Artists, Environmental history, Historical photos, Historical research, Industrial research, Musqueam nation, Squamish nation, Vancouver history, Writers

Flora and Fauna in bygone eras – aka Native Plants

Yarrow – a native plant in BC
Image by Willfried Wende from Pixabay

I was in a conversation with a few writers of historical fiction earlier this week and the subject of the appropriate flowers in bloom at a given time of year and a given location was raised. 

This is a tricky issue that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and researching myself as I work on my own novel set in Vancouver 1884-1913. 

It’s tempting to think about the flowers and plants that currently exist in the place where your story is set. However, many of those trees and plants could well have been introduced to your location at a later date and not be historically accurate in a different era.

The past can be as much a different place as any foreign site halfway across the world.

Fortunately for me, my story is set in the city where I live, Vancouver, BC. so it is easier for me to know what exists today or at least find sources to educate me, and to use this information as a starting point. For example, many of our city streets are currently resplendent with  Japanese cherry tree and plum trees now in blossom, adding beauty and colour, and a general feeling of cheerfulness and whimsy.  But I’m sure these trees are not native to this region, but were introduced, as were many flowers, largely to replicate the classic English gardens that settlers established in their yards in a kind of sentimental gesture. Roses, lavender, and peonies come to mind.

Which eliminates one problem but presents another.

How do you find out what plants were native to a particular place?

To go back in time and learn what existed in earlier periods I have found that First Nations (aka Native, Aboriginal, Indian) sources of knowledge to be the best and most accurate, as well as being more comprehensive, encompassing medicinal, nutritional, and tool-making elements that are fascinating to learn about and possibly incorporate into our own daily lives, if not into our writing and other creative work. 

We are fortunate here in B.C. in that our First Nation people are strong and have retained more of their culture than in other parts of the country and possibly even other parts of the world, and so there are sources of native plant and animal information quite readily available.

Human knowledge, medicinal plant walks, books, blogs, and websites from First Nations organizations are all rich sources to tap for authentic historical plant and wildlife information.

And the settler community has finally begun to recognize and acknowledge that knowledge and the value that natural diversity and reclamation holds for environmental health and longevity.

For example, last week I biked by New Brighton park in east Vancouver and came across a reclamation site where native plants are being re-introduced on that part of the waterfront.

Posted information taught me about the native plants in that original marshland region, indicating what grew at different times of the year and also showing me the kind of landscape that had been overtaken by urban development founded on settler values .

Reading more about it after I’d gotten back home I discovered that the New Brighton project is also connected to another local reclamation project in Hastings Park called the Sanctuary which also features native plants and educational information.

And this got me thinking about the locations of additional sources of information regarding native plants and animals.

Great Camas
Photo by Mabel Amber from Pixabay

Walking tours of native plants and medicinal plants could exist in your jurisdiction. I know of at least two people who lead those here in Vancouver. 

And I just tried to find some information about a Vancouver tree inventory – I was sure I’d seen one somewhere but haven’t come across it again. So I did a search for one in Seattle which has a similar climate and geography as Vancouver, another research tip you can use if local sources don’t exist. For this search I found the Washington Native Plants Society site.

I also found this native plants page on a local landscaping firm, Fontana Water Features

The local non-profit society, False Creek Watershed Society and other similar watershed societies can also provide valuable information and contact with knowledgeable sources. I will explore and share some of the False Creek Watershed Society resources in the weeks to come.

Be sure to also search through municipal, regional, or provincial or federal park websites, educational institutions, and organization websites, blogs, and books on the same subject matter. Additional resources could also be found under anthropological records in museums, archives, and libraries. 

When carrying out research, be sure to use the various search terms for First Nations, including “native”, “Indian” “indigenous”   and any other local term in currency in your region.

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