Rare Oaks Get Room to Grow

Walking through Victoria's Beacon Hill Park one winter, admiring the 400-year-old groves of Garry oak, I stooped to pick up a couple of acorns and slipped them into my pocket. Over the next few weeks, these nuts, fruit of B.C.'s only oak species, would find their way to my dresser, then to the kitchen, and finally to a planter outside our Sunshine Coast home. There I promptly forgot about them.

The Garry oak (Quercus garryana) was in trouble, I knew, in this province. Stately and heavy-limbed, the trees tower over the same warm, dry, south-facing slopes we covet for our shopping centres and homes. The oak landscapes--a mosaic of woodland, meadow, and rocky outcrop that resembles a subtropical savanna--extend south to California. In B.C., though, they only occur on the Gulf Islands, southeastern Vancouver Island, and at a few other isolated locations. Since 1840, more than 95 percent of them have been lost to development or else severely damaged by invasive species.

The first white settlers raved about the parklike, domesticated appearance of the countryside when they arrived in Victoria. Capt. George Vancouver, a hard man to please, found the area "as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure ground in Europe". Under the oaks, an array of delicate plants--satin-flower, chocolate lily, shooting star, sea blush--blossomed each spring in scented waves of purple, blue, pink, white, and gold. These meadows had, in fact, been cultivated with care for centuries by the region's First Nations inhabitants, who prized as food the camas bulbs that grew there in profusion.

B.C.'s Conservation Data Centre now considers that 91 of the species making up the Garry-oak ecosystems are at risk provincially. The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada lists 21 of these species threatened at the national level, including 12--one moss, eight vascular plants, two butterflies and the sharp-tailed snake--classified as endangered, the highest level of concern. Although the oaks themselves are still fairly plentiful, the communities of plants they anchor are the rarest in the province, and most are balanced on the knife edge of extinction.

Back on the Sunshine Coast, my acorns took a liking to their new home. Much to my surprise, first one sprouted, then the other. We transplanted them to pots, watched their silken leaves unfold and search out the sun, and grew strangely fond of these brave immigrants in alien territory. True, small colonies of Garry oak survive in several unlikely spots, including Savary Island and Yale, but none, as far as I know, exist in our part of the world.

As my interest in the species grew, I searched out prime oak habitat on visits to Victoria, and gradually became familiar with Mount Tolmie, Gonzales Hill, Mill Hill, Bear Hill, Lone Tree Hill, Horth Hill, and other ridge-top parks, all of which have oak woodlands. Christmas Hill, its rock faces upholstered with licorice fern, is a particular delight. At Uplands Park in Oak Bay, a fine example of the especially rare "valley bottom" oak ecosystem can be enjoyed. Throughout the Capital Regional District I was encouraged to see volunteer groups and parks employees at work among the oaks eradicating Scotch broom and reintroducing threatened plant species.

To view a more intensive restoration project, I travelled recently to Maple Bay near Duncan, where, in 1999, the Nature Conservancy of Canada acquired an 11-hectare former dairy farm, the best unprotected oak habitat remaining at that time. There I interrupted Irvin Banman, who was weeding trays of spring-gold and Hooker's onion seedlings with a pair of tweezers, and he kindly walked me round the renamed Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve.

Winter among the oaks, while not as dramatic as spring, has its own spare beauty. A dense stand of leafless, moss- and lichen-covered trees occupies half the site, which is also home to endangered golden Indian paintbrush, Howell's triteleia, white-top aster, deltoid balsamroot, and yellow montane violet. Banman steered me away from these red-listed rarities while describing his efforts to remove exotic plants, restock native ones, and return the ecosystem to its original state. Before leaving, I paid my respects to some veteran oaks, including one giant with a trunk over five metres in circumference, believed to be the largest surviving example of its race in B.C.

Today, one of the few benefits of being endangered is that, because of the federal Species at Risk Act, a recovery team may be speeding its way with assistance. Teams are sprouting up everywhere, for all kinds of flora and fauna, and the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team (www.goert.ca/) already has a short-term plan for minimizing further habitat loss and motivating future protection activities. In the long term, the team hopes to establish a network of oak ecosystems sufficient to improve the health of the endangered plants and get them off COSEWIC's list.

Meanwhile, in Halfmoon Bay, our saplings continue to thrive. We've named them Quercus and Garryana. Quercus, squat and gnarly, seems to grow mostly sideways, but Garryana, after five years, is more than two metres tall. They now occupy a couple of expensive half-barrels, and I do believe they're here to stay.