Eating the Neighbourhood

By Kathryn Pankowski

I have a new plant. Several, actually - it is spring, after all. But there’s one that I am particularly excited about.

What is this wonder plant? It’s Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskioldii to the botanically minded). It’s a native plant – in fact, it’s the reason James Douglas named Clover Point… umm…Clover Point. It also, not so long ago, grew luxuriantly all along the James Bay sea cliffs. It’s also a food plant: local First Nations harvested the roots. I once was offered a taste of one; it both looked and tasted rather like a bean sprout. The leaves and flowers are also supposed to be edible and tasty, though I can’t vouch for this from first-tongue experience.

But don’t go dashing out to Holland Point Park to find a snack – the Springbank Clover has gone. It was last documented growing wild in James Bay in 1991, on the cliff face in the cove just west of the foot of Menzies Street. When Nancy J. Turner, ethnobotanist at UVic, went back to check the site, the last stand of Springbank Clover had been replaced by a large chunk of concrete – part of the storm sewer system.

Now the clover is coming back to the neighbourhood, thanks to Fiona Hamersley Chambers of Metchosin Farm, who’s been propagating it and giving it away mysterious baggies of clover roots to people who live near the areas where it formerly grew. If I can keep my bit alive and flourishing, I’ll be handing on starter plants to others in a few years. (I’m a little worried about the “keeping it alive” part, because apparently the clover prefers to grow in the ‘seeps’ where there is some dampness most of the year and my garden is very well drained (the polite gardening phrase for “sandy and dry as dust”). For now the clover is in a pot, and we’ll hope I remember to water it often enough to make it believe it’s taken up residence in a delightfully damp seep.)

All of which raises an interesting question: why don’t we grow more native food plants in our gardens? After all, people have fed themselves quite well in this corner of the world for thousands of years (and developed pretty clever agricultural systems, such as Garry Oak meadow management, to help do it.)

If you’d like to add a bit of traditional local food to your garden – or even your balcony – here’s a plant to start with: Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum), a native plant that fills the same culinary and garden niche as chives, and is just about as tough. It will grow in either sun or shade (though it will bloom more in sun), tolerates some drought, and has handsome “nodding” pink or white flowers in midsummer. Unlike many of the onion tribe, as long as it gets a minimal amount of water, its leaves will stay green and handsome all summer. And tasty. Chop and sprinkle raw where you would use chives or garlic chives. You can also harvest the small bulbs for use in stews or sprinkle the florets over a salad. Bon (local) appétit!

Neighbourhood Gardening News

Thanks to everyone who turned out for the Spring Plant Swap and Sale on May 6. This is the second year we’ve done this, and there were more plants (even a Nodding Onion!), more people, and a great deal of rather jolly hanging about and chatting. We had so much fun that we are now thinking of doing a fall version as well, for winter veg starts, perennials (good to plant just as the rainy season begins), and house plants. Watch this column for more info.

Kathryn Pankowski is the James Bay Neighbourhood Association Neighbourhood Gardening Advocate. The JBNA would like to acknowledge the financial support of the City of Victoria for this initiative.

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