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Updated: Aug 5

Undoubtedly you've come across a White Garden or even a black flowering Goth Garden at least once in your travels. For me, there's a certain magic that's unique to these single hued spaces. They're a celebration of texture, structure and calm clear energy, filled with life and seasonal change. They'll stop you in your tracks and take you to another world.

So, let's chat about what creates this feeling, why a single colour is so special, a famous monochromatic garden and how you can translate this concept into a modern naturalistic style to enjoy with minimal maintenance.

Sissinghurst White Garden in all its glory

The Original White Garden

The most famous monochromatic garden in the world was built in 1949 at Sissinghurst Castle. The concept was a combination of several ideas that were emerging at the time.

Garden rooms, which had been around since Roman times but were seeing a resurgence thanks to a few prominent English designers like Lawrence Johnston and Phyllis Emily Reiss. Plus small experiments in monochromatic plantings, Hidcote for instance features both a White Garden and a Red Border.

red border, Hidcote
The Red Border at Hidcote

As the gardens at Sissinghurst first started taking shape in the 30's, Vita (Sackville-West) and Harold (Nicolson) decided to combine and expand on these earlier design elements in White Garden. And, although construction was delayed by the outbreak of war, the White Garden became a reality just before 1950.

The idea was that of a garden containing flowers and foliage only in tones of white, grey, silver and green, in contrast to the to the other more colourful gardens found on the famed English property. The design built interest and drama through texture, shape and form rather than competing colours. Vita saw it as a series of grey and green mounds pierced by tall white flowers.

The final planting featured a diverse variety of plant material, all in the signature hues; sourced by the couple over several years. What remained of the original Elizabethan garden walls plus the addition of yew and box hedges provided an underlying structure for plants to tumble over and climb. All of this glimpsed through doorways from other rooms eventually enveloped the viewer in calming clouds of white as they reached its confines.

The main plan was laid out by Harold, the various rooms and long corridors, "a series of escapes from the world, giving the impression of cumulative escape". Meanwhile Vita designed the planting in her signature style, "Cram, cram, cram, every chink and cranny".

The entire adventure was cataloged and reported by Vita in her widely read columns featured in The Observer. And as the world followed along, the garden became, and has remained one of the best known in the world. A symbol of experimentation, forward thinking and mid-century elegance. The epitome of a romantic English garden.

The White Garden, Sissinghurst

“I am trying to make a grey, green, and white garden. This is an experiment which I ardently hope may be successful, though I doubt it … All the same, I cannot help hoping that the great ghostly barn owl will sweep silently across a pale garden, next summer, in the twilight — the pale garden that I am now planting, under the first flakes of snow.”

-Vita Sackville-West

Today, Sissinghurst is a National Trust property open to the public year round. The current head gardener, Troy Scott Smith, and a team of researchers have launched a major project on the history of the White Garden with the intention of recreating the original planting scheme. Scott Smith and his team are seeking a balance between Vita and Harold's ideas and intentions with a modern concern for sustainability and ecological function.

"Vita was an amateur so for her it wasn’t about perfect plantings and weed-free lawns. It was about the immersive experience and the emotional quality. Sissinghurst had become too ordered, moved away from immersive beauty into a place of horticultural perfection and just doing the same things as they’d always done. I thought we could look at it afresh and set a new direction.”

-Troy Scott Smith

Colour Theory

White is of course not the only choice for a monochromatic planting although White, aka Moon Gardens in particular have had a resurgence during pandemic lock downs. Each hue in the rainbow carries different feelings and symbolism with it, you just have to choose which one speaks to you.

Science shows us that what we experience visually creates a change in our alpha brain waves which then triggers our hormones, causing our bodies to react. Colour plays an important part in this function, it can ultimately effect:

-emotional perceptions

-energy levels






-brain development

Pigments can even effect men and

women differently, causing us to see colours (and the combinations of) as either negative or positive depending on how they are used.

White - The total light reflection of white (containing the full spectrum) has the ability to both heighten perception and cause strain making it one of the most powerful pigments. By the way, green is mid-spectrum; the only truly balanced colour that allows our eyes to rest while looking at it. Which is why the combination of white and green is so effective.

Across cultures, white is linked to mourning and death but is also seen as clean, neutral and balanced. It is the opposite of black. Its luminosity feels refreshing, cool and futuristic. It is associated with goodness, purity and reflection.

Black - The yin to yang's white, black is a dramatic and sophisticated colour. And while it can be seen as formal, it is ultimately a powerful and edgy edition in the garden. Check out, Gothic Gardens, for some inspiration.

Yellow - Is happiness, creativity and warmth. At times it can signal warning but is more often responsible for feelings of cheer and optimism.

Blue - Creates a space filled with trust, peace and loyalty. It is associated with competence, tranquility and true openness.

Pink Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia Capillaris), Japan

Purple - A royal colour that speaks of luxury, spirituality, wisdom and creativity.

Pink - Is often connected with compassion, sweetness and femininity. But it can also fill a space with pure sophistication and energy while eliciting a feeling of youthfulness.

You will find that some colours will be more of a challenge to source in plant material than others, but that can also be part of the fun. A chance to collect interesting specimens, seeds and cultivars and combine them with more common varieties. They are a brilliant way to celebrate foliage, texture and contrast as well as unusual seasonal interest. So get creative and don't forget to practice bio-diversity and include year-round food and habitat sources for wildlife.

A New Twist

Although single-hued gardens as a concept aren't new, they're still highly relevant to modern life. Contemporary gardens offer us a chance to re-connect to nature, get out of our own heads and see the bigger holistic picture. They teach us patience and the power of nurturing others as part of a growing changing ecosystem that we are merely a part of. And monochromatic gardens in particular have an other-worldly quality that you can only experience in a cultivated space making them both exceptional and visually striking.

Naturalistic Planting Design is a style that is based in nature, using right plant-right place principles and plant communities to build a garden that respects natural processes while meeting human needs. It's a way to tie, our desire for certain aesthetics and visuals that feed our senses, to ecologically sound functions. Working with natural forces rather than attempting to harness or train them. So, it's a perfect garden style to add a modern twist on the idea of a single-hued garden.

If we start with relevant research into the space: climate, existing soil, topography and available resources then we can build a garden that matches the existing conditions. Creating a functional system and adding plant material that fits the scheme and needs while staying true to our desired feeling. And, we get the natural looking low maintenance garden of our dreams.

Colour stories can also include weather elements like frost.

Sara-Jane & Alica at Simple Leaf Design

Simple Leaf Design are planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to build exceptional naturalistic garden spaces and chat all about it. And don't forget to follow us @simpleleafdesign2 on instagram.

Please note, images are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.

Updated: Jul 16

In an age where wildfires have become a yearly occurrence, a few thoughtful choices in the garden can make all the difference to your property.

Grace Design

When it comes to residential areas and wildfires, the facts can be sobering.

"Depending on the fire, one fire engine may be responsible for three or even a dozen homes. It’s also possible that they may not be allowed to utilize water from a hydrant system, as that could endanger lives that are depending on the water pressure further up the line. The reality of it is that structural firefighters will “triage” the buildings they are responsible for. If they can all be saved, great. If allocating time and resources for one home could endanger three others, it’s possible the first one will be written off. It’s a tough call, but all too often necessary."

"The more defensible and prepared your house is, the more likely the firefighters will devote resources to it simply because it’s a battle they can win."

So, call it what you will: firewise, fire-resistant, fire safe, fire smart or firescape, let's take a deep breath and talk landscaping in that space where wild meets residential as a way to give you some piece of mind that your home and property is prepared, should the worst happen.

Grace Design

Thoughtful Design

First of all, all the usual elements of great garden design still apply. You should always consider the general climate, exposure and conditions of the area that you're in. Also look at the property itself and conduct a site assessment. Check out the soil conditions, drainage and topography, and of course list your priorities of use. Every part of the space should be thoughtfully tailored to meet your needs. From how you want to feel in the space and what you want to do in it, to how much time and energy you have for maintenance.

If your home is in a wildfire zone, there are some extra added considerations. You'll want to calculate the possible risks first. For instance, is the property on or near a slope? in a valley? How does the wind move through the area? is it common to have high winds in fire season? As these can all effect how a wildfire can behave and what kind of threat might be attached to your home.

It also pays to ask others. What have the last few years/decades brought to the area in terms of fires? Are there bylaws or rules to consider? Is there a local controlled burn program? or a neighbourhood fire safety committee? There's a great deal to be gained by checking in with your neighbours, municipality and local fire service. Also, local garden designers and nurseries are a great source for helpful tips or planning materials, like plant lists and plans that are adapted to your specific area in addition to plant material, seeds and tools.

Once you have all of your initial information gathered and ideas for your garden space in mind, you can start to view your property from the added perspective of fire safety.

"Defensible space is the buffer you create between a building on your property and the grass, trees, shrubs, or any wildland area that surround it. This space is needed to slow or stop the spread of wildfire and it helps protect your home from catching fire—either from embers, direct flame contact or radiant heat."

A great way to create a defensible space around your home is to think of your landscaping in zones. Start with your home in the centre and then work your way out. The trick is to consider any possible sources of fuel that could feed a wildfire. I know it may sound daunting, but it is possible to build a garden that both suits your needs, and has the hidden function of added fire safety.

Center - Home

If you are able to, consider using non-combustable building materials for roofs, siding and other exterior areas. Build carports, sheds and decks away from the main building and close in open undersides or separate them from the house by adding inorganic firebreaks like walls. Install extra exterior water hook ups and larger diameter water piping. "Half-inch pipe is only capable of flowing a dozen or so gallons each minute. A 1 inch pipe can flow 4 times that amount". If you have a pond or lake nearby, dry fire hydrants may be an option (be sure to check with your local fire service). Also keep your gutters clear and your shed stocked with a roof-height ladder plus shovels, rakes and plenty of extra garden hose.

Zone 1 - 10m (30') Radius

Remove any combustable materials from this area. Stick to plant material with broad or succulent leaves that hold moisture and grow less than 60cm (2') tall. Keep any debris to a minimum and don't allow your plants to dry out completely. A good irrigation schedule is a must, infrequent but deep watering is adequate for most waterwise plants through the heat of summer. Use inorganic materials for pathways and mulches (including under decks, especially those attached to buildings). Rock and gravel, crushed concrete and reclaimed bricks all add lots of texture and interest with good water permeability. Trees are ok but should be used sparingly and limited to hardwood varieties that can be pruned well away from buildings. You'll also want to choose an area outside of this zone for firewood and fuel tank storage, compost bins and the like.

Zone 2 - 30m (100') Radius

Keep combustable materials to a minimum. Here you can add more perennial plants in islands or groupings with 3m (10') spacing between them. Wide paths, low walls and boulders are all great choices to add transitions, levels and extra seating to the design while creating breaks that can help slow a fire. Avoid woody shrubs and large dense clumps of ornamental grasses. Stick to open hardwood trees that are spaced well apart.

Zone 3 - 180m (600') Radius

Continue to use wide paths, retaining walls and other hardscape to separate larger plantings. Keep tree branches lifted off the ground at least 3m (10') with only short ground covers underneath. If materials like shrubs are planted under low hanging branches they can create a 'ladder' effect that will carry fire up into tree tops. Be aware of slopes as fire can move swiftly up them, be sure to space trees and shrubs accordingly (the greater the slope the wider the spacing).

Greey Pickett

April Owens Design


Hardscape is a great way to surround planting islands; adding visual interest and utility to landscaping, all while creating the unique look and feeling that you're looking for. The good news is that there has never been a greater variety of inorganic materials available than right now. From industrial corten steel and concrete to traditional dry stack stone walls, gravel and sand there is something out there that will speak to you. Recycled and reused materials are also a great choice: crushed concrete, reclaimed brick and tile plus all kinds of found objects will add an artistic and environmentally positive vibe. Metal is also a great option for seating, trellises and arbours; while ceramic containers elevate garden colour. And of course don't forget water, from ponds to reflecting dishes and small bubblers, it is essential for wildlife habitat, movement and sound in the garden.

Permeable materials are important to channel and absorb water in wetter months. While, different levels in garden topography will create not only greater interest but improved drainage and/or water retention depending on whether you include raised beds, mounds or swales. Rain barrels and ponds are also helpful to store water for use in the dry season.

Hardscape elements are the bones of your garden, they highlight special features, lead users through the space and help to make sense of their inclusion in it. Additionally, its functions can extend to include firebreaks, access routes and modes of water distribution. All of these functions are important pieces of great garden design, but they don't have to be obvious.


These are the heart of your garden, they add life, fragrance and movement but should be thoughtfully chosen. They should meet the conditions and needs for your space, including fire safety.

There is currently no standardized system of fire rating for plant material. So rather than listing good or bad plants, think about them in terms of their characteristics. Consider where they are being placed and how they are going to be maintained. It's also important to build a diverse plant community, provide habitat and protect soil as part of holistic garden health. So, keep these things in mind when you start to make up a plant list.

Say YES to:

open growth habits

hardwood trees

broad leaves

silver-grey foliage


ground covers that will hold moisture and nutrients

xeriscape and waterwise plants (always a yes!)

Say NO to:

resins, waxes and oils

material that's prone to shedding or collecting debris

thick peeling bark


dry dense grasses

A few great choices - Zone 4 or lower

Cercis canadensis (Eastern Redbud) - Gorgeous early spring blooms plus lovely heart-shaped leaves all summer.

Ginkgo - Warm yellow fall colour and unique leaves. So many dwarf and variegated varieties to choose from.

Syringa vulgaris (Lilac) - Spring fragrance like no other, 'Mme Lemoine' is a particularly beautiful double white variety.

Achillea (Yarrow), Nepeta (Catmint) and Salvia - Three pollinator powerhouses that look fantastic planted in large drifts.

Aster - Fall flowering bee magnets.

Echinacea (Cone flower), Armeria (Sea thrift) and Ratibida (Prairie cone flower)- Killer cone flowers, small but tough mounds and tall dancing Mexican hats.

Kniphofia (Red hot poker) - Evergreen leaves that look grassy, plus their famous flowerheads.

Lupinus (Lupine), Papaver (Poppy) and Allium (Ornamental onion)- Two easy seeds to direct sow for amazing colour and a summer flowering bulb that is beyond eye-catching.

Ajuga reptans, Sedum and Thymus - Three grand ground covers to add colour and texture.

Bouteloua, Carex and Salix (Willow) - Eyelash grass, diminutive grassy tufts and gorgeous willowy mounds to bring movement to the space. These plants can help trap embers.

As we all know, every little bit helps, so do what you can with the resources that you have and above all, enjoy your garden with some assurance that you are as prepared as you can be during the next wildfire season. We all look for spaces that can function on as many levels as possible, so why not include fire safety in the equation?

For more information

FireSmart BC landscaping Guide

Backwoods Home Magazine article

FireSmart Guide to Landscaping

-Sara-Jane & Alicia at Simple Leaf Design

Simple Leaf Design are naturalistic planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to celebrate the best in horticulture and write all about it. Don't forget to follow us @simpleleafdesign2 on instagram.

copyright Simple Leaf Design 2022 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)

There's nothing quite like the Garry oak ecosystem in the spring; a softly undulating dreamscape of purply-blue Camassia punctuated by low twisted oaks and mossy boulders. The story of its existence is a complex history of humans and plants evolving together. A unique ecosystem, once highly prized but now fighting extinction, a case study in hard won survival.

The Garry oak system contains one of the highest rates of plant diversity in the entire province of British Columbia, Canada. Once reaching further east into the mainland and south into the Pacific Northwest of America, today this specialized ecosystem is now relegated to pockets dotting the southern coast of Vancouver Island as well as a few of the smaller Gulf Islands that populate the Straight of Georgia.

This unique habitat is home to more than 700 plant species, 100+ species of birds, 7 amphibians, 7 reptiles and 33 mammal species. In addition, there are some 800 insect and mite species that are directly associated with Garry oak trees. A great number of these flora and fauna are considered at risk of extinction.


The coastal climate is considered sub-mediterranean. Here, somewhat warm, low pressure weather systems are coupled with a close proximity to the mild ocean currents of the Salish Sea. Hence, snow and hard frosts are rare in winter months and much of the vegetation remains green year round. Summers also tend to be cool and drier than those of the temperate rainforest typically found in other parts of BC. The high rates of sunshine, cause browning and periods of dormancy for many plants throughout the summer months.

Flora and Soils

Garry oak (Quercus garryana)

The Garry oak system has a high number of specialized flora that occur no where else in Canada, some 70+ rare and endangered species have been identified. So while camas (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii) are considered key, they are certainly not the only species worth noting. There are in fact several distinct types of sites associated with Garry oak, each containing slightly different flora.

The deepest soils contain the richest and most drought-tolerant plant communities. Here, mature Garry oaks (Quercus garryana) with extensive canopies sit over a dense layer of shrubbery including:

Oemleria cerasiformis (Indian-plum)

Rosa nutkana (Nootka Rose)

Symphoricarpos albus (Common Snowberry)

Holodiscus discolor (Ocean Spray)

Ribes sanguineum Pursh var. sanguineum (Red-flowering Currant)

Oemleria cerasiformis (Indian-plum)

This leaves little space for the more herbaceous layer, although some forbs may occur in sparse groupings.

Median depth soils tend to occur on gentle drier slopes. Where the oaks form a more open canopy with less shrub material. Instead, a better developed herbaceous layer fills the space. Both types of Camassia can be found in abundance along with grasses and forbs including:

Fritillaria affinis (Chocolate Lily)

Melica subulata (Alaska oniongrass)

Elymus glaucus (Blue wildrye)

Carex inops (Long-stoloned sedge)

Sanicula crassicaulis (Pacific sanicle)

Dichanthelium acuminatum (Western Witchgrass)

Achnatherum lemmonii (Lemmon’s needlegrass)

Allium acuminatum (Hooker’s onion)

Eriophyllum lanatum (Woolly Sunflower)

Allium cernuum (Nodding onion)

Delphinium menziesii (Menzies’ Larkspur)

Eriophyllum lanatum (Woolly Sunflower)

Erythronium oregonum (White Fawn Lily)

Fritillaria affinis (Chocolate Lily)

Olsynium douglasii (Satinflower)

Plectritis congesta (Sea Blush)

The shallowest and driest soils are usually found on slopes over and around bedrock outcrops. Shrubs rarely survive here, more typical vegetation includes:

Lonicera hispidula (Pink Honeysuckle)

Lonicera hispidula (Pink Honeysuckle)

Festuca idahoensis (Idaho fescue)

Elymus glaucus (Blue Wildrye)

Bromus carinatus (California brome)

Sanicula crassicaulis (Pacific Sanicle)

Rock crevices sometimes hold deeper soil pockets that can support dwarfed trees but the very shallowest areas are generally populated by ground covers, moss and lichen including:

Dicranum scoparium (Broom Moss)

Racomitrium canescens (Rock Moss)

Polytrichum juniperinum (Juniper Haircap Moss)

Selaginella wallacei (Wallace’s Selaginella)

Sedum spathulifolium (Spoon-leaved Stonecrop)

Claytonia perfoliata (Miner’s Lettuce)

Montia parviflora (Small-leaved Montia)

Cerastium arvense (Field Chickweed)

Lotus micranthus (Small-flowered Bird’s-foot Trefoil)

Indigenous Stewardship: 3000+ years

Coast Salish

It should be noted that what we currently understand about indigenous cultivation and use of camas is pieced together through many sources. There is little direct evidence that has remained intact after countless losses of what was once a vast cultural heritage. What we can be certain of, is that the Garry oak ecosystem is anthropogenic, it requires human intervention in order to thrive. And on the South Island, that comes from countless generations of the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees) Nation.

The larger group of Coast Salish cultures represent a highly sophisticated society deeply connected to the sea and forest in which they are seated. Here there are several keystone species that sustain it: Oncorhynchus sp. (Pacific salmon), Thuja plicata (Western red cedar) and Camassia sp. (Blue camas). These resources plus many adjacent ones were part of a large network of sustainable agroecosystems. These are management systems that fit somewhere in-between natural landscapes and agricultural ones. Their reciprocal methods follow natural processes rather than attempting to control them. Resources are stewarded and encouraged in the places where they thrive with low-scale intervention. The population then moves between the sites seasonally to perform the necessary maintenance and harvesting in a symbiotic relationship. This included Garry oak meadows, hunting grounds, fisheries and clam gardens just to name a few. The reliable influx of resources, along with those that could be gathered or foraged, provided the diverse materials needed to build a florishing society.

Emily Carr depiction of a village site, early 1900's

the camas found in the Garry oak ecosystem was a significant food source and by extension of great cultural importance. It provided a sweet, starchy staple, full of fibre and nutrients that could be preserved and consumed in a number of ways. As a result, the plant provided year-round sustenance, allowing for long-distance travel, trade opportunities and sophisticated cultural traditions. It became a key to large-scale community gatherings (potlatch etc.) where social interaction, government and religious activities, and an exchange of knowledge took place.


Camas meadows were highly valued spaces. Some were maintained in close proximity to dwellings for immediate use while others were further away, including outlying islands. The fields themselves were divided into plots, each tended by an individual family. These were marked by stakes, lines of cobbles or existing landmarks (rocks, outcrops etc). Highly productive plots were defended by their owners and passed down to family members, while less advantageous areas may have been open to communal use. Salish women took the lead in the majority of the tasks that involved camas, from cultivation through to cooking and storage. Europeans observed that the ownership seemed to cover the camas themselves rather than the land. In a similar way to the ownership of fishing rights, ancestral names and medicinal knowledge.

Cultivation and Harvesting

Camassia just coming into bloom. Early May

Much of the cultivation of Cammassia took place in the warmer months of the year, between March and September.

Low-intensity controlled burns may have been used as the camas was emerging in early spring. Any grass, ferns or other new growth was burnt off, opening space for the desired plants to grow and making the harvest easier. The two main species bloom in spring, Camassia quamash (Common Camas) April-June and Camassia leichtlinii (Great Camas) May-June.

The most intensive cultivation took place while harvesting; just as the blooms faded and while the bulbs were holding the maximum amount of nutrients and flavour. Specialized hardwood sticks (with fire hardened tips) were used to dig pockets of bulbs up, working across a plot little by little. "Digging in small sections, using the stick to turn and uproot the bulbs, harvesting the best tasting mid-sized ones while replanting the rest, including seeds, as they went along". One observer noted, "it is surprising to see the aptitude with whch the root is dug out. A botanist, who has attempted the same feat with his spade, will appreciate their skill". Weeding was likely done at the same time, removing any unwanted plants (especially white-flowering, Toxicoscordion venenosum aka Death camas) and rocks as they worked the soil.

There is a saying that is often repeated with Camassia, "the more you dig the better it grows".

Harvest may have taken days to weeks depending on the location and size of the meadows, as well as the amount of labour available. Several families often travelled together to areas further afield, working to bring in sizeable stockpiles. Over a single season, one family could collect as many as 10,000 bulbs.

Ritual and ceremony likely accompanied the work, possibly before and after harvest, along with traditional songs sung during the task. Settlers observed, "digging is a great season of 'reunion' for the women of the various tribes, and answers with them to our hay-making or harvest homecoming." As one can easily imagine, the seasonal encampments with multiple generations gathered in one space, facilitated the sharing of knowledge and cultural traditions. The largest meetups also included horse racing, gambling and dancing in addition to trading, feasts and more.

Modern day prescribed burn

Post-harvest, low intensity flash burns were lit. Moving fast across fields in mid-summer, they kept shrub material at bay and aided nutrient cycling. The nature of the controlled burns removed encroaching conifers and shrubs but left mature hardwood trees like the Oak intact. This maintained the openness of fields and encouraged deer and elk to feed there. The animals would graze on any remaining seedlings, opening the area even further while making themselves easy prey to hunters.

The burns made good use of nitrogen-fixers like Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) and Clover (Trifolium sp.) releasing the nutrition they held into meadow soils. Additionally in some areas seaweed may have been laid over the freshly dug and levelled beds before burning to further increase fertility and encourage new growth.

Cooking and Storage

Coast Salish bentwood box, artist unknown

The high moisture content of camas bulbs makes them difficult to store in a raw state. And as their main carbohydrate (inulin) requires heat in order to be converted into a more digestible sugar, the bulbs were usually steamed shortly after harvest. Said to smell like vanilla cake and taste of brown sugar, the dark sticky bulbs were often consumed directly out of the pit ovens used to roast them. Additionally they could be flattened into small bricks and dried after cooking for later use. It's believed that they were packed in bentwood boxes or baskets made of cedar (a natural insect repellant) ready for winter use, trade, travel and/or feasts and ceremonies.

Dried camas could be boiled or soaked in water for use as needed or ground into a type of flour and mixed with water to form dough. Prolonged boiling would yield a coffee-like, sweet hot beverage, or molasses type syrup used to sweeten and flavour other dishes. In fact, it was the only source of sweetness available in the area at the time, further adding to its value.

Modern pit-cook

Cooking took place in pits that could be constructed almost anywhere for the lengthy process (up to 36hrs) of steaming. Specific methods likely varied from group to group and depending on site conditions available resources etc.. One observer noted, "You dig a hole about two feet deep and about four feet across. In this you lay fine dry wood, then heavy sticks parallel across it, then rocks across the heavy sticks. Now light the fire. When the rocks get red hot this means get ready. When the rocks drop down, take the ashes out and level off the ground with a good hard stick. Then lay on kelp blades (Nereocystis luetkeana), which are easy to gather in quantity, salal (Gaultheria shallon) branches, sword ferns (Polystichum munitum) and the camas. ..You must fix it so that no dirt gets in and yet leave it all full of holes (air spaces). Leave a hole at the top and when it is covered pour in more than a bucket of fresh water. When the water seeps through to the rocks, it steams up. Put grass on top, then about four inches of dirt, then build a fire on top of that. Leave it all night until the next afternoon."

Thirteen Moon Calendar of Indigenous foods by Briony Penn

Camas weren't always cooked on their own, clams, other root vegetables and meats could be added to cook at the same time. With various materials included for flavour (bark, seaweed, lichen etc) and colouring (red alder bark, also used in tattoo pigment, made camas pink). At times several families would contribute to an active pit and then divide the food when done. The camas were eaten as part of a varied diet, with 2-3 bulbs considered an adequate serving in addition to other dishes.

Excess bulbs were taken to trade with groups in areas that couldn't produce enough of their own supplies. This included the BC mainland as well as other coastal sites and islands accessible by canoe. In fact camas (outside of the Garry oak system) could be found as far east as Alberta and south as California.

Colonization: late 1700s-early 1900s

Spanish explorers first entered the coastal waters of BC in the late 1700s, and Captain Cook landed on what became known as Vancouver Island in 1778. But, the real colonization of the area came with the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) in the mid-1800s.

When settlers first sighted the landscape they were taken by the vast open meadows that greeted them. These beautiful and fertile spots seemed perfect for their needs. A lack of fences, crop rows and other signs of traditional European use lead them to the conclusion that they were totally natural sites, “dropped from the clouds”, as though they had just been waiting for them. As the first wave of HBC employees moved in, the landscape was quickly, dramatically and irrevocably changed. In the end, at least four major company compounds were built in close proximity to camas meadows.

Victoria harbour, 1882

The HBC's main trading station on the island, Fort Victoria, was established in 1843. It joined an already extensive network that followed the mainland river systems, connecting interior fur trading centres with the coast of British Columbia and by extension Europe.

Indigenous peoples were an essential part of the settlers initial survival and success. They were willing to provide much needed labour and trade important food stuffs like salmon and camas. "It has been recorded that early explorers and settlers made resourceful products with camas bulbs, although many of these preparations were already Indigenous innovations... Prolonged boiling, for example, resulted in the conversion of the camas bulbs into a molasses, which could have been used as a sweetener for coffee or for making pies. Father Anthony Ravalli recalled that he, "made two gallons of splendid alcohol from about three bushels of camas by fermenting". Despite all their inventiveness, however, the settlers quickly recognized the digestive side effects of camas over- consumption. Father Nicolas Point explained" ...the digestion is accompanied by very disagreeable effects for those who do not like strong odors or the sound that accompanies them". David Douglas also commented on the flatulence caused by eating too much camas, saying that the "strength of wind" almost blew him out of a Indigenous (Chinook) dwelling."

As the colony expanded, the radius of cultivated land grew to include many fields packed with European crops including oats, peas and wheat. Field potatoes, likely brought over from Fort Langley, began to replace camas in many ways. As the Salish began to lose access to the land, their food sovereignty and security slipped away with it. By the mid-1800s, the HBC were granted title to the entire island on the condition that it be colonized. The city was officially named, Victoria, and a townsite laid out.

Goldrushers buying miner’s licenses at Custom House in 1898, Victoria, B C. Photo By John Wallace Jones.

The frantic energy of the gold rush hit hard as fortune seekers travelled from all over the world to the promising discoveries of the Cariboo and Yukon. Victoria, a small settlement of 230 souls, was suddenly inundated. "the 'Commodore' - ...entered Victoria harbour on Sunday morning, April 25, 1858, just as the townspeople were returning homeward from church. With astonishment, they watched as 450 men disembarked - typical gold-seekers, complete with blankets, miner's pans and spades and firearms; and it is estimated that within a few weeks, over 20,000 had landed". The price of city plots went from $25 one week to $3000 the next. The rapid expansion further strained resources and with it societal relationships.

A series of European diseases had greatly effected the Coast Salish people over the years but when small pox arrived in the 1860s it had a particularly devastating effect. The population balance shifted significantly and for the first time Europeans began to out number Indigenous.

Canneries became important centres of resource extraction all along the BC coast.

Victoria continued to expand rapidly as salmon canning and seal hunting became industrialized. The significance and value of Camassia was lost, it was dubbed a noxious weed that required extermination. It being noted at the time, "If [bracken] fern prevail on the land, it should be ploughed up in the heat of the summer, in order, by exposure of the roots to the rays of the sun, to destroy them. These with all bulbous weeds, such as crocuses, kamass [camas], &c., should be collected and burned. Fern-land, not required for immediate use, may with advantage be left for hogs to burrow in, as they form valuable pioneers."

The 1870s, brought confederation and the introduction of the Indian act, eventually resulting in the establishment of residential schools and the further suppression of indigenous social, political and religious events. By 1911 most of the Islands Indigenous population were either relegated to reserves or forced to integrate. The once expansive Camassia meadows, reduced to areas that couldn't be easily converted into something else.

Urbanization: late 1800s to late 1900s

The innate Englishness of the landscape was not lost on the colonists or their Victorian sensibilities. However it still had an otherness to it, the structure of Garry oaks were not seen as equal to that of the mighty English oak (with their highly valued, lumber-heavy trunks). The disjointed and twisting attitude of the Garrys grew on settlers though and eventually, Victoria, became known as, the city of oaks.

As early as 1898, residents complained when street trees were removed for development. By then the trees had been accepted as being a unique feature of the area; an element of the romantic scenery particular to the city. By the 1920's they were noted as, "pioneering landmarks" that should be conserved.

Extensive soil disturbance led European plant material (much of it willingly seeded by colonists) to become invasive. by 1876, Scotch broom, dandelions and English daisy's were all considered naturalized. Easily outcompeting native species including those found in the remaining bits of the meadow systems.


By the 1990s, conservation of the 1-4% of the ecosystem that was left had become a priority. The role of meadow systems like the Garry oak, were recognized for their importance in holistic environmental planning. Their function as carbon sinks and water filtration systems, as well as habitat for many diverse and rare species accepted as essential. The remaining areas found on the South island included a patchwork of meadows in and around residential neighbourhoods, parklands and Gulf islands. Stewardship programs between governmental agencies, local residents and community groups became focused on restoration and ongoing care.

Garry oak ecosystem - 1800 (green) vs. 1997 (red), Vancouver Island.

By the later part of the 20th century, preservation of the Garry oak system began to get some serious attention. With many projects like the large scale removal of invasive plants, in particular, Scotch broom, taking place. Grassroots environmental groups were formed including the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society (gomps), a charity that helps preserve the remnants of the meadow landscape.

The Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (goert), a large non-profit organization with links to government, academia, First Nations, and the public is of particular note. They're currently working to build a system for stakeholders to share information, techniques, skills and resources for continued stewardship and restoration.

Many Coast Salish communities including the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees) began to reclaim camas as part of the ongoing restoration of their cultural identity. Re-adopting traditional foods as a way to improve indigenous health and re-establish food sovereignty. Working to restore, encourage and protect areas where the Garry oak ecosystem endure through traditional practices. Since the 90s, camas harvests have once again become an important cornerstone for cultural and educational purposes.

In the past decade, the University of Victoria introduced camas to its campus grounds as part of the Kwetlal Restoration project. And, Camosun college's IECC (Centre for Indigenous Education and Community Connections) partners with the Lək̓ʷəŋən (Songhees) Nation to host pit cooking demonstrations. It is all part of the greater effort towards reconciliation and de-colonization. Understanding the longterm effects of historical events on our culture through enthnobotany and horticultural practice.


There are lots of great ways to visit and celebrate the Garry oak system. Some of the best public spots can be found within close proximity to Victoria, BC. Including Mill Hill and Beacon Hill parks that both feature examples of Garry oak habitat plus walking trails, shoreline views and more. Friends of Uplands Park Society hosts an annual Camas Day Celebration in Uplands park every May, in gratitude of community stewardship, volunteerism and of course the sheer beauty of the surroundings.

The Cowichan Garry Oak Preserve located just outside of Duncan, is one of the largest restored areas (23 acres) of the deep soil ecosystem. Here, the NCC (Nature Conservancy Canada) and its academic partners research ways not only to preserve existing pieces of the ecosystem but explore the possibilities of converting lands that have been lost to agricultural use throughout the Cowichan valley.

If you're on the mainland, UBC Botanical Garden features a Garry oak planting among its extensive collections.

Garden Use

There are many native plant nurseries where species found in the Garry oak system are available for purchase both in British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest.

In particular, Camassia and various cultivars are also widely available and used in a similar way to other spring flowering bulbs such as tulips and daffodils. Camassia's distinctive colouring, structure and form make them valuable as elements of mixed succession schemes in addition to block and mass plantings. Their unusual timing makes them uniquely suited to fill the space between the wilt of tulip blooms and the emergence of early annuals.They also naturalize easily and are considered deer-resistant. Just checkout #camassia for inspiration from the likes of @margaridasamaia (above) and @jelle_grintjes (below).

Some Available Cultivars - (Zone 4-8)

Camassia 'Pink Stars'

Camassia leichtlinii 'Caerulea' - soft blue

C. leichtlinii 'Blue Danube' - periwinkle blue

C. leichtlinii 'Blue Heaven' - pale blue

C. leichtlinii 'Alba'- bright white

C. leichtlinii 'Pink Stars' - pale pink

C. leichtlinii 'Pink Dream' - pale pink fades to white

C. leichtlinii 'Sacajawea' - creamy white

C. leichtlinii 'Silk River' - white

C. leichtlinii 'Semiplena' - soft white

C. quamash 'Blue Melody' - iridescent purple-blue with variegated leaves

C. quamash 'Orion' - cobalt blue

Camassia cusickii - pale blue

C. cusickii 'Zwanenburg' - periwinkle blue

For more information:

goert (Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team)

gomps(Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society)

Oak Harbour Garry Oak Society

"The Queen Root of This Clime" (Beckwith,2004)

“Victoria’s own Oak Tree” (Cavers,2008)

"Food Security is what is Indigenous to our People" (K. Turner,2007)

Knowing Home: Braiding Indigenous Science with Western Science, Book 1 (Snively&Williams,

Dr. Nancy J Turner's books, of which there are many

Satinflower Nurseries

NATS Nursery

Plan Bee Native Plants

West Coast Seeds

Chiltern Seeds

-Sara-Jane & Alicia at Simple Leaf Design

Simple Leaf Design are naturalistic planting design specialists in the Vancouver, Canada area that love to celebrate the best in horticulture and write all about it. Don't forget to follow us @simpleleafdesign2 on instagram.

copyright Simple Leaf Design 2022 (all photos are used for demonstration purposes and do not necessarily belong to us.)