Along Country Roads by Mount Tolmie

Here Connell ventures up and over Mount Tolmie and down onto the eastern end of Cedar Hill Cross Road, where the University of Victoria is today. He examines the botany of forest, field and hedge as well as some remnants of human history along the way.

From the Victoria Colonist, September 17th, 1939-

From the street car terminus the road winds steeply up to the summit of Mount Tolmie. On the left the screes from the sand and gravel deposits lose themselves in the broom that fights a not wholly successful fight with the sliding debris. Along the crest stretch the oak thickets in dulling green.

The sand-pit at Mount Tolmie as photographed by Professor Jeffree Cunningham in May of 1953. Cunningham Archive Image.

Overhead blotchy masses of grey cloud suggest rain, while across the Sooke Hills the white mist sweeps, hiding all but the familiar skyline. The prevailing colors of the distant landscape are soft blues and grey. When we reach the top we feel the southwest wind blowing stiffly as it strikes the rocky ramparts and turns abruptly upwards where the road edges its way around the ice-worn ledges that form the actual summit. Following the crooked way by cuts and corners down to the Cedar Hill Cross Road a small dark hawk, doubtless a black merlin, is just seen for a moment across the twiggy scrub in its hunt for prey of small birds. The road to the east seems at first like a deep canyon cut through forest instead of rock. Years ago many of our Island highways looked just like that, the resemblance accentuated by the narrowness of the wagon road and by the so frequently unbroken massiveness of the forest mile after mile. This old road to Cadboro Bay still preserves something of the ancient character when seen in extended perspective.

An early 20th century road in Gordon Head. Saanich Archives Image.

As we stroll leisurely along eastward we notice on our left several very find specimens of the native crab apple. Eight or nine inches in diameter, their rough grey trunks are surmounted by a puzzling tangle of branches visible as we look up from below, but all the exterior is heavily covered with the dark green foliage, the leaves usually marked by two conspicuously projecting pointed lobes midway between base and apex. But most noticeable is the abundance of fruit, hanging in cherry-like clusters, each tiny apple elongated in form and as yet of a purplish green. Anyone who desires to prove the value of these “small-fruited crabs”, as Menzies calls them in his Journal, can find an abundance of them here. I like their botanical name, Malus rivularis, the brookside or burnside apple. Not that the crab apple confines itself to the neighborhood of running water, but it loves moisture, whether in stream or swamp or underground supply. From Alaska to California north of San Francisco Bay it is a familiar inhabitant of moist land.

Friendly Fruit

The saskatoon [Pacific serviceberry], Amelanchier alnifolia (Henry gives the name A. florida), always seems to me to have a friendly look about it as we meet it on our rambles. This shrub is one of the most widely spread of our natives. It grows from Manitoba to the Pacific Coast and from Alaska to California, reaching down into New Mexico along the Rockies. Those of us who can remember the joy of a saskatoon patch on a summer’s day on the prairies when the cool, sweet juicy berries regaled thirsty mouths, or who can recall the pleasures of saskatoon pie or of the fruit eaten with cream, may well look with kindly recognition on the bush as it grows by our roadsides and in the copses. The name “saskatoon” is not derived from the city of that name; I expect the derivation has been the other way about. It is said to have originated among the Blackfoot Indians of the Great Plains. Still some fruit hangs on our saskatoon bushes by the road, but its freshness is gone and it recalls the berries as the natives dried them for the pemmican of the old days, or even used them as a substitute for the grocer’s currants.

A ripe crop of saskatoon berries

The native buckthorn or cascara segrada is very easily recognized by its oblong leaves with their ribs so remarkably prominent on the underside and with a silky texture. The round fruit which, when fully ripe is quite black, is still of a dull reddish color on the wayside trees. With them grows the red-barked dogwood, and we notice the striking contrast between the bright green leaves and the crimson redness of the twigs and branches where exposed to the sunlight; in the shade the red is less or even wholly undeveloped. The fruit is not attractive to the human searcher for delicacies, its leaden white color suggesting unpleasantness to the taste. The fruit of the closely connected Cornus sanguine or wild dogwood of Europe has the same bitter taste and is valued for its oil, which is extracted by pressure or by boiling and used both for illumination and for cooking. Perhaps the chief beauty of the red-barked dogwood is to be found in the autumnal color of its leaves, already assumed in places, a rich red mingled with purple.

Berries and fall foliage of the red-barked, or red-osier, dogwood

Finnerty Road now attracts us with its delightful prelude of open but shady woods where the sun is now catching the cones on the Douglas firs and transmuting them into gold. But the the chief of the conifers here is the balsam or grand fir with its fan-like spreading branches. Its cones, very different from the Douglas fir ones, are less easily seen because of their purplish green, velvety, exterior but beneath the trees a few lie broken, their scales scattered and strewn with blisters of aromatic balsam. Then there are many scattered oaks, and patches of still green bracken, and extensive carpets of moss dry but green. Tall bushes of bird cherry [osoberry/Oemleria cerasiformis] display a chequerwork of slender hanging leaves, some still green, others yellow; the first of shrubs to burgeon in the spring, and normally the first to announce the summer’s end. The ocean spray reminds one now of rocks from which the tide has receded, leaving clusters of drooping brown seaweed, for the creamy white flowers are now but dingy brown seed vessels.

Fall Flowers

There is a charm about the first wild flowers of spring that we all recognize. Partly it is due to their intrinsic freshness and beauty and partly, I think, to their note of hope and their contrast with the sombre mood of winter. So, too, there is a charm about the last flowers of summer, the odd stragglers that here and there look wistfully up at us as if to recall the pageant that has passed. One of these we meet on Finnerty Road- a Michaelmas daisy. Of course there are plenty of its fellows elsewhere in sunnier places. But its singleness and loneliness have an irresistible appeal. The large “asters” of our gardens came originally from China and at one time we always spoke of them as “China asters”. The true asters are almost wholly American, some two hundred species being found on this continent, and nearly a dozen on Vancouver Island. Their colors are purple, blue or white- never yellow. They are all flowers of late summer or autumn, and so they have received the name of Michaelmas daisies because they are in bloom about the festival of St. Michael and All Angels on September 29, “about” being used in the broadest sense. The gardening books tell us they bloom from July to November, so that Michaelmas Day may be called the centre about which their flowering season revolves.

We see in the dry ditches the self-heal or Prunella vulgaris putting forth late clusters of flowers. The early flowers are already represented by only the brown calyx lobes, but in the axils of the two green leaves below small clusters of the violet-blue have developed under the kindly dispensation of the recent rains. In ditches that retain their moisture longer the dense carpet of creeping buttercup is broken by an occasional golden yellow flower, smaller indeed than its forerunners, but very striking because of its isolation against the background of soft dark green. The fetid chamomile or stinkweed, Anthemis cotula, lifts its white flowers like small ox-eye daisies, pretty to look at but unpleasant to the smell as the English names suggest. The spear thistle sometimes (though I believe incorrectly) called the Scots thistle, shows both purple flower heads and seed heads of silky white and brown. In Crawford’s “Wild Flowers” there is for frontispiece a reproduction of a watercolor drawing of just such an autumn group of thistle heads with a white butterfly regaling itself on one of the purple clusters. This book reminds me that boys in Scotland used to pluck away the florets and eat the fleshy “cheese” or base of the flower head. In days when children grew up ignorant of ice cream and all-day suckers the countryside furnished many a tasty morsel. This lore of field and woodland delicacies was traditional and perhaps as old as anything in our history. With our sophisticated tastes now shared even by children we have lost part of the appeal of Nature.

Finnerty Home

Here on our left stands the old Finnerty home- a large, roomy one-and-a-half story house, showing the effects of vacancy.

“The Old Homestead, Finnerty Road, Mt. Tolmie” by Robert Connell, 1934

Behind it the long edge of the forest extends, bounding on the south a fine prospect of open fields that carry the eye away to the distant hills- Mount Jeffery, Mount Wark, Observatory Hill (Little Saanich Mountain), Bear Hill, Mount Newton and Mount Douglas, to say nothing of faintly seen heights beyond. On our right contrasting with the bare and yellow fields across the road are sheets of blue-green cabbage. Here in the open the wind plays and makes a loud rustling in the leaves of the aspen poplars that grow at the edge of the woods and along the road. The sound has a shrill quality that suggests the gales of autumn playing among leaves withered on the branch. But the foliage of the aspens is a rich dark green and their substance healthy and vigorous. No sharp seasonal check has blanched or transmuted it to yellow and fawn. Beneath all this flat country, high-lying as it is, there is underground moisture, as the more deeply-rooted plant life testifies. We do not find balsam firs, crab apple and red-barked dogwood growing except where there is some permanent water supply reachable.

These bits of road are bounded by old fences, so old that here and there their decay is but too evident. The wood is weathered and the pioneers of plant life have established themselves upon it and imparted to it their soft coloring. Down the posts and along the horizontal boards patches of lichen have attached themselves, their grey hue little different from that of the timber except for the dark brown of their spore receptacles. The pale old-man’s-beard of the trees above has come down and makes tufts of graceful fringe along the edges of the boards. But it is on the top of the posts where most of all the moisture gathers that the chief variety is found. Three or four mosses, some of them little mounds of velvet, others creeping and strongly adhering like applied embroidery, give the chief color, but not the brightest; that is reserved for the scarlet cup lichens with their sealing wax appendages. Other lichens in curled or cut patterns and whitish green are there, and one tiny liverwort of the moss-like type inserts its delicate two-ranked stems among its neighbors.

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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