What does it mean to be a naturalist? Naturalists observe nature in its various forms, most often plants or animals, often investing considerable time in communicating the results to a popular audience. In the case of plants, a naturalist will study the location and growing conditions of a plant, and may research its scientific and cultural history and the ways it has been used by humans over time. To expand on these concepts, I will compare two books that take a naturalist’s view of the flora of Mayne Island / SḴŦAḴ. One focuses on European and immigrant history, and the other on traditional W̱SÁNEĆ culture.
The first is Flowers at My Feet, Western Wildflowers in Legend, Literature and Lore, an engaging little book written by local resident Brenan M. Simpson in 1996. It is based on a collection of articles originally published in the Island Tides newspaper, each one focusing on the historical derivation of a plant’s botanical name and the author’s observations of it on Mayne Island. The second is Saanich Ethnobotany, Culturally Important Plants of the W̱SÁNEĆ People by Nancy J. Turner and Richard J. Hebda, published in 2012. This book features interviews and discussions with Saanich elders Elsie Claxton, Dave Elliot Sr., Christopher Paul, and Violet Williams, providing valuable references for local cultural knowledge and practices, as well as the common, botanical, and SENĆOŦEN names for each plant.
In describing over 180 plants, both native and introduced, Brenan Simpson shares delightful stories from European and North American history, as well as from Greek and Roman mythology. He describes stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) with its practical word roots: uro meaning to burn or sting, and dioica referring to male and female flowers appearing on separate plants. The Danish used nettle to create a durable cloth for burial shrouds. The British ate nettle porridge in the Elizabethan era, and the boiled leaves were used as an alternative to greens like spinach. Meanwhile, the W̱SÁNEĆ people refer to Nettle as TEX,TEX or TEX,TEN and they have used it for making twine, fishing lines and nets, with the stems being cut and split lengthwise, dried and peeled, and the fibres combed out. Dave Elliot noted that that TEX,TEX leaves were used as a counterirritant to treat aches and rheumatism as a poultice, and were sometimes combined with scouring rush and maple leaves to make a tea. The W̱SÁNEĆ even used nettle as high nitrogen fertilizer.
In Flowers at My Feet, Brenan Simpson tells the story of how yarrow got its scientific name (Achillea millefolium). In Greek mythology, the goddess Thetis dipped her son Achilles in the river Styx to protect him from the effects of wounds while holding him by his left heel. Achilles became a hero of the mythical Trojan Wars, and used yarrow medicinally to stop bleeding and to heal the wounds of his soldiers. Ironically, he died of blood poisoning after being shot by an arrow and, thinking himself invincible, ignoring the wound on his heel. Historically, Europeans used yarrow as an antiseptic, as well as for relief of fevers, indigestion, and chicken pox. Yarrow has been called “soldier’s wound wort.” The W̱SÁNEĆ refer to yarrow as TELEK ELP and Saanich Ethnobotany notes that Elsie Williams’ mother would wash the leaves before giving them to someone to relieve a sore throat. They also applied the roots to inflamed gums or to an aching tooth to reduce the pain by numbing the tissues.
Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) came to the attention of Europeans after the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803-06, and this led to Thomas Jefferson writing about it to a friend in France in 1816, noting that it did not yet have a botanical name. In Saanich Ethnobotany we learn that the SENĆOŦEN name for Snowberry is PEPKIYOS ILC, and that the W̱SÁNEĆ people used the branches as clam skewers. They also used the bark to treat skin rashes and burns, and note that the white berries are toxic.
Europeans describe dogwood (Cornus sp.) as being valued for its splinter-free wood which was used for kebab skewers from the time of the Norman invasion of England in the 11th century. The French settlers at the time referred to these “prickle tree” sticks as dague because of their resemblance to daggers. This in turn led to the dagge wood, then finally to the dogwood tree – so nothing to do with dogs! On the other hand, the W̱SÁNEĆ naturalists call dogwood CETXILC. Saanich Ethnobotany notes that its bark can be boiled for use in medicinal preparations, as well as a tanning agent and preservative. The W̱SÁNEĆ people also utilized the wood as a material for bows and arrows.
Resources for Island Naturalists
These two approaches to documenting the characteristics and uses of various plants demonstrate the many ways in which a cultural context can affect the naturalist’s observations of plants, and how they communicate the knowledge they gain from their investigations. Both books are still in print, with Flowers at my Feet available from the publisher, Hancock House in Surrey, and Saanich Ethnobotany, Culturally Important Plants of the W̱SÁNEĆ People sold at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria.
Those of us who live on or visit Mayne Island are fortunate to share space with a great diversity of plants. Learning about the plants we see on walks and hikes can increase our understanding and enjoyment of our home. The first steps on the path of plant identification can seem daunting, but we have resources to recommend to those who are interested in making this worthwhile journey:
- See a list of the most common trees and shrubs on Mayne Island, prepared by our Biologist, Rob Underhill.
- Watch a sideshow about the six most common tree species on Mayne Island
- Consult an online reference to plants such as iNaturalist or EFlora.
- Book a free in-person consultation with our Biologist Rob, who will provide a list of plants growing on your property.
- Use a field guide for identification of the most common plant species in the Pacific Northwest.