Grow Some James Bay Food
By Kathryn Pankowski
I’ve been pondering a question lately: why do we try so hard to grow food plants that don’t want to grow here? You know, all those plants, such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers that originated in warm climates, and (quite sensibly) refuse to believe that James Bay is in Mexico or southeast Asia, no matter how much we coddle them with bottom-heated seed trays and personal plastic tents.
And why do we ignore, by and large, the food plants that were grown here for thousands of years? Because, pre-settler, James Bay was mostly Garry Oak meadow, and Garry Oak meadows were carefully tended gardens, kept clear with regular burning, and planted, weeded, and harvested on an annual cycle. Nowadays they’d probably be called “food forests” and be terribly trendy.
So this month I want to talk about three edible plants, native to James Bay. All of them can be grown in pots on a sunny balcony as ornamentals, as little pieces of local history, or for pollinator support --although you’ll need a patch of land to get a useful food crop from the last two. All prefer full sun and well-drained soil.
Nodding onion (Allium cernuum)
If you have only a small space this is the one to start with. It’s a small perennial onion, about 30 cm tall, with attractive pink ‘nodding’ flowers and flat leaves that look and taste a lot like garlic chives. The flowers, if you can bear to cut them, are edible too; if you have lots of plants, you can harvest some bulbs and use them as you would pearl onions.
Camas (Camassia species)
The camas bloom that we admire in local parks is the remnant of a once-important food crop, not just consumed locally but processed and sent far afield. Unfortunately – at least for those in a hurry – it’s truly “slow food”, taking years to grow from seed to harvestable size and several days to cook. But it’s a great plant to add to a pot of spring bulbs or a garden for a sense of place and to help support native pollinators – it’s a real favourite of some native bees. Camas behaves like tulips or daffodils: the leaves die down gradually after flowering and the plant disappears by mid-summer.
If you have enough camas to harvest a batch of bulbs for cooking, you can find detailed instructions and recipes (including camas ice cream!) at http://kwiaht.org/documents/Camascookbook.pdf. I’ve sampled roasted camas with a fruit sauce and can vouch for its deliciousness.
Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis)
This beautiful spring-flowering bulb, which you can still find growing in a (very) few places in James Bay, was also grown and roasted in much the way that camas was. It’s a much rarer plant: I don’t know anyone who has grown and harvested these for food, and I’ve never tasted one. But you can get ethically grown bulbs and plants, so it would be well worth adding a few to a pot of spring bulbs or a spring-flowering native plant strip for pollinators.
To find out more about edible native plants, try Saanich Ethnobotany by Nancy J. Turner and Richard Hebda. For more about Garry Oak meadows and their plants, visit the GOERT website at www.goert.ca.
And, some words of warning: I shouldn’t have to say this, but don’t harvest native plants from the wild. Or from city parks. You can buy ethically grown native plants at the Swan Lake Nature Centre spring sale or from Saanich Native Plants. If you might eat your plant or are buying it to support pollinators, steer clear of the packaged camas bulbs in garden centres, as they may have been treated with pesticides.
Neighbourhood Garden News
The spring James Bay Plant Swap and Sale is coming up in early May, so, if you are dividing perennials please pot some up to pass on. Or start a few extra pots of veg seedlings for your neighbours.
And speaking of plant sales, if you happen to have a pile of empty pots teetering away in a duty corner, we’d love to have them. Just drop me a line at the email below.
Kathryn Pankowski is the James Bay Neighbourhood Association Neighbourhood Gardening Advocate: she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The JBNA would like to acknowledge the financial support of the City of Victoria for this initiative.