting help to prepare the land. In response, Larry Pierce hired a backhoe to remove the stumps, rototilled, and donated compost. The Aboriginal branch of the School District (SD71) approved a funding request for fencing materials, plants, and labels. While waiting for the funds, school students helped remove the weeds that were starting to regrow; Alan Fletcher transported the poles from town; Stewards installed the poles and transplanted plants obtained from native plant specialty nurseries, a teacher installed the fence, and summer exhibit hosts watered the garden.

During the process, Aboriginal Elders helped set the framework – preparing the conceptual ground – for the garden. In conjunction with the study of plants as relevant to First Nation use, Elders and experts shared their knowledge and honouring of traditional ways. Aboriginal specialist educators gave a native plant talk and hosted activities. One Elder took the entire school on a schoolyard walkabout showing, naming and explaining traditional uses of plants, answering questions and offering tastes.  Isabel Rorick, a local Haida spruce root and cedar bark weaver, gave a presentation to the school on her knowledge of root gathering and weaving.

Signage describing First Peoples plant uses.

Signage describing First Peoples plant uses.

The signage for the garden, generously funded by the Hornby Community Fund, enables people to become informed about “ethnobotany” without dependence upon a teacher being present. It not only identifies plants, and gives local nomenclature, but draws attention to purpose and usefulness.The choice using “ethnobotanical” in the name rather than simply native plant was made to emphasize their medicinal and sustenance uses. As Joy explained,

We tend to treat many of our local indigenous plants as irritating “weeds” needing to be eradicated whereas in reality many of these same plants provided sustenance in one form or another for First Nations peoples – both historically and contemporarily.

The Garden Today

More recently, the garden has undergone more landscaping. Norma and Neil added a wood edge around perimeter of garden (Using wood donated by Roger Jenzer), added new plants, and covered entire garden with heavy duty landscape cloth. David Mills covered the garden space with bark mulch and added a new gravel path to make the garden more welcoming to visitors. In addition to those currently in the garden, small plant signs for a few plants that still require signage, and a large poster-like information sign, to be displayed on a gate or wall, will be added.

chocolate lilies natural history

Chocolate Lilies in the Garden. Photo by Barb Biagi.

Today, the garden has around 35 species of plants with medicinal or edible uses amongst local Aboriginal groups. Visitors can walk through the garden, read the signage, and immediately learn how Coastal First Peoples used a particular plant.  Most plants are native to Hornby/Outer Island or at least found on Vancouver Island/Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth, and Coast Salish peoples territories. These include the camassia, chocolate lily, native crab apple, coastal strawberry, red columbine, sword ferns, lady ferns, and licorice fern; and berry shrubs such as salmonberry, thimble, Saskatoon soapberry, evergreen and red huckleberries, salal, and elderberry.

Norma and Neil Wilson can see the garden becoming a more integral part of the Centre. For instance,

through garden oriented activities which families could do together. This might be looking at the plants in the garden and then trying to find them in their natural environment, a kind of treasure hunt. There is also an opportunity to use the garden as a jumping point for field trips such as foraging walks.

They also envision making a link between the Taylor Checkerspot Butterfly habitat restoration and the garden: “We would like the signage to also identify plants we have in the garden which are also very important to the Garry Oaks restoration project which is currently being developed on Helliwell to re-establish the habitat of the Taylor’s Checkerspot Butterfly.”

Earth Day activities at the Garden.

Earth Day activities at the Garden.

Joy, who has since retired from the Exhibit, says the project has always been exciting, and she still has great fondness for the Garden and its role. She describes its primary purpose as offering an opportunity to broaden awareness and appreciation of the significance of these humble plants for First Peoples (and subsequently many settlers). In particular:

  • To learn how these common everyday plants were utilized for what purpose by the First Peoples of our region.
  • To encourage appreciation of the links between traditional use of common plants as medicine and contemporary pharmacopeia, traditional use of plants for food and modern nutrition and traditional use of plants in textiles to current day applications.
  • To enhance awareness about the knowledge indigenous peoples possessed about the environment they inhabited and how resourceful they were in utilizing what grew around them – to build recognition and respect for their understanding.

Ethno garden

If your interest has been piqued, take a look at the references below. Come visit the Garden, visitors are welcome anytime, and then beyond into the forests, fields, and the meadows to observe these plants in their natural environment.



Ethnobotany ~ Local and North American References

Food Plants of British Columbia Indians – Part 1/Coastal Peoples. Nancy J. Turner. (1975). Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.

Plants in British Columbia Indian Technology. Nancy J. Turner. (1979) Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum.

Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Nancy J. Turner. (2009). Victoria: British Columbia Provincial Museum Handbook)

Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R. Hutchens. (1993). Windsor Ontario: Merco Publishing.

Native American Medicinal Plants ~ an ethnobotanical dictionary. (2009). Daniel E. Moerman. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press.

Plants, People and Culture ~ the science of ethnobotany. (1996).  Michael J. Balick & Paul Alan Cox. New York: Scientific American Library.

A couple of more specific ethnobotanical references of regional interest:

Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Indians of Vancouver Island. Nancy J. Turner & Barbara S. Efrat. (1982). British Columbia Provincial Museum

Thompson Ethnobotany ~ knowledge and usage of plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Nancy J. Turner, M. Terry Thompson, Annie Z. York. (1990). Victoria:  Royal British Columbia Museum.

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