Buttercup Time at the Uplands

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, May 10, 1942.

Every Victorian knows the spring display at the Uplands when the camas and the buttercups are out in full bloom and all of that still wild part is an almost unbroken sheet of gold and purple-blue. There you have a precious bit of the past, for long before our annals began the parents of these flowers were beautifying the oak glades annually. When the Indian tribe that built the ruined burial mounds of glacial boulders and excavated the deep trench at the south east corner of Cadboro Bay, now almost wholly obliterated, were here in their lodges they looked out on the camas and buttercups as we do, and their women folk dug the camas bulbs for food. Such scenes were not confined to the slopes above Cadboro Bay. Wherever Douglas and his party saw the oak studded prairie land that so attracted them on their first visit there also were the haunts of these wildflowers. The old settlers everywhere could tell the same tale of other parts of Victoria, Saanich, Lake and Highland districts where the firs of 60 years ago or even less were chiefly scattered trees of large size with low branches that almost swept the ground and told of long years of growth unimpeded by competitors.

An historic camas meadow at Uplands Park as photographed by Jeffree Cunningham in May of 1954. Photo from the Cunningham Archive.

Two young companions and I set out the other afternoon to the district where the Willows and the Uplands meet and which on the street map carries the names of six English counties: Devon, Dorset, Surrey, Essex, Norfolk and Lincoln, as well as the hill country known as the South Downs. Fortunately the paper picture is still in the clouds [i.e. the streets have not been built] and the solid fact of grass and trees, marsh and meadow still welcomes the walker who cares not for either mud or water, and is at least mentally impervious to thorns and spines. Naturally the names borne by the [future] streets have not been given because of any resemblance of scenery. At the present time perhaps their chief association with the Old Land is to be found in their wealth of buttercups and dandelions and in the less frequent patches of daisies. Of the dandelions I have before now quoted Lowell’s praise. Today I give some simple lines by Mrs. Craik, known best to older people by her maiden name, Dinah Maria Mulock, the author of “John Halifax, Gentleman.”

The Young Dandelion

I am a bold fellow as ever was seen,
With my shield of yellow in the grass green.
You may uproot me from field and from lane,
Trample me, cull me- I spring up again.
I never flinch, sir, wherever I dwell.
Give me an inch, sir, I’ll soon take an ell.
Drive me from garden in anger and pride,
I’ll thrive and harden by the roadside.

Well, the young dandelions- and they are all young these days- are everywhere in their thousands of thousands, “fringing the dusty road with harmless gold”, inserting themselves almost inextricably among favorite plants, enlivening every vacant lot, and spreading away across the rich green pasture lands in a wild riot of defiant color. The common dandelion with its aristocratic name is an alien that follows the pioneer husbandman around the world. Many years ago it was to be seen in Sydney, Australia, as a treasured inhabitant of the Botanic Gardens. What its status is there now I cannot say. Here we admire its flowers with some mental reservation, but we do not ordinarily make such use of the plant as they do in thriftier lands and even as some of our pioneers did. As a salad and as a boiled vegetable it may be useful to remember in these days of threathening shortages, and it has an excellent reputation as a coffee substitute. Mrs. Moodie, the historian of pioneer days in Old Ontario, says that she tried it with success. Her method was to gather the roots and to wash them carefully but not to remove their fine brown skin, because in this skin resides the aromatic flavor. Dried in the sun the roots, she found, kept for years. The roots are roasted just as coffee beans are, and she says that in the process they have very much the same odor as coffee. Dandelion flowers make an excellent home wine and medicinally it has a good reputation as a tonic and for the treatment of bilious troubles.

Dens leonis (dandelion). Illustration by Elizabeth Blackwell for “A Curious Herbal” (1837).

Buttercups, Camas, Lupines

We step at last from the network of streets behind the Willows School and find ourselves on a wheel-track crossing the old grazing land or “prairie”, now fast disappearing before the tidal wave of new homes. And here we find the Western or Prairie buttercup in full flower. It has been customary in books to give the name “buttercup” to those species of ranunculus that have yellow flowers and divided leaves, but children are not so confined in their use of the word. Doubtless the name arose from the shining interior yellow of the flowers which enabled it to be reflected from youthful chins, thus proclaiming the objects love of butter. It is an old fancy and dies hard or perhaps not at all, for only today I saw in a window among advertising photographs one of the youth holding a buttercup under a maidens chin.

The early camas is beginning to make its floral appearance. Not very tall yet, and in it’s youth of a silvery blue, it already shows the contrast with its yellow neighbours which before you read this will have made all this Willows and Uplands district so lovely. When I first saw it beyond Lansdowne Road 40 years ago it was rendered still more striking by the herds of red and white cattle that grazed beneath the oaks. With every succeeding year this beautiful exhibition of nature’s horticulture grows steadily less, and the day is not far distant when the memory will be but a “tale that is told”.

I have called it the “early camas” for there is another kind that comes into flower later, though the last blooms of the first are overlapped by the first of the second. The early one is rather smaller, and has one of the six flower segments noticeably apart from the rest, which in the later the withering segments twist tightly about the seed pod instead of withering separately as in the early one. The early one is Camassia quamash, the late one is Camassia leichtlinii, but they may be quite easily and naturally defined in English as the early and the late camas. The pure white specimens sometimes found belong to the late kind.

Camassia quamash or ‘early’ camas at Cattle Point, April 15 2021. Photo by Ben Clinton-Baker.

Among the butter cups and camas we see the pretty foliage of the Prairie lupin. A hundred years ago it appeared in the English seeds men’s catalogs, and as the ancestral species of our large garden lupines. There can be no grander sight among herbaceous plants than this lupin growing on the patches of prairie land still left, it’s great spikes of purpleish blue flowers rising well above the soft dark green foliage with a scores of many finger leaves. Curiously enough the lupine owes its name to the belief that like a hungry wolf it impoverished the fields, where as we know now that like other leguminous plants its nitrogenous nodules are actually beneficial. This was pointed out to me by Dr. Barr on the Forestry Experimental grounds at Cowichan Lake some years ago. In the Mediterranean region a native species is especially cultivated to improve the character of poor sandy soils.

Further on and chiefly on the far side of the street car track we find another lupin, a shrub by species but not a native. It is a tree lupin [Lupinus arboreus] of California which has escaped from gardens and is now spreading itself abundantly in the vicinity of the sea. Its reputation as a binder of loose sandy soil, subject to erosion by wind or otherwise, makes its growth on the Dallas Road cliffs very important and it is to be hoped no restless hand will destroy it. Here it is growing chiefly along a deep ditch which conceals its mantle of dark green.

California tree lupine. Wiki image.

Woodland and Marsh

The song of the skylark comes from the sky, and we have the pleasure of seeing at last the bird bring its music to an end by its swift dropping flight to the ground. Then we press on to the little isolated wood that makes the focus of the district. What a variety of shrubs and trees, young and old, there are! The willow with grey trunk and branches and rather heavy looking those silky foliage and pistillate catkins distributing fluffy seeds contrasts strongly with the black willow whose dark trunks are longitudinally ridged and whose leafage is light and feathery. The hawthorn stands by the side of the native black thorn. Young apple trees, seeded from orchard fruit, are in flour close by the wild crabapple which blooms much later. At one place we see a cultivated cherry tree in full blossom.

When we turned the corner of the wood, which has to be done carefully because of water, we find ourselves in a little square area bounded on the west by the tram line, on the north by another tree-lupine thicket, and on the east and south by the woods. Most of this square is wet and swampy except in summer, and it’s wettest part is marked by the remains of last year’s cat-tail crop, the broken stalks, the “sere and yellow leaf”. Elsewhere clumps of various low sedges and of shining green rushes are coming up or are even in flower. But the chief interest of this patch of tule lies in its birds, for like other and larger reedy places it is a favourite haunt of the red-winged blackbird, and today there are several pairs among the surrounding willows. The male birds do not display their scarlet epaulettes satisfactorily as they sit on a branch, and my little granddaughter with a woman’s eye for colour seems a little sceptical about the name till one rises and the black and red plumage is startling against the quiet green and grey background. Long before we saw one of them we heard the clear brief song, rendered “o-ka-lee” with such adequacy as words have for music. The female bird is brown with very strongly marked striping below and with a pale distinct line above the eye.

A colorized photo of the street car leaving the Uplands neighborhood near what is today Dorset Road in June, 1940. Image reproduced from the Oak Bay Encyclopedia.

We took a look at the Austrian pines that grow there, relics of past settlement, and at the reddish sterile horsetails that imparted their colour to the ground by the trees. In other places we found the same common species quite brightly green. Then we crossed the part where the king cups will later be in their glory, the most golden of our butter cups, and wiggled our way through lupine and rosebush to the street on the north. Here we picked up the old wagon road that leads along the east side of the wood. We were now among oak trees, and in the grass below we found the fawn lilies in flower as well as the shooting star, the common broadleaved dodecatheon as distinguished from the Dodecatheon pausiflorum, a much more brightly coloured species.

As we went along the trail a hummingbird flashed above us. Then we came on a towhee singing from the top of a small tree. He was so sufficiently free from the customary nervousness that I was able to pass around to the other side till I had the sun over my shoulder instead of in my face, and obtained a really good view of him as he threw back his head in the ecstasy of his very short but sweet song. Very beautiful he looked with his jet black head and neck as if he were wearing one of those woven helmets known once, I believe, as balaclavas because they were worn by our soldiers in the Crimean war. The bright ruddy brown of his flanks, and above all the clear red of his eye, gave him an air of great distinction.

Spotted towhee. Wiki image.

Here is a shallow little pool, just a very pleasing feature in the landscape. The yellow Prairie buttercups run down to its edge, for the soil is well drained and the blue camas and the shooting stars and the fawn lilies are all close by it. In the chorus of bird music can be distinguished now the song of the white crowned sparrow. If I were choosing the crest for this end of the island it would be a white crowned sparrow in the active singing with a surrounding wreath of fawn lilies.

A shallow pool in Uplands Park c1900 as painted by architect Samuel Maclure. BCA image.

The Rocks and Homeward

A low rocky ridge to the east invites us to its summit. Before us extend the mountains and the sea, for Victoria’s surroundings are strangely reminiscent of the old familiar lines of Byron:

the mountains look on Marathon, and the Marathon looks on the sea.

In the bright April sunshine the Straits are a pale violet blue, the Olympics a misty blue losing itself in the snow-covered heights to witch Spring has not yet come. An occasional car runs along the road below us. Little groups are walking slowly across the sunny flowery slopes. A last year’s mourning-cloak or Camberwell beauty [butterfly] flits by. Overhead go white gulls. The air every now and then as a little breeze blows from the direction of the woods carries the honey sent of budding cottonwoods and the faint briery perfume of newly opened wild rose leaves. Beetles and ants are travelling among the forest of mossland and grassland, and the little black wolf spiders – the name is ill suited to such harmless creatures – run to and fro like dark little ghosts.

Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains from Oak Bay, April 21, 2021. Photo by Ben Clinton-Baker.

As we come down the slope homeward we see first a little dobinia or false acacia tree. Next we find a row, part of an avenue apparently, of elms, their flower buds in their characteristic clusters. The writer of a little book on British trees published in 1859 says: “we recollect once visiting an enormous specimen (of elm) at Cawley, near Horsham, in Sussex. The girth of the trunk, measured near the ground, was 61 feet, and round the inside of the cavity, for it was hollow, was 35 feet. The floor is paved with bricks, and the entrance to the hollow is by a regular door which is generally locked, and the key is kept by the lord of the manor; but on particular occasions the neighbours meet and banquet in the cavity which will accommodate more than a dozen persons.” I am afraid these elms will never attain such dimensions.

Beyond the elms we discover what I have not before seen on the Island: A planted row of vine maples, the remarkable leaves just coming out of their Winter folds. I suppose some gardens about Victoria have the species of maple so admirably suited for the limitations of the piece of ground attached to the ordinary small house.

From the grass at my feet I espy the first blue eyed Mary I have seen this year, a little orphan it seemed, but with the lovely colour of its kind perfectly displayed. And my young companions came upon our native Johnny-jump-up, the yellow violet, known as Nuttall’s [Viola nuttallii], once exceedingly common but, I fear, fast diminishing. Across the fields comes the song of a meadowlark perched high on a lofty pole, and as we struck across to the streets his voice seemed to be the days farewell to the little patch of prairie, woodland, swamp and rock around which the waves of urban life beat more and more threateningly.

“A Corner of the Willows Meadows” as drawn by Rev. Connell in May of 1939.

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.

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