Victoria’s Garry Oak Meadows

Spring peak in a Garry oak meadow, with common camas (Camassia quamash), shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), and spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum). Author’s photographs

Spring peak in a Garry oak meadow, with common camas (Camassia quamash), shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii), and spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum). Author’s photographs

Oak Bay is a an affluent residential area of Victoria, British Columbia, at the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Like other cities and neighborhoods along the West Coast, Oak Bay includes within its borders remnant patches of natural vegetation communities that existed there before development. Garden writer Lynne Milnes writes passionately about the need to see, understand, and preserve these botanically rich vestiges of priceless ecosystems.

If you took the oaks out of Oak Bay, what would be left? Oak Bay matrons driving Range Rovers with golden retrievers in the back seat. If those same matrons got out of their cars and walked their dogs, they might see one of the most endangered ecosystems in British Columbia and, indeed, in Canada: the Garry oak meadow.

Endangered, you scoff? But there are big oaks everywhere. Mature Garry oaks (Quercus garryana, also known as Oregon white oak further south) do exist in Victoria but these medium-size thickets, with their attendant meadows, are rapidly being reduced and some are disappearing altogether. Efforts at regeneration are thwarted as seedlings are mowed or pulled out by lawn-obsessed gardeners. How long these pocket Garry oak meadows can exist is anybody’s guess.

Aboriginal people managed the Garry oak meadow with seasonal fires to remove the brushy undergrowth and encourage the spread of the edible camas bulb, an important source of starch in their diet and highly valued as a trading commodity up and down the coast, along with an association of perennials and annuals. Victoria was originally known by the Lekwammen as Camosun or “place to gather camas.” The Hudson Bay Company’s James Douglas described the spring flowering of the oak meadows as “a perfect Eden.”

With the expansion of settlements, most of the oaks were cut down, and the oak meadow land was displaced by houses and introduced plants and insects. In the last two decades, the rate of habitat destruction has escalated. Lawns and irrigation systems around the water-sensitive Garry oaks are a major cause of the decline in oak numbers. Barely three percent of the original oak meadows exist today. Yet Victoria remains the only major city in Canada and one of the few in North America to have patches of its native flora existing within the city core.

Easter lily, or white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)

Easter lily, or white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum)

Invaders

“No room for broom” and “gorse is worse” are the rallying cries of the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society (GOMPS). Introduced by homesick Englishmen, gorse (Ulex europaeus) and broom (Cytisus scoparius) can out-compete the delicate spring meadow flora. Katie Stewart, president of GOMPS, is dedicated to protecting oak meadows throughout the Capital Regional District ((CRD) of Victoria. An amateur naturalist and daytime compositor at the local daily, she loves to follow the annual spring floral display from pale Easter lilies (Erythronium oregonum) to pink shooting stars (Dodecatheon hendersonii and D. pulchellum), from the heavenly blue of a field of camas (Camassia quamash and C. Ieichtlinii) to rock outcrops adorned with the blazing yellow of spring gold (Lomatium utriculatum).

A typical Garry oak meadow with common camas (Camassia quamash) in full bloom

A typical Garry oak meadow with common camas (Camassia quamash) in full bloom

Katie maintains her local park by organizing regular “broom bashing” parties. “Why should community groups always have to defend the environment?” she says with frustration. “We aren’t scientists, but you don’t need to be one to see that in order to protect the oaks, you have to protect the whole ecosystem.” Katie believes there should be a moratorium on development and tree removal until all the municipalities are obligated to use the data collected by the provincial Conservation Data Centre (CDC) in their decisions about development.

The provincial CDC has a mandate to track and monitor endangered species. Local provincial botanists have for decades conducted field trips with naturalist groups in Garry oak meadows and have kept records of rare plants such as the golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta) and Macoun’s meadowfoam (Limnanthes macounii), noting their appearance each spring and their rapidly increasing disappearance overall. But, provincial employees are limited in what they can say about government action. Unlike other Canadian provinces or US states, British Columbia does not have any rare plant protective legislation. George Douglas, provincial botanist with the CDC believes we should. Politics, as always, cloud the issue. “But the biology is clear,” he says. “Rare plants will continue to disappear until we have the legislation to protect them.”

Legislation for protection is one thing but managing the land is another. Joel Ussery spent the early 1980s as a park naturalist. Over a period of time he noticed broom moving into a wild area. During his lunch hour he began to pull the invasive plant until he realized that a more strategic approach was needed. Joel completed his masters thesis at Simon Fraser University on broom removal and believes in adaptive management in which broom removal is treated as an experiment. “No one knows the long term affects of any form of management in a Garry oak meadow. While it may be one of the most endangered habitats in the province, it is also the least studied.”

Common camas (Camassia quamash) and sping gold (Lomatium utriculatum)

Common camas (Camassia quamash) and sping gold (Lomatium utriculatum)

Managing a Meadow

According to Joel, the most important thing to remember in managing a Garry oak meadow is to not make matters worse by trampling sensitive areas or spreading seeds of noxious weeds. He suggests cutting broom slightly below ground level after the spring wildflowers have set their seed. Then try again in July before the seeds of the broom are set. Experiments have shown that pulling broom causes soil disturbances that only enhance broom seed regeneration. Now a planner with the CRD, Joel is developing a policy for the management of exotic species such as these invaders of the oak meadows.

The oaks also have to deal with introduced pests such as the jumping gall wasp and the oak leaf phylloxera, both of which cause severe scorching of the leaves. Rob Hagel, a biologist with the federally funded Pacific Biological Research Station, admits there is little that can be done about insect infestation because people do not want their municipalities sprayed with insecticides. Instead Rob devotes much of his time to growing Garry oak seedlings from acorns collected by GOMPS. He grows 3000 seedlings per year and gives them to municipalities and organizations in Victoria and surrounding suburbs for planting in suitable open spaces to ensure a future population of oak trees.

At the municipal level, the planting of oak seedlings is done on a small, ad hoc basis; unfortunately, most parks departments favor exotic flowering trees over native species. Protection legislation also varies; in one Victoria municipality, the maximum fine for cutting down a tree without permission is $10,000, while in Oak Bay it is a mere $200. A good municipal tree bylaw should encompass all Garry oaks of any size as well as any heritage tree, or other tree that deserves individual attention. Yet, a good tree bylaw is only as good as the people who enforce it.

Can a dollar value be placed on a Garry oak meadow? What is the price of a rare plant? An Easter lily costs $7.99, a chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis, syn. F. lanceolata) $9.99, camas $2.25, shooting star $3.99, a ten-year-old Garry oak $29.99. A square meter of a Garry oak meadow could cost up to $400 in contemporary retail terms. Can we afford the cost of habitat restoration? Would it not be cheaper to save the meadows we have now?

In Victoria we take our Garry oak meadows for granted. They have always been here. We assume they always will be. When Oak Bay matrons park their cars and take their dogs for a walk, let us hope that they notice the wild landscape around them. The future of our Garry oak meadows depends upon it.

Ten ways to help protect Garry oak meadows (or any wild space in your city):

  1. Become a steward of a local park. Pretend it is yours, watch it, record your observations. Tell others about what you see.
  2. Join a local conservation society.
  3. Educate members of your family about the fragile nature of wild spaces such as Garry oak meadows, especially when impacted by mountain bikes, trail bikes, and all-terrain vehicles.
  4. Join a local “broom bash” or organize one yourself to remove weedy introduced species—at the right time of year and with minimal disruption of native plants.
  5. Make sure your community makes environmental assessments in the spring when the wildflowers are visible.
  6. Encourage your municipality to plant trees, particularly the trees native to the region.
  7. Encourage your municipality to pass and enforce tree protection bylaws.
  8. Help municipal activists plant seedlings.
  9. Let a part of your own garden remain wild. Don’t mow. Don’t water during the dry summer months.
  10. Get out of your car and walk in a meadow.