Some August Gleanings

Connell returns to the Uplands in late summer noting some distinctive characteristics of the season, as well as recalling a First Nations historical site at Loon Bay.

From the Victoria Colonist, August 27th, 1939-

How swiftly the hot days transport us into the beginnings of autumn. Already the stubble fields have turned the valley slopes into broad stretches of yellow. The grain stacks are up, setting forth again their ancient order of architecture, and although most of the hay is hid in the dark recesses of the barns you meet here and there with a haystack looking very sleek in the late summer sun. The yellow of the cultivated lands has crept down over the broad flats where the optimism of the townsite has replaced the annual hope of the farm.

The lowlands of central Oak Bay from the Lansdowne slope in the early 1900s. CVA image.

Against this color of ripeness patches of green grass and weeds still persist, whether as a result of local moisture of some peculiar tenacity of vigor. Here and there rise the brown and red clusters of seeding docks above their dark and withered leaves, and sturdy thistles display their bright purple flower heads either in the abundance of the field variety or in the economy of numbers and larger individual size of the spear-thistle. But the oaks still exhibit their greens and it is only when you come to look more closely that you find that with them, too, the fruitage of autumn is well on the way. It is indeed a great year for acorns. Were our oak woods the pasturage of swine as in old days in Europe it would be a fat year for the porkers and indirectly for their owners. Anglo-Saxons seem to have brought the acorn feeding custom to Britain, and when the Normans conquered them one of the most hateful of the innovations was the royal claim to “pannage” or payment for the privilege of feeding hogs on the mast or fruit of the King’s forests, chiefly composed of acorns and beechnuts. Clusters of from four to six acorns seem to be not uncommon this year, and the eye has no difficulty in detecting them even in their present green stage.

Acorns in Uplands Park, August 2021

The Oak Glades

But let us take our way through the oak glades and underwoods or coppices in the neighborhood of the Uplands. The first thing you notice is the absence of the bright flowers of spring and early summer. Instead are now the brown and black heads and clusters of reeds and sedges, most notably the great dark velvet spikes of the cat’s tails rising above their tall leafage. The flowers of the shrubs where we wandered in Spring over the water-soaked soil are now replaced by fruits- golden crab-apples, ivory cornel berries, dark haws and reddening hips. Silent, too, are the woods when we compare them with their volume and variety of song some weeks ago. Birds are not wholly absent, of course, but their presence scarcely thrusts itself upon us as in the earlier days.

We now follow one of the bridal paths that thread their way across the slopes. It takes us almost at once into a wooded glade where we are immediately struck by the autumnal colors. Even the oaks here, and especially the smaller ones, show patches of bright red and yellow in their foliage. The tints are very bright and their position in relation to each other attracts attention. Here, for example, is a leaf in which a bright coppery red retains flecks of brilliant green. Some of the leaves are a bright tan color, like leather in texture and consistency as well as in the glossy upper and the dull and slightly paler lower sides.

Oak leaves in Uplands Park, August 2021

The trees of this broad hollow include maples and cottonwoods as well as oaks and firs. The maples show some modification of their green but it is by way of a shrinking of the broad leaves rather than of actual color change. The cottonwoods rise as beautifully as ever in their rich, dark green foliage, for their roots tap the hidden moisture denied the oaks on their stony or too well-drained ridges. The ocean spray seems almost wholly to have lost its green here, developing a warm but pale brown, and the snowberry bushes are largely burnt to a dry and brittle deadness. In the opener stretches of the path between the underwoods the pale straw-colored stalks and capsules of the yellow Columbian lily rise high above the grass and herbage. The capsules certainly suggest their common name of “seed boxes” and when you touch one you can hear the seeds rattle within and even see them through the openings in the boxes walls. The bracken retains its vivid green almost everywhere; only occasionally you come across a frond with a dark purplish bronze tint. There is in truth a real riot of color for the eye to enjoy if we stop long enough to take in the scene about us, a privilege enjoyed to its full only by pedestrians.

Late summer colors in Uplands Park, August 2021

A Silent Plain         

“There is a joy in footing slow across a silent plain”, and not the least of it lies in the opportunity of enjoying the wholeness and fullness of Nature. To the pleasure of color we must add here the pleasure of scent. Our hollow is filled with that delightful mingling of scents that is characteristic of autumn more than of any season for now we have the perfume of ripening fruit and leaves, less cloying than that of flowers, sharper and more aromatic, and with the sweet dispersiveness of old fashioned potpourri. Yet there are flowers that add their scent, faint as it is, to the aroma of the august air. One of these, very common on Uplands slopes, with their alternating thickets and open spaces, is the wild caraway. We see its compound umbels of pure white flowers rising above the slender branched stems but the leaves with their almost linear leaflets are withered and dead. Very occasionally we come upon a plant of the tall meadow cinquefoil with its flowers deeper in color than the buttercups to which they have a superficial likeness.

Wild caraway and sneezeweed by Robert Connell, August 1829

Down by the Rocks

At the entrance to Cadboro Bay, just east of the Yacht Club, is a small bay whose outermost boundary is a narrow isthmus. Here in years past the [First Nations], who made their village home by the Bay, cut a deep trench with sloping sides in which they concealed their canoes from marauders. It still remains, though half choked by brush and washed-in debris. One of the trails to the rocks at the end of the little peninsula crosses it but is rarely if ever recognized as one of the historic landmarks of the original inhabitants, any more than the boulder mounds found further back are identified as ancient graves. It must be about fifty years since these burying places were opened in a misguided wave of archaeological curiosity.

The rocky isthmus at Loon Bay in August 2021. The lowland to the right, now bordered by a rock retaining wall, is likely the site of the canoe haul-out referred to by Connell.

Down by the rocks where the trail emerges from the woods we find a few plants still in flower, but they are usually more curious than beautiful. Naturally they are such as belong to the seashore rather than to the inland proper. Among these is the woolly gumweed whose heads of florets are encircled by extremely sticky green bracts. The bright yellow flowers of the gumweeds are, if not pleasant to handle, at least pleasing to the eye for throughout the summer they constitute a notable feature of our coast scenery, growing as the do luxuriantly in otherwise rather barren places. There are at least three distinct species at this end of Vancouver Island, and these vary a good deal. This one, Grindelia lanata, has very long, narrow oblanceolate leaves at the base and is lightly covered but chiefly on its reddish stems with fine woolliness. Then we have the sand bur, Franseria bipinnatifida, just passing out of the flower into fruit, and very surprisingly prickly it is as we find when we touch it for each little fruit has a dozen sharp spines which are more useful for attachment and consequent transportation than as a means for defense. Its grayish-green leaves are suggestive of one of the artemisias or wormwoods and the whole plant resembles the ambrosia or ragweed known as Ambrosia artemisiaefolia. If the sand bur is odd, still odder is the glasswort, Salicornia ambigua, which grows in the hollows where in times of heavy seas the ground is saturated with salty spray. Ordinarily its home is in the marshy land about deltas and lagoons. To the eye at first glance it presents the appearance of pale cabbage-green stems with opposite branches; no leaves and no flowers. However, closer inspection with the addition of some acquaintance with plant structure enables us to see that the leaves are still present in the form of tiny bracts at the joints where the branches rise, and tiny stamens reveal the flowers in groups of three in the pollen and shortened upper ends of the stems. The salty fluid of the stems makes the plant very attractive to cattle who enjoy grazing on the glasswort meadows. Where it is abundant you will commonly find one of the dodders, Cucuta saline, spreading its golden hairs from stem to stem and sicking the juices of its host.

Salicornia, also known as glasswort or sea asparagus. Wiki image.

There are but few shells to keep us, so after lunch we saunter back to the main avenue and past shrubberies of exotic and native varieties. Among the latter we notice the curious double rows of almost fruit-like swellings, rosy red on one or both sides and with minute tubercles, that are to be seen on so many of the willow leaves. The rows are one on each side of the mid-rib of the leaf. Cutting one of them open, we find it inhabited by a small white grub of active manners who lives in a hollow sphere which is at once its home and its food supply. It suggests a small boy in the middle of a watermelon. The creature appears to be the larva of one of the willow leaf gall sawflies.

Down to the Shore

We come down to the shore again not far from the north of Cattle Point. Here the curiously involved gneissic rocks lie very close to the surface and are cut by the sea into small coves and gullies which run up beyond the reach of the highest tides and would seem therefore to have been made when the land stood lower relatively to the sea. The fundamental rock is the dark Wark gneiss, but it has been invaded by a paler rock which in places has broken off irregular and angular blocks of all shapes and sizes while in others it has sent long dyke-like stringers along lines of weakness and thus emphasized the gneissic or banded structure. The flow structure is also very well developed in places where the convolutions and involutions and revolutions of the pasty mass of molten rock have been, as it were, frozen solid for our instruction. This contorted and twisted rock is all the more remarkable because ordinarily the lines of flow or foliation are very persistently in a northwest-southwest direction.

A small cove at Cattle Point, August 2021

To return to our botany, we found just on the rough dividing line between the barren surface of the shore-rock and the soil a common sunflower in full flower, about two feet or so in height, the flowering head about three inches across. This garden escapee reminded me of the tomato plant I came across in a crevice of the basalt just above the sea at Albert Head some years ago. When you remember what disappointment often attends your attempts at seed culture within the protected and favored bounds of a garden, you wonder all the more at these waifs and strays that, in spite of all, blossom and fruit in such apparently hopeless spots. The sunflower, escaped from cultivation, was the more precious here because no other flowers were to be seen except some shore pea blossoms, but in their absence we had the pleasure of seeing the bright colors of the banded grasshoppers in their flight. It is fascinating to watch these August visitors. On the ground they are practically invisible, even when you have watched them alight, as much so as a flock of sandpipers on a pebbly beach or river bed. But when they rise on their noisy flight and the scarlet or black and yellow flashes on the eye for a brief moment or two, they give you a desire for more and still more of the appearing and disappearing spectacle. Often, I know, I have walked along behind a company of these harmless locusts for the sheer pleasure of watching the twinkling gleams of colors and to spy the flyers on the ground in their sober disguise, each with head towards the intruder.

Swamp Sunflower

  Across the smooth curving ribbon of Beach Drive another piece of shrubbery and low trees suggests by its perspective an open space, and pressing through the thicket we find ourselves in a yellow sea of sneezeweed, or swamp sunflowerHelenium autumnale – one of the most striking of our native perennials.

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) at Uplands Park, 2021

A row of conspicuous ray-florets, each an inch or more long and widening towards the tip and with three or more teeth from a quarter to three-eights of an inch long, encircles a yellow ball of tubular florets. There is a slight resinous odor as befits a plant of late summer and early autumn. I am glad to find it listed in horticultural books as a suitable candidate for the garden. Back of the tall sneezeweed – they stand two or three feet high – stands a pretty little bluff of aspen poplar, its dark foliage accentuated by the sheet of golden yellow below. Under the trembling leaves we go, and after passing and even circumnavigating a few oaks (for some of these have such low and yet mighty branches that they actually rest on the ground) we come on another surprise in a rich ground cover of dwarf blueberry or bilberry Vaccinium caespitosum – crimson twigged and budded. Over a considerable piece of ground we wandered across this delightful carpet. Had there been time to rest, no pleasanter place to recline upon could have been found than that low shrubbery of soft dark green foliage. Unfortunately we could find no fruit- most likely the birds had been there before us.                

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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