Midsummer in the Wild Uplands

In this article Connell walks cross country from Richmond Road to the Uplands making note of the human and the natural scenes along the way.

From the Victoria Colonist, July 11th, 1943-

I left the Mount Tolmie car at a little street south of Lansdowne Road: it is a “street” on the map and on the signboard, but it has but one row of houses and on the other opens out into the fields crossed by stretches of wild hedge along dry ditches.

Looking south down Richmond Road just before the laying of the Mount Tolmie street car track. The photographers horse and carriage can be seen beside the road at centre-left. Maynard photo/BCA.

I walked over the rough ground to the music of the skylark. Two or three birds could be heard. One seemed just overhead but although I scanned the dazzling blue of the sky it was in vain- I could not see the songster. But I saw and heard our little native singer, the white crowned sparrow, on the top most twig of a bush. Robins, too, were flying to and fro. Violet-and-green swallows were combing the air for insects, flying low and just skimming the tops of the hedges.

Coming out on Foul Bay Road I skirted the hayfields on the east side where the grass shows near the road patches of purple vetch. From Lansdowne Road the view down the long slope was very beautiful with at the foot a group of haymakers busy getting in the crop. Here too, though fainter, was the music of the lark and perhaps to no greater advantage could it be heard than here where the light breeze made the standing grass barely tremble across the sun drenched fields as the distant haymakers went about their work. Thomson’s lines picture the haymaking scene from within, as full of sound as of movement:

As they rake the green appearing ground,
And drive the dusky wave along the mead,
The russet hay-cock rises thick behind in order gay,
While heard from dale to dale, waking the breeze
resounds the blended voice,
Of happy labor, love, and social glee.

On the short grass on the other side of the road where the oak glades form a belt below the balsam fir was a group of cows lay scattered, each enjoying at once the pleasant warmth of the sun and the satisfaction of an abundant cud. The bank along the north side of the road was gay with blue and white brodiaeas, and on a blue one a Pacific Tiger swallowtail stayed for a second or two, a striking contrast of colors. Groups of blue brodiaeas growing in the full sunshine were paler in colour than usual.

“A Peaceful Corner- Lansdowne Road, Uplands” by Robert Connell, June 26, 1943.

By the Cat-Tail Swamp

The trim, tree lined pavement of the Uplands fringed with large gardens half concealing the varieties of domestic architecture brought me at last to the still houseless area that furnishes the rambler at any season with something of interest. As I enter it at the corner of Lansdowne and Midland Way I am greeted by what resembles a mist of golden stars growing where in spring king-cups bloom, but these low growers I know cannot give that starry effect. So passing by the bloom of the yellow tree lupine, the tender green of the young horsetails, the black heads of rib-grass, and the white and yellow of ox-eye daisies, I come at last to a great wealth of Ranunculus acris, the meadow buttercup of the British Isles. It is the flowers of this imported species that make the star-like effect a little way off and the reason is that the meadow butter cup is a tall plant, often three or 4 feet high, and the flowers are on long, slender stems, and at this season particularly the flowers and stems make a very open pattern.

To the right a little way a clump of cat-tails rises above the surrounding herbage, sure evidence that part of the year a swamp exists there and even at this season, long after the winter rains have ceased, the ground is still boggy and soft. So it is not surprising that through the air rings the loud whistling note of the red-wing blackbird or that presently the red and white clovers in the grass give place to the kingcups– the creeping buttercup with the deep golden flowers- and then to the brown rush with its dark brown ball shaped flower clusters. The water-sedge and the slough sedges, each with their long staminate clusters above their darker pistillate ones, and finally a small fruited bulrush lead to the tall bright green leaves of the cat-tails; unfortunately the dark brown tails are not yet to be seen. The cat-tail is very commonly but incorrectly called bulrush, a name that belongs to a very different plant. Local names for the cat-tail in England are water-torch and holy-poker. The last is said to be from an identification of it with the reed placed in the hand of Christ at his trial. It is also known as reed-mace.

Close to the cat-tail swamp and by the side of an obscure path grows one of the speedwells, enjoying the rather dull name of brooklime. The name seems to be a corruption of “brooklimp”, which gives the moisture loving habit of the plant and its limpness; for its stems lie along the ground, rising only a little to display the bright blue flowers. Close by a few kingcups still linger and display their golden petals. Near them and first detected by their powerful scent grows the hairy hedge-woundwort [likely Coastal Hedge-nettle (Stachys chamissonis)] with its purplish red flowers. Its strong odor is displeasing to many, but I always welcome it because it brings back to me sumer days at Lochwinnoch in Ayreshire. There as a schoolboy on holiday I wandered along country roads where its British equivalent grew in rich profusion on the damp shady, banks.

Coastal Hedge-nettle (Stachys chamissonis) photographed in Uplands Park in late June, 2021.

A tinge of pale mauve a little way off reveals on inspection a patch of velvet-grass or meadow soft-grass, to give its old English name. A century and a half ago it was cultivated in Yorkshire, where it was threshed for its seeds. These contain much nourishment, but the cattle for whose fodder it was intended did not take readily to it and Yorkshire fog, as it was then called, fell into disuse. Fog is an old name for after-grass and so for grass in general.

Velvet-grass, as the name suggests, is soft to eye and touch because of the fine hairs that clothe it. The pale purple or mauve color of the heads is conspicuous and when this appeared in the meadows the old time farmers judged that it was time to put the scythe to the hay crop. It is common along roads and about old farms, being one of the “white man’s footsteps”, and it is a small contributor to the beauty of the summer landscape so much dependent on the variety of its grasses.

On the Other Side

 A rude path runs through the low wood or coppice on the left. On each side young oaks are rivaled by aspens, black hawthorn, willow and crab apple, and a thicket of wild roses. By the side of the path I come on a grass conspicuous by its slender one-sided flowering spikes of a delicate green. It is the crested dog’s-tail, another importation from abroad, very common in Europe and Western Asia. It has an excellent reputation both for use and ornament. On the dry hills and downs of Great Britain it is one of the most valuable pasture grasses, favored by cattle and sheep as well as deer, and is most nutritious when the seed is ripe.

The path brings the pedestrian out on the open ground relieved by a few scattered oaks. A few of the prairie lupines are lingeringly blooming and even a camas or two remain. A dry pond has on one side a border of hardhack and the helenium or sneezeweed is already well grown, thought not yet in bloom; it is a flower of the late summer. A little further on towards the Willows Beach is the avenue of small maples to which a year or two ago I referred. They were just beginning then to open their leaves to the spring sunshine and I took the little trees to be specimens of the mainland vine maple. I see now I was mistaken and that the semi-transparent baby leaves were unsafe guides to their appearance when mature. [Perhaps the invasive Norway maples that were recently removed from the park? – ed.]  

Returning and keeping on the east side of the coppice, the open grassy ground leads up to some tallish oaks surrounded by a thick high hedge of crab apple and wild rose. Here the tall cinquefoil, Potentilla gracilis, is plentiful, its flattish heads or corymbs of yellow flowers rising on long stalks above the velvety green leaves, with their white undersides, a species handsome enough for the flower garden, and yet so frequently passed over as “just another buttercup”!

Slender cinquefoil (Potentilla gracilis) growing in Uplands Park in late June 2021.

Hidden Colors in the Woods

It is one of the pleasures of a walk through the Uplands oak woods to come upon the numerous open glades whose short grass is often brightened by brightly hued flowers.

Uplands Park, June 30th, 2021.

Unfortunately at this season one drawback exists: the presence of the ripening grasses, some of whose sharp seed-coverings are bound to penetrate stocking or sock to the discomfort of the walker. However, they do no more than tease, not having dangerous powers of the spear-grass familiar to prairie dwellers at one time.

In front the grass is suddenly gay with the two brodiaeas we have already seen on Lansdowne Road, here spread far and wide instead of being confined to a narrow bank. They are accompanied by the woolly sunflower with its golden flower heads. Its common name is neither pretty nor more than very partially descriptive. Woolly it may be botanically speaking, for it has on leaf and stem a slight white fluffiness that barely conceals the light yellowish green below. But the flowers in no other way resemble those of a sunflower than that they belong to the great family of the Composites and that they possess conspicuous pistillate ray-flowers and a centre of tubular perfect flowers. By reason of its massed structure the centre appears of a deeper yellow than the outer ring of rays. Altogether it is one of our brightest, most cheerful and commonest wild flowers.

Woolly sunflower (Eriophylum lanatum) photographed by Professor Jeffree Cunningham in Oak Bay in 1953. Cunningham Archive image.

 Another glade opens out and fresh flowers meet the eye. Here the velvety purple blue of Menzies’ larkspur is very evident, for the flowers are still in large numbers and carried by their long stems well above the surrounding grass. And as if the larkspurs color must have a proportionate amount of a complementary tint the slender cinquefoil is here in far more than its usual wealth, so that the two colors dominate the charming scene with its background of dark oak foliage and its thickets from one of which peeps out the snowy white of the mock-orange. In this same opening the yarrow appears as well as a little clump of a plant I have looked for in vain for some years but have missed. This is the Kamtschatican bedstraw or woodruff [Galium triflorum], also known as northern wild licorice, probably because the root is sweet, though I have not tried it. Its flowers are dull yellowish white and strongly scented, retaining an odor of new-mown hay after drying. It has not the sticky adhesiveness of the common garden weed cleavers the same genus, Galium. Upright in growth with its leaves in whorls of four, usually two long and two short, it is a pleasant contrast to its clinging, climbing relative.

Fragrant (Kamtschatican) bedstraw (Galium triflorum) photographed at Thetis Lake Park in June of 2021.

Another piece of woodland is crossed and on the further side of the next glade is a shimmering display of blue and white, something quite unfamiliar to our Island landscape. It turns out to be a rich growth of the common cornflower, or blue-bottle, so common in grain fields with its companion the red poppy, and once seen in just such circumstances a few years ago in a field by Richmond Road. Whether sown here by the hand of man or sprung up as other strangers by carriage of bird or wind, the cornflower is flourishing here, and while the majority of the flowers are the true inimitable blue there are enough white ones to give variety, and a very few purple that have no appreciable effect on the general effect.

This is the last flowery scene of my stroll, and both a pleasant and a suggestive one. Evidently here in course of time our native flora will be added to and enriched by other things than common invasive weeds. Evidence is seen in the manner in which the pretty little maiden pink has established itself and made large crimson patches in the grass near the Pemberton Woods off Quamichan Avenue, and all in a few years. The spread of building will doubtless eventually wipe all that out, but what has happened there may happen in safer areas. May it be so!

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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