A Nature Miscellany (On a Vacant Lot)

Rev. Connell’s observations and reflections on some undeveloped urban/suburban natural spaces in and around Victoria 81 years ago and what he found growing there.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, June 2nd, 1940-

This week I am bringing together a few isolated observations with little other thread or unity than their background in a very beautiful world.

On Sunday, May 19, I was at Westholme where the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the country Church of All Saints by the Chemainus River was being observed. Stepping out of the car, at a little distance from the gate because of the line of already parked vehicles, I noticed an outcrop of sandstone with some obscure fossil impressions on the surface. I had no time to examine them, of course, but my thoughts have since gone back to them in connection with the 60 years since the church was built. Sixty years constitute two generations according to our historical view of life, a small fragment of the life of the human race, but a mere nothing when compared with the age of our cretaceous sandstones and their fossils. The known deposits of the earths crust give a stretch of 300 million years since the earliest rocks were formed, but allowing for the last intervals in the geological record, the figures would probably be newer 500 million. The students of the breakdown of radioactive elements into lead and of the haloes that appear in mica and some other minerals as a result of the radio activity of minute enclosed crystals, place the time distance between the close of the Cretaceous and our days at about 60 million years. A million times our little church’s 60 years! Fortunately our values are not based on magnitude of either mass or time. The little child has more value in his tiny figure and her brief span of years that all of time and space. The mind that can enjoy by Eye-gate the ancient trees in this quiet corner and the rippling waters of the river as they wind their way seaward from their mountain source, and by Ear-gate the sweet voices of the birds, the low sound of insects and the wind among the leaves and grasses according to its measure, thinks God’s thoughts after him. I like that passage in Wordsworth’s “Excursion” in which he tells of a child’s listening to a seashell:

I have seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely, and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the year of faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when you to you it does impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation. Here you stand,
Adore and worship, when you know it not;
Pious beyond the intention of your thought;
Devout above the meaning of your will.

An illustration from “Mesozoic Fossils” by J.F. Whiteaves (1876). Published by the Geological Survey of Canada.

Flowers on a Vacant Lot

For the past year or two I have been crossing the same vacant corner lot four times a week at least, Summer and winter, except when during the latter season the narrow path becomes too wet. Part of it enjoys the shade of a grove of young oaks, the rest is open. Last year the city workmen set fire to the dry grass in the Fall and with it burnt some years accumulation of the debris of suburban life. During the Winter it looked very black and bare, but it woke up with the turn of the year and is now greener than ever.

Cultivated flowers on a suburban lot in Fairfield, Victoria, circa 1930. City of Victoria Archives.

One of the first things I noticed was that the fawn lilies were up, and although I saw no flowers this year, the leaves were large and healthy enough to promise well for next year. Doubtless it was not their first appearance- they were too large for that. Later on came the camas filling the northwest corner with its deep blue and trickling over a little into the rest of the lot. The species is Camassia quamash, or the common camas. Many of my readers know that there are two species here, one flowering just after the other and each distinguished by quite obvious and easily learned peculiarities. The common camas has flowers whose segments are unsymmetrically arranged with the lowest being quite widely separated from the other five, and in addition, in withering, the segments twist themselves separately. The other species is now in flower along the adjacent street on the east. It is called great or Leichtlin’s camas or, bontanically, Camassia leichtlinii. It is a taller and more robust plant, with large symmetrical flowers who segments in with her enjoying enrolling themselves tightly around the seed capsule. Pure white specimens of the species are sometimes found. Camas is one of the ancient food plants of the Indians of the Pacific slope. There are four species this side of the Rockies and one in the Eastern States. The genus is entirely confined to the American continent.

“Quamasis Leichtlinii” (great camas) by Robert Connell, May 23, 1940.

Just appearing on the lot this week of writing is the so-called poison [“Death”] camas, which is not a true “camas” but another liliaceous plant known as Zigadosus [Toxicoscordion] venenosus – literally, poisonous zygadene. A grassy place with an abundance of this plant with its yellowish cluster-like racemes of white flowers is a very pretty sight and is perhaps best seen along the coast. The lot seems more sparsely populated with it this year as if the fire had been too severe. Under the oaks the fool’s onion or wild hyacinth [Tritelia hyacinthina] is coming up in what seems to me unusual numbers and with the clustered greenish buds at the summit of the long wiry stem it looks at first glance more like a rush than a lily.

Fool’s onion growing near the Oak Bay Marina in July of 1957. Photograph by Professor Jeffree Cunningham/Cunningham Archive image.

The original botanical name of this plant has apparently been restored, long and forbidding as it is. It was described in 1829 in Lindley’s Botanical Register as a new genus under the title Hesperoscordum hyasinthinum, or the hyacinthine western onion. It is, of course, not an onion but its common name of fool’s onion was probably in vogue in the northwest before it reached Great Britain. [JK] Henry calls it Brodiaea lactea. The Preliminary Catalogue of Vancouver and Queen Charlotte Islands, published by the Provincial Museum, gives Hookera hyacinthina; and these do not exhaust the synonyms that puzzle the inexperienced exceedingly.

In addition to the liliaceous plants we find here the Menzies’ sanicle, with little round clusters of flowers at the end of ridged stalks, single or in groups of three. The blossoms are quite tiny, with a reddish yellow color and with protruding stamens. Here too is the Indian consumption plant, Lomatium nudicaule, also known as Peucedanum and as Cogswellia generically. Its smooth glaucus branches have a pale swollen flat-topped summit from which rise as many as 20 irregularly sized ribs bearing each a tiny umbel. The plant has a strong odour resembling celery, or still more like the old time condition powders for horses.

Lomatium nudicaule/”Indian Consumption Plant”, or KEXMIN in the SENCOTEN/Saanich language, at Cattle Point in Oak Bay. Photo by Ben Clinton-Baker, April 2021.

Among the wild things of the lot a clump of the garden Star of Bethlehem [Ornithogalum] has established itself. It is very purely white and thus distinctive, for we have very few small native flowers that are what is sometimes called “paper-white”.

A Woodland Relic

On the north side of Oak Bay Avenue not far from the Junction is a little crop of rock, some bushes, and a mixture of native plants and exotic weeds. Here in the half shade I discovered when walking past one day and interesting bit of woodland flora. It was a clump of Nuttall’s Solomon’s-seal, Vagneria sessifolia [Maianthemum stellatum].

Maianthemum stellatum/ False Solomon’s Seal. Wiki image.

Henry gives Smilacina for the generic name and so does the “Preliminary Catalogue”. The plant grows 18 inches to 2 feet high and has alternate stalkless clasping leaves. Usually this plant grows in moist woods like those around Goldstream, so that its appearance on the dry ridge near the west end of Oak Bay Avenue is rather remarkable. It may have been growing here since the days before Victoria stretched itself out towards Oak Bay, but concealed by the neighbouring vegetation. But was there ever anything like “moist woodland” in this locality?

The view from a rocky ridge showing the early forested landscape of the Oak Bay region in the late 19th century. Painting by Georgina de L’Aubiniere, BC Archives.

We certainly find it about the Pemberton Woods, and there the other day I saw a plant of Oregon fairy bells, Disporum oreganum [Prosartes hookeri] in bloom. It differs from the last named in having its flowers – which are bell shaped – in a small cluster of from 2 to 4 at the end of the leafy stem. It is a plant also of damp woods, “deep shady coniferous woods,” says Abrams. In singular abundance along the Boulder Creek trail past Jordan River grows another species, Disporum smithii, the large flowered [Smith’s] fairy bell, and it is also extremely common about the village of Alberni.

The Heart of the City

At the corner of Douglas and Humboldt streets, within a stones throw of the post office, the Empress Hotel, the Crystal Garden, and the Union Club, is a lot which for many years at least has served no other purpose than that of providing a shortcut for foot passengers.

An empty lot near James’ Bay in Victoria as photographed by Professor Jeffree Cunningham in the spring of 1954. Cunningham Archive image.

I have been long interested in it also as a natural botanic garden. Of course almost any unused bit of land is that, but this has a richness of its own, not so much in variety as an richness of growth. Some years ago I was asked if I knew of any place in the city where poison hemlock grew, and I at once referred the inquirer to this parcel of ground. I crossed it this very day of writing, and there against the wall that bounds it on the west rise the poison hemlock finer than ever. This plant of sinister reputation is Conium maculatum. The generic name is from the Greek and associated with the herb whose juice Socrates reputedly drank as described so touchingly in the “Phaedo” of Plato. Against the wall the hemlock plants reach the height of at least 10 feet I should say and their dark green shining foliage simulating that of some species of fern in its innumerable divisions makes quite a remarkable spectacle. The great stems which when dry make the “kecksies” of English country boys are spotted with purple, hence the specific name “maculatum”. By and by the bright umbels of creamy white flowers will still further add to the hemlocks appearance. If handled – and where it gets into Gardens the owners will be only too familiar with this characteristic – it emits the most disagreeable smell of the kind called “mousy”. Crediting it with its handsome appearance and debiting it with its poisonous character, its disagreeable sent, its prodigality of distribution by seeds, and the trouble of eradicating it, there is absolutely no reason why it should be permitted on vacant lots.

A plant in dame’s hesperus, better known as rocket, displays it sweet scent of purpleish pink flowers, a thing of beauty and pleasure. This is a European plant escaped from gardens, Hesperis matronalis. It’s English name, a very old one, of “dames’ violet”, recalls the days when ladies scented their rooms with its fragrant flowers. The name “rocket” properly belongs to a plant belonging to the mustard and cabbage group [ie. Eruca vasicaria/arugula], and is derived from the Latin “eruca”, the name of a species of brassica as well as of the caterpillar of the cabbage butterfly.

Behind the rocket in the southeast corner is a sea of salsify heads, looking at a little distance not unlike a patch of some coarse grain. Already, however, some of the salsify flowers are expanded and the purple or violet blue, of course, dispels all illusions. On each side of the path is to be seen a plant two or three or more feet high with the leaves made up of almost hair-like divisions and of a soft yellowish green. Bruise a little in your fingers and you will find a smell suggesting aniseed. Later on these plants will display umbels of tiny yellow flowers. This is the old-fashioned fennel of cottage gardens, once much used and even yet not disused as a flavoring for sauce with fish, the chopped aromatic leaves being incorporated as parsley. Altogether our city lot is quite an interesting place.

Harvesting fennel, an illustration from the medieval manuscript known as the Tacuinum Sanitatis (“Maintenance of Health”).

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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