By Richard Haard, Propagator, Fourth Corner Nurseries
From Merriam-Webster… Anthropogenic : of, relating to, or resulting from the influence of human beings on nature
Here in the lower 48 states it is difficult to find a tract that has not been influenced by the hand of man or by livestock. Plant communities containing natural vegetation are either obliterated or contaminated with escaped ornamentals or by the seeds of weeds and exotic grasses borne by hay fed animals, farming activities and passing cars.
In some places though, as in the high forest country or the remote north of Alaska, where wilderness surrounds civilization, these exotics are absent and we can see the countryside with its natural endowment. Occasionally we come across modifications to the natural landscape we inherited from our original peoples, who have lived here for as long as 12,000 years, which adds an interesting angle to these thoughts.
My friend, Rupert Wilson, who resides in a native village located about 350 miles north of Vancouver, B.C., Canada, tells me about historical evidence for continuous occupation of his village at Bear Cove for the past 9000 years, likely longer. During this period the Kwakwaka’wakw (pronounced “kwa kwa ka wak”) people lived on the northern part of Vancouver Island, the adjacent mainland coast and the islands between.
The first documented European contact in this area was with Captain George Vancouver in 1792. When Europeans brought iron tools, firearms and other European goods, they also brought diseases like measles, influenza, tuberculosis, venereal disease and small pox. To these First Nations people, with no immunity to European diseases, the consequences were devastating. Two thirds of the population was wiped out within a relatively short period of time. (http://www.firstnations.eu/fisheries/kwakwakawakw.htm) Some of these villages persist today, but in many places all that remains is evidence like the occasional shoreline kitchen midden, a10 foot or deeper shoreline bank where every shell contained within has smacked the lips of a human.
My own adventure on this topic began with a field trip last year to a grassy islet near my friend’s village. Here we found an abundant population of a lily family species, Fritillaria camschatscensis, riceroot, a native of the southeastern Russian coast. This species is similar to our own Fritillaria affinis and is sometimes intermixed as we move south into Oregon. The bulbs produced by this plant are rich in easily digested carbohydrates, keep well, and are easily propagated by the tiny bulbils that form on the parent bulb. Early travelers harvested these bulbs and distributed them as they moved south. Perhaps these Fritillarias were moved to North America by way of Kamchatka as trade goods or with migrants long after the Bering Straits post-glacial era migration. (Gastil)
The common Camassia quamash and C. leichtleinii occurring across western North America are not found in this northern place but are dominant only 300 miles south. Other plants with edible or medicinal value are found in the same places, such as Allium cernuum, Fragaria spp and Lomatium species.
My adventure this year has been to survey the islands of the Broughton Archipelago, a cluster of islands just south of the entrance to Queen Charlotte Sound. Traveling in a small boat we intended to camp on beaches, but the terrain on these islands is so extremely rocky and densely forested that it’s almost impossible to find a place to spread out a tent and cook a meal. Even the tiny rocky islets that were poking out of the water were thickly forested most often to the high tide line.
Prior to visiting these remote, largely uninhabited islands I had envisioned finding the grassy islets that are common in the San Juan Archipelago near my home in Washington State. Here in Broughton, however, we cruised for 2 days not to find a single islet without dense forest. Finally, we took our search further south and nearer some village sites. There they were! Just as kitchen middens are evidence of the hand of man in the distant past, these grassy islets are evidence of former grocery and medicine sources cultivated by natives.
We found Allium cernuum and Fritillaria affinis on the first islet. Then within easy distance of a historical native settlement we found an islet so dense with F. camschatscensis one could not help but walk over them. Our visit this time was in mid-June and gave us opportunity to verify the identity of seed pods we had collected the year before at Rupert’s islet. Finding only two islets containing F. camschatscensis indicates these are not common plants and care should be taken to preserve the species for future generations.
There is a movement among many native groups including the Kwakwaka’wakw people to reintroduce natural foods such as this riceroot (Lhásem in the Squamish Nation language) as a means to improve their diet and fight adult onset diabetes. Leigh Joseph, a graduate student of ethnobotanist Dr. Nancy Turner at the University of Victoria, is cultivating riceroot in traditional locations and then showing native people how to reinvent or revive their former, healthier diets. (http://www.indigenousreporting.com/2012/story-1/ ) It was heartening to learn for myself that this species of Fritillaria still resides in natural populations of the remote British Columbia coast.
Further south, near Bellingham, I’ve collected seed and propagated over many years the common Camas. Some friends from our local coast Salish Tribe, Lummi, would visit our farm to harvest Camas bulbs with traditional digging sticks. I told these friends I collected seed for propagating these bulbs from an islet that their ancestors cultivated long ago. That was about 10 years ago and this spring when visiting this site again to replenish my seed supply the islet was back in cultivation. Vast sections of the islet were being harvested and then replenished with young bulbs, exhibiting very good wildcrafting technique. Even though seed collecting is a bit more difficult I was happy to witness this reinvention of their native sustainable agriculture.
Fritillaria appears to have originated in eastern Asia, and migrated through China, Japan, the Kuril Islands, and Kamchatka, to the Pacific Northwest, thence inland to Nebraska and south to San Diego. F. camschatcensis, ranges from extreme southeastern Russia to Oregon. In Eurasia Fritillaria localities are typically along the multiple routes of the ancient “Silk Road.”
Gordon Gastil attempted to correlate the modern ranges of Fritillaria with the travel of ancient people. Fritillaria and Allium bulbs are prized to this day by the native people of the Pacific Northwest as food, spice, and medicine. The dried bulbs were useful energy food on long trips across ice or water. He suggests these bulbs may have been carried by travelers on ancient routes of travel or migration.
Now with detailed DNA analysis we realize the early peopling of the new world also came by way of Asian coasts and the islands including Kamchatka, not solely the Bering Strait.
A shell midden at Echo Bay, British Columbia
Echo Bay, British Columbia, a remote settlement showing signs of former original people settlement
Fritillaria camschatcensis, Riceroot, Bulbs, offsets and seed pods. Collected in natural habitat at Northern end of Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Broughton Archipelago, remote islets. Most islets in this area are fully forested. Perennials and grasses are rare here
Broughton Archipelago, typical shoreline view at an inlet on Henrietta Island
Broughton Archipelago, another anthropogenic habitat. Some islets especially near former or current native villages show this ‘prairie’ vegetation with many plants of medicinal or medical value
Broughton Archipelago, plants associated in anthropogenic sites, Allium cernuum, Fritillaria affinis, Fragaria chiloensis
Broughton Archipelago, Fritillaria camschatscensis growing on a rocky islete
Broughton Archipelago, Fritillaria camschatscensis in bloom
Broughton Archipelago, A remote village/residence along Gilford Island
Island near north Vancouver Island, BC Canada. East side Wonderful wildflower habitat, Good example of anthropogenic influence on local vegetation
Camassia leichtleinii ssp suksdorfii in cultivation at Fourth Corner Nurseries