Roadside flowers, like this yellow hawkweed, are an important food source for native bee populations.
Traipsing about town, it is hard not to notice that spring has officially arrived, and with it, flowers everywhere. It is not only from domesticated gardens that these foretellers of good weather emerge from, but also in the form of native plant species along roadsides and in the shade of towering trees. It is these native species that can offer our natural world the most benefit as they offer biodiversity on the landscape, plus important food sources to many insects, including our precious bee populations.
As industry and urbanization encroach on wild spaces, it is important that we recognize the value of something as simple as a flower. These early spring blooms are an impressive example of the intricate web of nature. A couple of early spring bloomers in the Nanaimo area are the blue violet (Viola adunca) and skunk cabbage (Lysichiton americanus), which attract insects such as small flies and early native bees for food and pollination.
These, in turn, become a food source for birds. The birds themselves work to assist the plants, dispersing their seeds through droppings and nest-building activities. The timing of this part of the food web is perfectly synchronized, each member being intimately tied to the success of the other.
So what is a native plant? The Land Conservancy of BC (TLC) says, “A native (indigenous) species is one that occurs in a particular region, ecosystem, and habitat without direct or indirect human actions.” However, it goes well beyond that, having a place not only in ecology, but also in aesthetics and a profound relationship with the human spirit. It is hard not to be moved by a landscape carpeted in spring flowers. Such an event takes place every May in what is known as the Harewood Plains, an area protected by the Nanaimo Area Land Trust (NALT). The flower that takes centrestage in this type of landscape is the Cama lily (Camassia), which has a long history of human intervention.
This plant was cultivated by First Nations in this area prior to colonization, being a staple food due to its starchy root system, which tastes like a sweet potato. This plant grows only in Garry Oak ecosystems, one of the most endangered landscapes in all of Canada, appearing only on Vancouver Island and the surrounding Gulf Islands. Due to its value as a food source, it also holds incredible spiritual value to First Nations people, who honour the food chain that we are all part of.
By fostering the presence of native plants on all types of landscapes—from natural forest environments to roadsides to gardens—we can continue to foster a relationship with our environment and protect the intimate exchanges they have with their own habitats.
A troubling development has been the removal of species such as foxglove, wild sweet pea, and lupines from the roadsides along the E&N Trail. Every June, large machinery mows down all vegetation on the trail, including these flowers, which are an important part of the food chain. The aesthetic value of the walking trail also suffers. These plants may be regarded as weeds by the city, but they are important native species to our lands. Invasive species do require removal, but more of these unique habitat opportunities for other vegetation should be created and protected rather than eradicated.
Recognizing the importance of native and organic plants on the landscape is a powerful first step toward fostering a relationship with the natural world around us. The next step is moving toward an active participation in it.
To create these unique habitats in your own garden, choose flowers that will attract a variety of insects and other wildlife (trying to avoid the deer’s favourites if you can). Local plant nurseries can provide lists and advice, or visit naturescapebc.ca.
Another step towards fostering a healthy ecosystem in your own space is to eliminate your lawn, a mono-crop that requires fertilizers and pesticides to maintain its pristine appearance. Grass lawns can be changed into organic food or wildflower gardens, or replaced by plants such as clover or buttercup, which attract many bee species to their pollen-loaded flowers. These alternatives are generally low maintenance, cheaper, and require minimal water, plus they create habitat.
With wild habitats disappearing at an alarming rate—not only locally, but world-wide—it is becoming more important to respect those that still exist. By bringing them into our own urbanized world we have the opportunity to create uncommon habitats and a new relationship with the fragility and beauty of that natural world.
Visit NALT online at for more information on native plants in this area as well as workshops and volunteer opportunities.