Plants of the Pacific Northwest
Welcome to my introductory ethnobotany page. The Pacific Northwest has so many varied bioregions and a long history of Indigenous knowledge and relations tied to the plants that dwell here. Ethno (people) botany (plants) is a field of botany that explores the knowledge some people have with plant life; their uses and life histories, and how that knowledge and being fits into worldviews and informs land use.
Let me quickly acknowledge that much of the information here comes from years (millennia) of tried and tested knowledge of living and being on the land by Indigenous peoples.. That knowledge shared with me (and the other researchers) is to be respected. This information was used with permission from friends and colleagues as well as a few very important sources. One of these important resources includes the decades of passionate work that my mentor and colleague, Dr. Nancy Turner, has put into the troves of literature I use on a daily basis. Please find out more about her work here. Also— if you live on the Coast and do not have a copy of Pojar and Mackinnon's Coastal Plants then you're not living right! If you're in the Interior you'll want Parish and Friends.
Plants are organized by Family and names are recorded in Latin. There are so many common (or folk) names for plants that it's hard to effectively share our knowledge without some kind of universal nomenclature (aka. fancy name system). What I call bearberry, you call redberry, and Mary calls kinnickinick but we can all agree it's Arctostaphylus uva-ursi. So Latin is a worldwide naming system that facilitates the organization of plants and helps us communicate across space and cultures. That being said, an ethnobotanist should always learn the names of plants given by the people that live there. It is the only way to truly know a plant relation.
O.K. here's quick crash course in how plants are organized: Family > Genus > Species. The species concept is complex but lets just say that anything that looks the same, acts the same, and can reproduce together, are the same species. Back in the day (like thousands/millions of years ago) when a bunch of species used to be the same plant, they were in genus mode. Over time, 1 plant became 5, they broke off and started their own thing — but they're all still related and are now the same genus. Salmonberry and blackberry are from the same ancestor, so they're both Rubus plants. Eventually they speciated (became different species) and salmonberry became Rubus spectabilis (spectabilis is the species name) while blackberry became Rubus ursinus. The family follows the same idea but it's an older and more inclusive category. I organize by family so you can get know to family traits. A family trait would be like you, your brother and your cousin that all have red hair. Or, salmonberry, blackberry and raspberry are all edible. You can learn family traits (like edibility, toxicity), so that where ever you are in the world, you'll have a rudimentary understanding of the local plant life.
Time to botanize!
SAMBUCUS RACEMOSA SSP. PUBENS
The coastal version (pictured here) is spp. var. arborescens (the interior version is var. melanocarpa). The small seedy berries aren't edible raw but was a very important storage food and can be found archaeologically throughout the NW. Almost all other bits of this plant are toxic (bark used as a purgative) and the berries should be cooked before eaten.
Adoxaceae (Moschatel Family)
Apiaceae (Carrot Family)
(Sea-watch, Wild celery)
I found my students would often confuse this gal with Cow-parsnip but the leaves (2-3 times divided in 3s) is a dead give away. Stems and leaves are edible.
Apocynaceae (Dogbane Family)
(Spreading Dogbane) This is the younger brother of Hemp dogbane. The latter of which was a prized and important fibre to for people in the south. The former pictured here is toxic to livestock and can be ID'd by the milk-like liquid that comes from its stem.
Asparagaceae (Asparagus Family)
(Vanilla Leaf, Deer foot)
Picture this. You're stuck on the southern coast in the middle of nowhere. You've got food. You've got toilet paper. But there's an itch you can't scratch. There are literally 100 itches you can't scratch from the 3,000 mosquitoes flappin around you. 1) Dry the leaves of this fella 2) hang in bunches around your tent, house, hut 3) Enjoy and thank mother earth for her sweet sweet remedies.
Asteraceae (Aster Family)
(Heart-Leaved Arnica) This badboy carpets mid-elevations in the Nicola valley (around Lytton and Merritt). Pretty toxic but pretty pretty.
(White sagebrush, sage)
Pick, bundle, dry, smoke: the SMELL of this issh. Sacred.
(Yarrow) The Kween of Asters: Yarrow, or as I pronounce it "Eurrro". This is a women's plant. It's a cold medicine. It's a sore throat gargle delight. It's a headache poultice. Its a cramp cure (ladies!)). Its also BEAUTIFUL. Next time you see her, harvest a few leaves and crush them in your hand. Take a big whiff. Yum.
(Brass Buttons, Mud-disk)
This beach bum is actually from South Africa. Just chills. Don't eat.
Berberidaceae (Barberry Family)
Berries were eaten (they don't taste great) although they are great in a jelly. The inner bark contains a berberine alkoloid that works as an antiseptic (I've used it for canker sores!). The berberine is also a bright yellow that has been used as a dye. Ripe berry photos to come!
Caprifoliaceae (Honeysuckle Family)
(Western Trumpet Honeysuckle)
These. You can eat the honey but that's it! Indigenous people used stems for weaving and binding.
They look good eh? No. Stop there. These are definitely not edible. But! The bark and twigs were useful medicines and hey, they just look great!
Caryophyllaceae (Pink Family)
(Night-Flowering Catchfly) These biddies flower at night (duh). Use pods as charm for hunting luck!
Convolvulaceae (Morning Glory Family)
(Field Bindweed) Hotttttttie.
Crassulaceae (Stonecrop Family)
(Lance-leaved stonecrop) These bubbly boo's are super easy to transplant/grow and are really nice in rock gardens and as house plants. Edible leaves!
Cyperaceae (Sedges - Fyi when ID'ing water-ish plants "sedges have edges and reeds are round")
Cyperaceae is one of the top ten largest plant families in the world, and this guy happens to be the most common sedge in British Columbia. Its literally everywhere, including my heart. Its beautiful bracts (pointy things like on pineapples) and spiraling flowers are a favourite of geese, bears and swans. Nom nom nom.
This is one of the oldest plants still around. It most definitely a Jurassic park movie prop. It is jam-packed with silica (a very abrasive compound found in glass!) so it was used as a hair wash. 1) make a big vat of horsetail tea 2) cool'er down 3) rinse through hair. Boom, thank me later.
Equisetaceae (Horsetail Family)
Fagaceae (Beech Family)
(Garry oak) Have you ever been to Southern Vancouver Island, stumbled across some Savannah-type grassland and thought "whaaa? I thought I was in a temperate rainforest..."
(Gary oak) ....Well, more likely than not you were in a Gary oak ecosystem one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in Canaduh! Too bad they only grow in about 5% of their previous range (since the 1900s) because colonial settlers made burning illegal (that's how Indigenous peoples managed and encouraged areas). Check out a bunch of the flowers in the Lily family - lots of them grow in these ecosystems. And learn more here!
Juncaginaceae (Arrow-grass Family)
(Sea arrowgrass) This plant is sometimes mixed with sea plantain but its leaves are super unique - flat on one side and round on the other - Im callin it "bishaped". I've eaten the bottom of the young shoots; quick wash after harvest and diced in a salad. Damn good. Don't get greedy though, too much can give you cramps (they're toxic to livestock).
Liliaceae (Lily Family)
(Northern rice root, Indian rice)
This plant is the BEST. Obviously named after the rice-looking roots - I found it doing a botanical inventory in the VGA. Roots were collected en masse and were an important carbohydrate for almost all Northwest Coast People. There were no domesticated starches here in the NWC so plants like this added carbs to the mainly fish and berry food diet.
(Northern rice root, Indian rice) Here's the whole plant, obviously not in bloom (flowers are brown and very Lily-looking) but the poor guy is obviously hurtin. None of the plants from this site looked too good but were found in association with an archaeological site. Pre cool.
This ol'girl's roots were harvested as a starchy yum-yum and she's also part of the stunning Garry oak ecosystems of Southern British Columbia.
(Fool's onion) I found this kween in the fast-fading Garry oak ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest - it looks like onion so it call's out fools who don't know the difference (it doesn't
smell like onion). Who knew ethnobotany could be so cheeky?
(Hooker's onion) And yet another sister in the Garry oak ecosystem complex. DO NOT HARVEST - enjoy her beauty in-the-ground!
Lamiaceae (Mint Family)
(Heal-all) The name is a dead giveaway. Leaves are used in a tea for sore throats and fevers and a poultice can be used for itchy skin. This stunner is also a salad favourite (stems and leaves) and can be consumed entirely after a quick boil.
Onagoraceae (Primrose or Willowherb Family)
One of my very favourite plants in the field. Indigenous peoples up and down the coast used her mainly as a textile for weaving and padding. But its significance extends beyond these utilitarian needs. One of four Gitxsan clans is Gisgaast (Fireweed Clan). And some stories of Gitselasu transplanting make note of its beauty.
In addition to the honour of representing a Gitxsan clan, and its functional construction uses - fresh fireweed leaves are rich in vitamin C and are used as a tea.
Their striking rose-pruple flowers are just starting to bud. I'll make sure to add more photos as the plant matures throughout the summer
Orchidaceae (Orchid Family)
(Mountain Ladyslipper) This showy mama was also known to Syilx and Nlaka'pamux people as Moccasins - lore goes that pregnant women drank this girls medicine to ensure a small baby!
Rosaceae (Rose Family aka. edibles)
(Sulphur cinquefoil) PSYCH! Thought it was weed didn't you? This badboy is an invasive weed from Eurasia. The leaves can sometimes be used as a tea to alleviate tummy aches.
(Wild strawberry) These guys are 9/10's of all the cultivated strawberries now grown. And if you've been so lucky to mow on some of these lil guys, you know they're 10 times better! Leaves can also be made into a tea for diarrhea or as a gargle for sore throats
(Old man's whiskers) Ladies here is your chemical-free treatment for yeast infections! The Syilx (used to be called Okanagan) people of the Nicola valley made an infusion to treat infections and it was also known as a women's love potion!
(Oceanspray) harpoon shafts, bows and arrow shafts, digging sticks, spears. Just a few of the weapons/tools/99s this stunna can turn out. Its the definition of hardwood (also called "Ironwood" according to Pojar and Mackinnon). Its also just beautiful, makes me want to appreciate the little things.....and weapons. The little things and weapons.
POTENTILLE ANSERINA SSP. PACIFICA
(Silverweed) This plant is so dope that Pojar and Mackinnon gave them an entire page in their epic plant bible of coastal BC plants. The long edible roots were boiled and resemble something of a spaghetti. Almost every coastal group ate silverweed. I personally love this plant because its a member of the famous salt-marsh gardens. These gardens reversed the notion of Coastal people as only "hunter-gatherers" and showed that NWC Indigenous people were active land managers and ethnobotanists.
Her face don't lie. Aint nothing edible bout this riparian (aka. likes river-ish places) plant.
(Himalayan Blackberry) Worst.These are the unsuspecting thorny jerks that make bush-wacking a casual hell. Yes the berries are good. Yes you can pick them to your hearts content. But these invasive duds have taken over much of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Their cooler younger sister, the native Rubus ursinus is much more appropriate snack!
The true mark of summer! Salmonberry's purple flowers are one of the first to fruit and transform into these damn good salmon-coloured berries - but don't be fooled, they come in all shades of red too. This is the mark of phenotypic variation and not differential fruiting times! Eat up kids!
One of the many edible Rubus species on the Pacific Northwest Coast. Early stems can be eaten (before they get woody, they taste like a sweet celery).
Some of my students mix this beauty with black hawthorn. The leaves are similar (serrated top and straight base) but hawthorn can't even compare to the wild whoopin taste of the Saskatoon berry
Almost all Northwest Coast people highly regarded this damn good berry. It was often mixed with fats and grease and pounded into cakes that stored throughout the winter.
Berries are eaten fresh, cooked and dried - not my favourite taste in the world but still palatable. The seeds are big and tough so you're likely to find them archaeologically (when charred to preserve or otherwise waterlogged)
Miniature apples about the size of your baby fingernail. This special plant is usually a sign of an anthropogenic landscape. That is - as archaeologists say, wherever there's crabapple, there is (or once was) a village site. Victoria Wyllie de Echeverria wrote a very impressive Masters thesis with Nancy Turner on Pacific crabapple in Gitga'at territory. Google it!
Rununculaceae (Buttercup family aka. Rudunculus aka. Don't eat these rudunculus plants )
(Baneberry) Beautiful coffee-bean looking berries (sometimes they come in white) but very harmful. Do not eat!
Saxifragaceae (Saxifrage Family)
Scrophulariaceae (Figwort Family)
(Mullein, Common mullein)
This non-native plant was readily adopted and used for keeping light, making dyes and was commonly applied as a poultice for various skin ailments. But perhaps its most popular use....
...toilet paper! Mmmm fuzzy and soft. Nature's loving hand. Maple leafs can work if this isn't around but Mullein is the bees knees if its in your bioregion.
Urticaceae (Nettle Family)
Want to get pregnant? Drink this. Nettles are simply remarkable. They're an astringent, diuretic, tonic, rubefacient and antispasmodic. These "super plants" really do support and heal the whole body, so make a tea and you'll be taking care of your digestive, respiratory, and galndular systems. Yum.
Careful they can "sting" but otherwise cause very little harm. Cherokee farmers actually LIKED the sting of nettles which acted as a "numbing" agent for sore muscles.