On Willows Prairie

Connell takes us along on a ramble across a remnant of the swampy grasslands and oak prairies that once covered much of the Victoria region.

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, Oct. 3rd, 1937-

The other morning I took a stroll through one of the still vacant sections of Victoria’s old prairie. It lies north of Dalhousie Street and largely to the east of the streetcar line, and runs up to Uplands.

North Oak Bay in 1929. UVic aerial photo collections.

Years ago it was occupied by a farm of which a part remains in the gray walled barn and the close-cropped land where the cows give to the landscape a pleasing bucolic interest. The ground is dotted with the golden flowers of autumn hawkweed and cat’s ear. Occasionally along the margin of a ditch the purple-blue of a Michaelmas daisy [Douglas aster] looks up at us with cheerful eye. Looking across the flat field with its autumnal tawniness a belt of low woodland is seen, refreshing in its variety of greens and its broken, irregular outline. Beyond it the prairie passes increasingly into “bluffs” and then loses itself in the hillier oak glades.

“An Old Farmhouse among the Ocean Spray” by Robert Connell.

We are due west of the north end of the Willows Beach and of Cattle Point whose name recalls the days when the residential Uplands was given over to pasturage and among the oak trees scores of red and black, white and dun cattle fed in un-apprehensive peace. At all times full of interest to the lover of pastoral landscape the site was at its finest when camas and buttercup turned the herbage into a tapestry of purple and gold checkered by the sun light filtering through the foliage of the spreading trees. But great as the change has been during the past 25 years it is nothing to that which appears when we turn our attention to what may be fitly described as the skeleton of the district, it’s topography as distinct from both its plant covering and it’s veneer of human life.

One of the earliest colonial maps of what would become the Victoria region, in Lekwungen territory, in 1842. The open meadow or “prairie” lands (lighter green) were maintained as such by First Nations people through periodic controlled brush and grass fires which also made them optimal for European-style farming in later years. Fort Victoria is marked in red at the lower-centre of the map. Hudson Bay Company Archives Map Collection, Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

From the Willows Beach there extends to the foot of Smith’s Hill on the west, and to the south as far as the Oak Bay golf links, Gonzales Hill, and Ross Bay, a gently sloping plain which can be traced between Mount Tolmie and Oak Hill to the Gordon Head ridge, and which shows in fragments at Clover Point and the Chinese cemetery. This plain is part of a raised sea-beach, a fact testified to by the nature of the sub-soil and by the fossil shells found just below the surface at various points. It is to this comparatively recent- that is post glacial- origin of the prairies and their consequent soil characters that their freedom from the unusual forest conditions is in part, at least, due. It must, however, be born in mind that this only refers to the genuinely prairie parts; some portions like the Mount Tolmie valley were heavily timbered with conifers when the first settlers went there. But the oak has always been a pretty accurate measure of the soil. It used to be said that its presence always marked poor soil, stony or gravelly- not poor in plant food but in moisture.

Garry oak meadow pastureland on the Saanich Peninsula.

To the Woodlands

We shall find, however, as we explore the small prairie that it possesses two extremes: of moisture and of dryness. The latter has already been seen as we crossed the short dry grass, but now we come to the woodland. The first tree to attract the attention of one who knows our midwest prairies is the aspen poplar which here flourishes, ranging from saplings to small trees. Surrounding one of these poplar “bluffs” we find the hawthorn loaded with red fruit, the native blackthorn with its dark berries, the Nootka rose bearing it’s large globular hips, and the dewberry.

Ripening hawthorn berries in Uplands Park, September 2021

Close by a large spreading willow has about it a close ring of white-fruited snowberry. There are numbers of large tree-like willows, including specimens of the handsome black willow with its long slender lance-shaped leaves, silvery white below and beautiful when moved by the wind. This willow loves damp places and its presence points to a constant supply of moisture. It is not surprising to find nearby clusters of rushes and to notice a slight depression of the ground suggestive of a winter-filled swale.

Following along one of the cattle paths that lead through the tall thick growth of shrubs and trees I noticed some oak seedlings are establishing themselves in this happy place and it is probable that left to themselves the oaks would prefer a not too wet corner; their proclivity for poorer soils is probably due to the fact that there they are least likely to be crowded out or overshadowed by quicker growing competitors. The wild crab apple, with pendulous bunches of fruit, and the snowberry form dense thickets, the latter in places growing low with small leaves and berries, in others very handsome with large dark green leaves and drooping clusters of pure white fruit, large as garden peas. Then there are great bushes of red-barked dogwood which also bears white berries but with a curious leaden tinge. The saskatoon or serviceberry displays its roundish toothed leaves but no fruit.

Group of Cat-Tails

On the farther side in another bit of open prairie is a sure sign of water. A group of cat-tails, commonly but erroneously called “bulrushes”, lifts its beautiful “tails” of dark brown velvet above a mass of lush greenery. We are so familiar with the ripe spadix that we are likely to overlook the flowering condition. Earlier in the year we should find it with yellow staminate flowers above and pistillate below. The former are set amongst hairs with which the flowers ultimately disappear, leaving only the bare central spike above the ripened seed vessels set in their velvet. The cat-tail is also known as the “reed-mace”. According to one authority this name is derived from the custom of artists painting it in pictures as the symbol of power in the hand of Christ. It is probable that it’s original is to be found in its likeness in maturity to a mace or staff of office.

Cat-tails growing in a swampy area near Victoria.

Here, too, in the marshy ground grows the tall bog rush, it’s slender stem still green while it’s bunched inflorescence is now ripe and pale brown. A little way off is a noble clump of black willow with the ground below feathery with giant horsetails, living fossils taking us straight back to Carboniferous times when their giant ancestors made up a large part of the forests that formed at last the coalbeds of Europe and eastern America. Close by and beneath the same shade the snowberry and the salmonberry flourish and the tall square stems of the hedge-nettle still bear a few handsome purpleish red flowers.

Pools of Water

Not far from the street-car line where it enters the Uplands pools of water appear where the hardhack has not yet finished it’s flowering and rosy plumes rise above the thickets. Huge round scarlet fruits here mark the bushes of Nootka rose, some of its compound leaves reaching seven inches in length, while the pea-fruited rose, its later-blooming relative, is brilliant with thick clusters of smaller pear-shaped or oval hips. The California yellow lupine, a rival of the broom in aggressiveness, is spreading slowly over the prairie and may even be found disputing the territory with thistles and willow-herb along the sides of dry ditches.

Nootka rose hips in Uplands Park, September 2021.

Naturally these humbler woods are full of color. The thorns and crab apple show leaves of bright red and gold and the dogwood ones are striped with crimson. The poplar trees show some yellow occasionally in their foliage, and the abundance of red and scarlet among the bearers of hips and haws gives more than a hint of that “ripe and mellow tint of the most gorgeous of the seasons”. It is the combination of the bright fresh green still seen about the springs and swampy spots, of the rich and more sombre green of the greater part of the tree and shrub foliage, and of the bright dashes and patches of the red and orange of the spectrum that makes this season so lovely. It is as if the sunset of the year painted the earth instead of the sky with its transcendental palette.  

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.

One thought on “On Willows Prairie

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