by Art Guppy
In mid-June, 2009 I did a little tour of coastal southwestern Vancouver Island and visited three very interesting and very beautiful natural sites where ocean waves lap against rugged rocks and trees and all the vegetation are carved by the wind. It was an exciting day for me, as for several years I had been partially disabled by a bad knee, and that day I was trying out a new knee joint that had been installed some months earlier and was ready for almost normal use. At each site the influence of sea winds and sea fogs meant there were special plants that thrive in those conditions. Two of the sites are likely to be developed for residential purposes — in view of the beauty of the locations, that would be by people with plenty of money — and I was delighted to see at those sites that very little had changed since I was there last. That was a great relief as the sites have some very unusual plants. However, before I got to those essentially unaltered places, I visited one that had not been so lucky. There, the ground and the plants were much the worse for having been trampled by too many human feet, an especially sad situation because the site is in a park, and two of the plants I was expecting to see there are red-listed.
The situation in that park, as with similar situations in similar parks elsewhere, is not the fault of the management of the park. The reality is that parks often have two conflicting purposes: they provide a place for human recreation and they try to protect nature. Unfortunately, heavy use by people often destroys delicate living things in a park, while the people who come to a park to escape the stifling urban atmosphere would strenuously object to any restrictions on their freedom to move about and enjoy nature. Generally such people have some feeling of respect for nature and are careful not to step on flowering plants, but when those same plants are not in bloom, they appear to be simply vegetation, and are walked on like the other vegetation. There is a limit to the extent to which some delicate plants can survive being walked on. Some living things are not protected by being in a park.
The site I visited early that day in June was Tower Point, a beautiful rocky headland in Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park, a short distance along the coast west of Victoria, and the two red-listed plants that grow (or grew) on the point, and that especially interest me, are Triteleia howellii and Allium geyeri var. tenerum. The first of these is extremely rare in B.C. According to the 1998 publication Rare Native Vascular Plants of British Columbia by George Douglas, Gerald Straley, and Del Meidinger, at the time of the book’s publication, the species was known in B.C. only from the site I was visiting. Fortunately, since then a small population of T. howellii has been discovered in Cowichan, not far from where I live, though at a site I have not visited, and I can only wonder if the site is a safe place for the species. I suspect its survival will depend on how well the site suits introduced grasses, for they and Scotch broom are two great enemies of our native plants. Where the soil is shallow and dries out in summer, native bulbous plants like the Triteleia have a good chance of thriving because the rank-growing introduced grasses do not do as well as in moister habitat, and even Scotch broom is slow to become established.
Triteleia howellii is beautiful plant, and if it were lost from Vancouver Island, it would be a sad loss indeed. It is a member of the lily family, and its vase-shaped very pale blue flowers are born in an umbel at the end of a long, slender stem which sways gracefully in every breeze. Readers of this article are quite likely to have seen a closely related species, Triteleia grandiflora, which is quite frequently encountered in grasslands in the Interior of B.C. That species also was once present on Vancouver Island, but it was extirpated there quite a long time ago, a victim, I suspect, of the same invasive grasses that are killing its close relative. The two species are very similar in appearance, except that T. grandiflora is generally a darker blue. The characteristic by which one can safely identify T. howellii is that it has much wider stamen filaments than its near relative. Its filaments are so wide they look almost like tiny petals at the centre of the flower. In the photo of T. howellii, they are visible in the lowermost flower.
Obviously I was very eager to see how the Triteleia plants were faring at Tower Point. I had last visited the site on June 1, 2002, and the species was not faring at all well then. There were only a few of the lovely blue-flowered plants and they were almost smothered by tall introduced grasses. I tried to photograph the flowers, but they were so hidden among the grasses, I obtained no photos worth having. (To provide the picture of the species for this article, I had to dig out an old photo taken in 1971 near Cle Elum, Washington.) That June day, as I had peered down at the flowers almost hidden by the much taller grass, I felt sure the plants could not survive for long. The flowers were so hidden from bees, it was unlikely they would set seed, and any seed that was produced could not possibly grow into plants in that thicket of grass.
This June, finally back at Tower Point after such a long absence, I wondered if there was any chance the Triteleia would still be there. The grass was as tall and thick as ever, and I was about two weeks too late for the usual blooming time for the species, but I remembered exactly where to look. Miraculously, after a few minutes searching, I found the withered remnants of flowers on the stems of three Triteleia plants. Each plant had managed to produce only two or three flowers, and no seed capsules were forming. I was delighted to see three of the plants were still hanging on to life, but what a sorry sight they were! Clearly they slowly but surely were being killed by the tall grass, and yet I could see from the well-trodden look of nearby areas that if the tall grass had not been there to fend off foot traffic, the Triteleia would long ago have been trodden into oblivion.
As I walked away from the sad remnants of the Triteleia, I felt as if I had been seeing someone drowning, and was walking away without attempting a rescue. I knew how easy it would be to rescue the beautiful blue-flowered plants. One need only dig the bulbs and plant them in a garden. The next year the bulbs would produce a few flowers and probably a few seeds. Starting with those seeds, within a few years one could have any number of the bulbs which could be planted in suitable habitat on the hills of southern Vancouver Island. It would be so easy, and yet impossible. Almost everyone believes that rare plants are safe in a park. The media would view the removal of red-listed plants from a park as a terrible crime, and no one in authority would be likely to risk criticism from the media. Nevertheless, for those plants that would do well in a garden and are in danger in a heavily used park, some arrangement should be made to move them to a garden. Possibly it could be a botanical garden, such as the one at UBC, but a botanical garden might not welcome the expense of propagating the plants and restoring them to a wild habitat. I would like to see organized groups of volunteers with gardening experience and a knowledge of wild plants take on that chore under the guidance of someone appointed by government.
I am reasonably sure that Triteleia howellii would do well in a garden because I have the closely related and very similar Triteleia grandiflora in my garden and it is doing extremely well and the plants produce quantities of seed each summer. I raised my T. grandiflora from seed that someone collected in the wild in southeastern Washington and contributed to a seed exchange that I often use. Although I could easily raise a very large number of bulbs of the species, they would not be suitable for re-establishing the species on Vancouver Island as they likely would be genetically different from the ones that used to grow here.
After successfully finding the surviving remnant of the Triteleia howellii population, I went in search of a little group of Allium geyeri var. tenerum that I had seen and photographed the last time I was on Tower Point. The unusual little wild onions were few in number but were quite conspicuous on a little rock ledge at the very edge of the forest. Below them the rock sloped quite steeply down to the sea at high tide, or to a beach at low tide. The spot should be easy to find, I thought, but it wasn’t. Where thick forest had been, there were now well-trodden paths, and everything seemed different. Eventually I had to give up. Perhaps I had looked in the wrong places, but I think the rare Allium plants were gone, trodden into oblivion.
Allium geyeri var. tenerum could not be described as beautiful, especially if one is thinking of a graceful Triteleia, but it is unusual, and that makes it interesting. The inflorescence is not showy as it has rather few flowers and the flowers tend to have a narrow cup-shape. The tepals tend to be a rather pale pink, often almost white on the inner surface, but with a dark pink line up the centre of the outer surface. Below the flowers in the inflorescence there is a tight cluster of bulbils. It is the cluster of bulbils that distinguishes var. tenerum. To the best of my knowledge, var. geyeri, which lacks bulbils, does not occur in B.C. I know that var. geyeri is included in Rare Native Vascular Plants of B.C., but that is evidently a mistake. In fact, including var. tenerum as a red-listed plant is also almost certainly a mistake. In the Illustrated Flora of B.C., Vol. 8 (2002) it has been changed from “rare” to “infrequent”, which suggests that at most it should be blue-listed. I remember it as being almost common on the slopes above Botanie Lake, north of Lytton. However, it does seem to be rare on Vancouver Island, and the form here, compared to the form at Botanie, seems to have fewer flowers and larger bulbils. On the subject of published errors with this species, if you have Lewis Clark’s Wild Flowers of British Columbia (1973), the photo identified as Allium geyeri var. tenerum is not that species. It is probably the maritime form of Allium amplectens. I don’t know, but the error may have been corrected in the 1976 edition which was published as Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest.