Learn to identify the plants in our Indigenous Plant Garden, and discover their uses. Names are listed in SENĆOŦEN, English, and Latin.
A-O Plant ID Information
Arbutus Arbutus menziesii
The Arbutus tree has been used for a wide variety of things on the NW coast. The WSANEĆ peoples used the bark and leaves medicinally to help treat colds, stomach aches, cramps and even as a post-childbirth contraceptive. The bark can be infused to treat cuts, wounds, sore throats, and help treat diabetes while the inner bark was used to make dresses. Tannin, also found in the bark of Arbutus trees, was used to tan and cure hides.
Big-Leaf Maple Acer macrophyllum
Traditionally, all parts of this tree were used for medicinal, edible, spiritual, and practical purposes. For example, the bark was made into tea to treat tuberculosis, and the maple sap was mixed to treat sore throats. The flowers, shoots and sap are all edible. The leaves were used as containers, and also for covering dishes and adding flavour when cooking. The spiritual and symbolic powers of the tree involve good health and balance. The hard wood was used for canoe paddles, hence the name “Paddle Tree” given by the coastal peoples. The bark was used to make ropes and baskets.
Bitter cherry tree: Skwt’ theng’ –ilhoh
Bitter cherry bark: T’e ‘lem
Bitter Cherry Prunus emarginata
Many indigenous groups of the southern coast of British Columbia used Bitter Cherry for a myriad of purposes. The Thompson tribe used the bark for twine, dip nets, and to construct fishing weirs. The Nitinaht band used the bark to make wolf whistles for ceremonial use. Medicinal applications include a tea made from the bark that can treat gastro-intestinal problems, tuberculosis and even the common cold. A tea from the bark and leaves has been used as a contraceptive and to control hemorrhaging following childbirth. The tree’s extremely bitter, bright red berries contain small amounts of hydrogen cyanide that can stimulate respiration. Traditionally, a concoction of the roots combined with gooseberry was believed to make children more obedient.
Black Huckleberry or Mountain Huckleberry Vaccinium membranaceum
The Black Huckleberry plant has been a valuable source of nourishment for many First Nations peoples of the North West coast. It was so valuable that the plant was often transplanted if the community moved. The plant contains vitamins that are beneficial for optimal health. A drying technique was used to preserve the large amount of berries they gained in a season. First Nations cultures were spiritually connected to the plant and held great respect for it. It was included in the important “first fruit ceremonies”. According to Nancy Turner the fruit of the plant was considered to be the “chief of berries” and the “great grandmother” of plants.
Chocolate Lily Fritillaria affinis
This plant has been an important food source for Coast Salish communities for centuries. The starchy bulblets look like large grains of rice, (the plant is called rice-root in some regions because of this) and were a source of complex carbohydrates. The bulbs were boiled or steamed until they were soft, and then could be eaten whole or mashed into a paste. The unprocessed bulbs could also be dried and stored for winter or traded with other communities.
Devil's Club Oplopanax horridus
This plant has been used widely amongst indigenous communities of British Columbia and southern Alaska for centuries. While its young spring shoots are edible, this plant has been much more useful for a wide variety of medicinal, ceremonial and protective purposes. Topical washes were used to treat skin infections, and decoctions and teas were prescribed for stomach problems, ulcers, arthritis, and post-partum recovery. Applications in contemporary medicine include treating tuberculosis and Type 2 diabetes. Devil’s Club is also considered to have spiritual powers linking the human and Supernatural worlds; according to Earl Claxton, communities on the Saanich peninsula made face paint from the thorns as protection from evil spirits.
False Solomon's Seal Smilacina racemoso
False Solomon’s seal is a plant species in the lily family. While all parts of the plant are edible, the most commonly consumed are the young shoots, roots, and the berries of the plant. The berries are rich in vitamins and are most commonly used cooked or made into jellies due to their bitter taste. The young shoots, which emerge in spring, can be prepared and used similarly to asparagus. The roots can be cooked like potatoes, pickled, or dried and used as a tea to relieve headaches and treat stomach aches and body stiffness. Half a cup of tea made from the leaves and drunk daily for a week is said to prevent conception. A leaf decoction of the plant can be used topically to treat rashes and reduce itching.
Great Camas Camassia leichtlinii
Camas was a traditional food for indigenous groups within its natural range. The starchy bulbs were cooked in earth ovens for many hours to convert the inulin to sugar, and were eaten like potatoes or pounded into a flour to add to other dishes. This carbohydrate was an incredibly important trade item for indigenous groups on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and the camas fields were owned by families and carefully tended to maximize yield. Although the Lekwungen territory, on which the college sits, was once known for its “blue carpet” of camas meadows that are in bloom in the spring, due to restricted access and modern development only 5% of the camas ecosystem is still intact today.
Gummy Gooseberry Ribes lobbii
This plant has been used commonly amid Indigenous people along the west coast of North America, stretching from Vancouver Island down to northern California. Gummy gooseberry was eaten by a few groups of Indigenous tribes. The Kwakwaka'wakw of northern Vancouver Island would eat these berries with eulachon oil at ceremonial feasts and the Coast Salish would make bread and cakes with them. The roots were traditionally used for treatments of diarrhea. By mixing the roots with salt water, this plant was also used for treating mouth and body sores. The thorns were used for removing splinters, prying boils, and for tattooing. When the roots were prepared with cedar and wild rose, they could be woven into rope.
Harvest Brodiaea Brodiaea coronaria
Part of the lily family, the corms of this plant were gathered with wooden digging sticks and eaten by the Wiyot, Atsugewi, Miwok, Yana and other tribes of California. In some regions this plant is commonly referred to as the Indian Potato. The Miwok dug the bulbs in the spring when the shoots were just appearing above the ground and cooked them in earth ovens. The Atsugewi boiled the corms in water and sometimes cooked them in an earth oven.
Hooker's Onion Allium acuminatum
Members of this genus are very healthy additions to the diet. The sulphur compounds that give them their onion flavour help reduce blood cholesterol levels, and act as a tonic to the digestive and circulatory systems. Straits and Coast Salish groups ate the bulbs raw or steamed them in pits. The Nuu-chah-nulth harvested the bulbs in late summer and steamed them in pits lined with lichens and alder boughs. According to one source, these onions were a remedy for the flatulence that came with eating camas bulbs.
Bush: SENI, IȽĆ
Low Oregon Grape Mahonia nervosa
The Oregon grape has a varied history of use in the W̱SÁNEĆ territory. Direct consumption of the berries and leaves provides digestive benefits. Large quantities of fresh berries have been considered an antidote for shellfish poisoning. A tea, made from the roots, is an effective laxative and blood tonic. The roots can also be dried and processed into dust for external use to treat infections because of its anti-microbial properties. The inner bark, when boiled, is the main ingredient in traditional yellow dye used for basketry and wool.
Bush: ḴELḴ IȽĆ
Nootka Rose Rosa nuktana
Ocean Spray Holodiscus dicolor
Berry: ȽWE, ḴIM
Oval Leaf Blueberry Vaccinium ovalofolium
This perennial shrub, which has its greatest bloom in mid spring, can grow up to 8 feet tall. This plant has proved to be a valuable resource for indigenous communities residing on the West Coast of North America, spanning from Alaska to Oregon. These plants flourish in moist regions, particularly coniferous forests and along shaded stream banks, and therefore thrive in British Columbia’s coastal climate. The leaves, bark, and berries of this plant are edible, and provide a variety of benefits. Common medicinal uses for the plant include the treatment of urinary tract infections, lung infections, and expulsion of parasites, such as ringworm. The oval leaf blueberry also contributes to the material culture of indigenous peoples.