Native Plant Garden

Bracken Fern Red Elderberry Skunk Cabbage
High-Bush Cranberry Labrador Tea  

Many plants recognized and named by First Nations groups were harvested and used for food, medicine or traditional technology. At the Museum at Campbell River, winding paths lead through gardens containing 80 different species of plants native to the region.

Garden at Campbell River MuseumIllustrated signage accompanies 30 of the plants in the garden, giving their names in English, Latin and three aboriginal languages, with information about their harvesting, preparation and use. Some examples are shown here.

The succession of blooming times and subtle variety of flowers, fruit and foliage offers interest throughout the year, perfect for a garden stroll in any season.


Bracken FernBracken Fern

Pteridium aquilinium (Latin)
Sagw'am's (Likwala)
Šiλmapt (Nootka)

The young shoots or fiddleheads of this fern can be boiled and eaten and the roots, or rhizomes, were used as a food source by almost all coastal groups. Dug in the fall when the frond tops had turned brown, the rhizomes were steamed overnight and mashed or roasted before an open fire. The black outer skin and tough inner fibres were thrown away.

Said to taste something like sweet potato, bracken fern rhizomes were an important source of starch which was scarce in Northwest Coast diets. Only old women were allowed to dig the rhizomes as it was believed young women would get sick if they took part.


High-Bush CranberryHigh-Bush Cranberry

Viburnum edule (Latin)
T’elxwmes (Kwakwala)
T’ísay (Comox)
Mumukwaqλ (Nootka)

Cranberry patches were usually owned by “upper class” members of a community who, in earlier times, controlled the harvesting and use of these berries. Fresh, frost ripened bunches still attached to the stems were served at feasts. Cranberries were also cooked and preserved in oolachon grease and water, and boxes of preserved cranberries were a valuable and sought after trade item.

In myth these berries are associated with salmon and are said to be the food of supernatural beings.


Red ElderberryRed Elderberry

Sambucus racemosa (Latin)
Ts’íxmes (Kwakwala)
Th’íw k’ay (Comox)
Ćiwi·pt (Nootka)

Though not one of the preferred berries, large quantities of red elderberries were harvested and consumed - usually mixed with other berries. A long pole with a hook at one end was used to pull the upper branches within reach for easier picking. Berries were spread on a bed of skunk cabbage leaves and cooked overnight in a steaming pit before being ladled onto cedar frames and dried over a fire for 24 hours. Bundles of the dried cakes would be placed in boxes and stored for winter use.

Elderberry cakes are said to cause a stomach ache if eaten in the morning. Water should always be drunk after a meal with elderberries in order to rinse out the seeds.


Labrador TeaLabrador Tea

Ledum groenlandicum (Latin)
Pu’yasmes (Kwakwala)
X wap’áńay (Comox)
Ti·mapt (Nootka)

Found in bogs throughout British Columbia, the leaves of this evergreen shrub have a spicy scent. The dried leaves were used by early European settlers and First Nations people to make tea. Comox people steamed the leaves with licorice fern rhizomes to impart a licorice flavour. The prepared leaves were then dried and used as elsewhere to make a tea.

Labrador tea was drunk by some groups as a treatment for colds and sore throats. A concoction made from the leaves was used by the Kwakw ak a’wakw to treat arthritis.


Skunk CabbageSkunk Cabbage

Lysichitum americanum (Latin)
K’a7úkw’i (Kwakwala)
Timart (Nootka)

Common in swampy areas of coastal forests from Vancouver to Alaska, this plant is frequently smelled even before it is seen. The leaves, which can grow up to 1.5 m. in length and .5 m. in width, were used for a multitude of household purposes by First Nations peoples and are sometimes referred to today as 'Indian wax paper'.

The strong odour is apparently not passed on to foods which come in contact with the leaves, which were used to wrap salmon for cooking, line oil boxes to prevent leakage, and as a surface for drying berry cakes. Once the berries were dry, the skunk cabbage leaves were peeled away and the berry cakes stored. Some groups also used skunk cabbage leaves as a poultice to treat burns.

Member of Vancouver Island Gardens Association.
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