Salt Air by Shoal and Oak Bays

Reverend Connell’s botanical ramble along the shoreline of south Oak Bay.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, December 7, 1941.

I hardly think anything could be finer than this Victoria November day with a little breeze from the east for additional zest. We leave the Victoria boundary at Foul Bay Road, and follow Runnymede to Mountjoy, then turn along Central to Victoria, and so to Beach Drive. It is a region of new houses and gardens and green lawns.

The eastern facade and garden of “Blair Gowie” on Runnymede Avenue in Oak Bay, c1925. OBA Image.

The gardens in many places come down to the edge of the paved foot path, and among the plants we cannot fail to notice the beds of nasturtiums. I looked at ours before starting [from home] and saw them laying limply, all their customary brightness reduced to a lifeless mass of pale green. Here the same plant is still in full possession of its vigour of flower and leaf. It is not difference of altitude that has produced frosting in one place and not in another, and it is not shelter or position. Only one thing can it be and that is proximity to the sea. Here on the north east side of Gonzales Hill the unhindered salt air protects the tender vegetation.

Theft of a Name

It is fortunate that plants are unconscious of what we call them. Otherwise the nasturtium of our roadside ditches and brooks might have had a real grievance. For actually the “nasturtium” that has been caught by the frost on Chamberlain Street and has escaped it down by the sea is not a nasturtium at all. It is properly speaking a Tropaeolum, a fairly near relative of the geranium and pelargonium, and it came to Europe and thence to us from South America. There are other species such as the very striking Tropaeolum speciosum, or flame-flower, with its deep red flowers.  

“Nasturtium” (Tropaeolum), not to be confused with water-cress (Nasturtium officinale)

Tropaeolum majus seems to have been first known popularly to British gardeners as Indian-cress, because of the resemblance of the pungent taste of its leaves to the “bite” of ordinary water-cress [Nasturtium officinale] or “cress” for short. Next it acquired the proper scientific generic name of the water-cress and has been persistently known ever since as “nasturtium”. I don’t suppose however that you, my dear reader, think the water-cress has lost much in the transactions since it has retained its good old English name. On the other hand what has our South American plant gained? “Propaeolum” is at least as easy to say as “nasturtium”, which I thought a very unpleasant name when I was a child, and actually it means something since it refers to the twisting turning habit of the stems which is so obvious even in the kinds not listed as “climbers”. However “nasturtium” has had so long association with the larger tropaeolums that the most conservative of botanists must yield.

Along the Edge of the Land

“Chikawich”- McNeill/Shoal Bay- on a snowy day c1900, with the McNeill farm in foreground. BCA Image.

Here we are at Shoal Bay or, as the Canadian charts and the BC Gazetteer have it, McNeill Bay, after Captain McNeill whose farm lay at the head of the Bay and whose venerable house still stands and is in use. The title “Shoal” comes from the shallow character of the bay and it’s neighbourhood just as it’s larger neighbour to the west is called “Foul” because it’s mouth is blocked by an extensive reef of rock submerged at high tide and so is said in nautical language to be “foul”. So far from trying to alter those old sailors terms we ought to be proud of them as connections with the old days when sailing vessels large and small plied in our waters and close observation and shrewd judgement as well as experience had to take the place of charts for many a year.  

Down on the beach where the tide is high and a long mat of half-decayed bladder-kelp extends just above the waters edge there seems but little of interest except pebbles and gravel. But the bank is worth a little inspection if you are interested in history older by far than that of Captain McNeill.

The clay banks of the McNeill Bay foreshore in 1907. Detail from BCA Image.

About 8 to 10 feet high it is a capital cross section of the upper surface of the land which stretches from here across Oak Bay municipality to the north. The lower and greater part of this edge of the land thus exposed consists of a sandy clay with a few cobbles and pebbles embedded in it. Here and there layers can be seen, showing distinct stratification, the work of water. Further along as we approach the timbered defences against the sea we see, if we keep a sharp lookout, some small shelves embedded in the bank, some of them in layers. You can easily remove one with a pocket knife or even with your fingers, and when you do you find you have usually a small bivalve common along out coasts today as it has been for a very long time: Saxicava arctica. It is about an inch long and about half as wide. It so varies in size and appearance over its wide range from Cape of Good Hope to the Arctic that it is said five genera and 15 species have been made out of this one species! Saxicava does not seem to be usually a rock-borer with us, preferring to reside in the great holdfasts of kelp, but in great Britain in excavates lime stone and iron claystone, hence its name “saxicava” of “rock-hollower”. Above is a foot or two of black soil capped by recent shells probably of Indian origin.

Hiatella (Saxicava) arctica, the arctic clam. Wiki image.

The greater part of the bank then consists of material once below the sea for only thus are the lower shelves and the stratified portions explainable. The pebbles and cobbles are, like the sandy clay in which they lie, part of the debris of the ice cap eventually deposited in the sea. The wide valley at the head of the bay once lay under the waves and then some of its depressions, bogs, or muskegs eventually developed when it rose above the level of the sea. The same condition is found behind Foul and Shoal Bays. In all these muskegs and lake bottoms fresh-water shells of various species are lying above saltwater shells such as we meet with along our shores today, certain evidence of the slow rising of the land.

Below Anderson Hill

The east end of the shore terminates against the rocks of Anderson Hill, which in turn supports the west end of the golf links. The height of this hill is just under half that of Gonzales Hill, the latter being 230 feet while the former is 108. Composed of similar yet softer and darker rock Anderson Hill has suffered more from erosion. Following the road as it rises over the shoulder of the hill we see on our right a little island tied to the land by a bar of gravel. This is Kitty’s Islet. Hardly are we in sight of it when we see of all things in the world this third Saturday in November wild roses in full bloom. A thicket of Nootka Rose bears not only several flowers dyed deeply as in June and just as sweetly scented but also numbers of buds. Here again I point out the influence of the salt air on plant life. Close by are grindelias in flower but there is nothing unusual in that. The cormorants sitting in a row along the top of a half- submerged rock are just about a stone’s throw away and their restiveness as we move about below the rose thicket shows they realize how close we are. On the rocks here by the sea are mats of an interesting knotweed known botanically as Polygonum paronychia because the sheaths of the knots or joints split into silvery threads which suggested to its first being described as the genus Paronychia whose plants have conspicuous silvery bracts and are known as whitlow-worts because reputed to cure whitows.

Polygonum paronychia, or beach knotweed.

Our whitlow-wort knotweed is a […] older parts being dark reddish brown and woody while its leaves are bright green and revolute, that is to say, they have their edges turned backward like the leaves of Labrador-tea. This leaf character is interesting because it is found in plants of two distinct environments, so distinct that they seem as opposite as it is possible to be. One is where water is not only abundant, as in a bog or muskeg; this the Labrador-tea, bog cranberry, and kalmia with their revolute leaves alike favor. The other is an environment thoroughly dry for at least a good part of the year, such a one as we get in exposed places such as these rocks near the sea. The point of coincidence between the two environments lies in the fact that bog-water is so acid as to check the roots in their absorption of water and so a condition of physiological dryness results. It may be illustrated by, though differing in degree from, the Ancient Mariner’s “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink “. To diminished to some extent the need for water the plants so situated cover their leaf pores with hair, wool, or velvet, or with the down-turned margins, or with a combination of both. Our whitlow-wort knotweed is well worth attention with a good magnifying glass. It is particularly interesting to compare it with the autumnal or spurrylike knotweed which blooms on dry rocky hills away from the sea in the autumn months when all is dry. Differing in habit and general appearance both have divided sheets and revolute leaves. This knotweed is found at both low and high elevations. I have come upon it on Mount Aerosmith and at Jasper. Growing by the polygonum is another plant which has strangely adapted itself to prolonged drought. It is one of the stone-crops or sedums, not the common broad-leaved one but that with crowded leaves, round in section and tapering to a dull point. “Stenopetalum” means “narrow petalled” but that is, I should say, just what they are not. However the scientific names of plants are an endless source of wonder. And still another nearby lover of bare dry places is the thrift or sea-pink, known to us in gardens by several gardeners varieties. Ameria vulgaris (Henry gives it as Statice armeria) is a typical dweller on the rocks just above high-tide mark, commonly associated with the sea-plantain. Not found on the Atlantic seaboard of this continent it is a well-known European plant and there, skipping the lowlands, it passes from the seashore to the mountain tops. “Armeria” appears to have no meaning: “statice” is the name of some Greek plant.

Armeria maritima, or thrift/sea pink. Wiki Image.

Through the Golf Links

The road now rises to the crown of the hill where a beautiful view opens up to us this sunny afternoon. While the Olympics behind us are veiled in grey mist the high peaks of the Cascades are clearly seen. Three large and distinct mountains are very conspicuous about due east, lit up by the rays of the afternoon sun. More striking still in every respect is the view of Mount Baker and its attendant lower mountains. Its great height, it’s typical “volcano” form, and its peculiar isolation, all make any view of it memorable- I shall never forget my own first view of it across the Straits of Georgia. But today the sky adds greatly to the mountains effectiveness and impressiveness. For the mist that hides the Olympics is like the fringe of a great grey mass of thin cloud shaped like a flattened dome. This cloud throws a shadow across San Juan Island and its immediate neighbours so that they are apparelled in a deep but intense blue. But the sunlight, though the feat seems to us at the crown of the hill impossible, shines over the broad curve of the cloud and illuminates the grand volcano and it’s flanks so that they shine, snowfield and precipice and sharp cut crest, with that strange pink tinge we are so familiar with, but now by contrast with the two dark blues of nearer hill and strait given a new and brilliant intensity.

Kulshan/Mount Baker in the 1940s. Oak Bay Archive Image.

By the roadside we see first the broom and later the gorse in remarkable abundance of flower for the season. Both shrubs are given to blooming at all seasons, but I cannot recall seeing so many flowers on them outside their usual period. Of the two I prefer the gorse, furze, or whin as it is variously called, partly because of its sweet and unusual perfume. But popular favor goes to the broom, troublesome as it is so liable to become. Of the two the gorse is the most delicate and in severe winters and in exposed places it is not infrequently killed. In a song of John Imlah’s set to the tune “Black Watch”, the march of the old 42nd Royal Highland Regiment, we have the gorse and the broom coupled together with other familiar Scots plants: 

Fair flower the gowans in our glens,
The Heather on our mountains;
The bluebells deck our wizard dens,
And kiss our sparkling fountains.
On knock and knowe, the whin and broom,
And on the braes the breckan;
Not even Eden’s flowers in bloom,
Could sweeter blossoms reckon.

As if not to be completely out done here is a willow already showing the silvery velvet of the young catkins. The leaves, or some of them, sere and yellow as they are, hang rather forlornly above them. This, our first willow to display its “pussy willows” or “palm”, is the one known as Hooker’s. In 1939 it’s catkins were showing in the middle of December. The picturesque pines about the golf links and along the road are a great feature of the landscape, one of the best portions of which is that scene across the links just beyond the clubhouse and towards either the water tower or the Ross Bay district. Aspen poplars, small and crooked and dark, grow by the road and there are some scattered oaks. Turning down towards Currie Road and Windsor Park past woods where the wild cherry grows in all its sleek grace we pass rows of houses where what seems but a short time ago – a quarter of a century almost– all was wild country, covered with nothing but native timber, shrubbery, and open Glades. In the sketch on this page you will see how Currie Road – not then known by that name – looked in August, 1908.

“A Corner of Old-time Oak Bay” by Robert Connell, Aug.17th, 1908.

Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

2 thoughts on “Salt Air by Shoal and Oak Bays

  1. What a wonderful collection of observations from man who was certainly a naturalist! My Grandmother,Amelia Matilda Cross ran Colquitz farm. from some time in 1890’s until about 1910 or1912. My father,Gerald Vaughan told me of being taken out of school in grade 4 with his younger brother, Cyril to help on the farm. Grand Father Cross, Gerald Herbert being away perhaps at the Klondike? I was never told! Great were the stories of fishing the Colquitz for trout, shooting the flooded flats below the farm for waterfowl, and driving a horse and wagon into town with cans of fresh milk and/or fresh produce and the relief enjoyed when the Interurban was put through and could carry such products of the farm. Thank you for bringing all these stories t o t he internet.

    Liked by 2 people

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