Historical Ecology of Ancient Forest Gardens 

I am currently identifying forest gardens in the homelands of Indigenous communities throughout British Columbia. Forest gardens are biodiverse locals that provide unique ecosystem functions, food stores, and are a vestige of ancient plant translocations and ecosystem enhancement. 

In collaboration with Tsm'syen and Coast Salish First Nations and a team of scientists, we are documenting the historical ecology of cultural landscapes in British Columbia. Inspired by non-invasive archaeological techniques, we use dendroecology, charcoal and soil analysis, innovative mapping techniques, and botanical inventories to better understand how people managed ecosystems in the past, and the legacies of those practices that continue to shape contemporary ecosystems. 

What differences can you spot between these two forests?

Both these ecosystems are part of the Dałk Gyilakyaw landscape, the ancestral village of Gitsm'geelm (Tsm'syen) people and an archaeological complex also known as Robin Town on the Kistumkalum River in northwestern British Columbia. Both forests represent two different land-use histories resulting in unique community ecology, biodiversity patterns, and functional ecology. Using the above mentioned methods, and collaborating with First Nation colleagues (from Sts'ailes, Tlseil-Waututh, Gitga'ata, Kitselas, and Gitsm'geelm), we're showing that the picture on the left represents recent settler logging legacies (roughly 60 years old) with young conifers dominated by hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), spruce (Picea sitchensis), and red cedar (Thuja plicata). The picture on the right represents ecosystems we have termed forest gardens; high concentrations of perennial fruit and nut trees and shrubs, and herbaceous root food crops and medicines.  The increased frequency of ethnobotanically important plants in forest gardens includes a composition of species like: Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca), hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), rice root (Fritillaria camschatcensis), stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule), 5 types of Vaccinium, 3 types of Rubus, nootka rose (Rosa nutkana) and much more.

On a large scale, our research is showing that like many Indigenous communities worldwide, Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest increased the proclivity and productivity of desired plant foods near their homes. Not only does this challenge the long held notion the Indigenous peoples on the Coast did not actively manage food, it is also contrary to the view that human actions typically cause large scale species-turnover with net loss. Our research has shown that forest gardens were managed by transplanting, gardening, burning, and pruning, thus providing ecosystem services for humans in the past. But on top of that, this research shows that forest gardens continue to provide ecosystem functions in the present. The increase in large-seeded fruits and animal pollinated/dispersed species reflect how these special places now provide important habitat for animals (like bear, deer, and moose) and pollinators seeking food. This also reflects what Elders have always known: that old villages are great places to hunt. 

We are currently working on documenting forest gardens across British Columbia and urging archaeologists and heritage and conservation managers to protect these important ecosystems. We are also working with lawyers and hereditary leadership to tie this important research to issues of food sovereignty and Rights and Title. 

Research Collaborators

Christina Stanley, WWNI and Kitsumkalum Research Office

Dana Lepofsky, SFU

Nancy J. Turner, UVIC

Morgan Ritchie, Sts'ailes First Nation, UBC 

Artist Melissa Noack's rendition of a Tsm'syen Forest Garden (c) 2017.