Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Eulogy for the tree that says Vancouver Island

O gnarly Garry oak, how majestic you stand.

In summer, you offer leafy shade beneath an umbrella canopy, your branches reaching out to offer protection from harsh sunshine.

Alas, the summer warmth is but a memory. The sun hangs lower in the sky. The oaks now prepare to go dormant. Every zephyr causes a cascade of debris. The oaks shed every leaf in a downpour that includes acorns and coarse woody debris. Some fallen branches are as thick as a man's thigh.

Story continues below advertisement

It is advisable to wear a hardhat while raking the yard.

The detritus accumulates in a pile at curbside, a brown pyramid of dead leaves as crunchy as potato chips.

Halloween approaches and bared Garry oaks now look spooky with knobby limbs reaching out as though to grab the slowest of the trick-or-treaters.

Lone Garry oaks dot the local landscape – three are rooted in my yard – but one of the richest ecosystems in Canada is also one of the most endangered. Other than two small stands in the Fraser Valley, the tree is found only on the southern Gulf Islands and on Vancouver Island.

Once common in these parts, Garry-oak meadows now cover less than five per cent of their former territory.

Happily, a group of botanists, zoologists and vegetation ecologists are coming to the rescue. The Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team, formed 12 years ago, has just released an online guide – www.goert.ca – for preserving and restoring Garry oak meadows.

One of the lead authors is Conan Webb, who chairs the team's restoration and management recovery implementation group. By day, he works for Parks Canada as a species-at-risk recovery planner. (Those who are trying to preserve the Garry oak have titles as gothic as the trees.) Mr. Webb, 33, said the tree's ecosystem is one of the most diverse to be found on the planet.

Story continues below advertisement

"It's so different from the rest of the West Coast rain forest," he noted.

Some 1,600 species of native plants and animals can be found in the Garry-oak ecosystem. About 100 are threatened with extinction.

The meadows are under assault by encroaching land development, as well as by invasive species such as Scotch broom and English ivy. European starlings and eastern grey squirrels displace native birds and eat their eggs. Garry oaks were infested by winter moths in the 1980s, an invasion repulsed over time by the voracious appetites of predatory ground beetles. The moths were followed by the jumping gall wasp and the pesky, sap-sucking phylloxera.

Before the arrival of Europeans, oak meadows blanketed the islands, thriving in the protected rain shadow found behind the Olympic Mountains and the Vancouver Island Ranges. It is a pocket of Mediterranean-like weather.

The meadows are known for their brilliant wildflower displays in spring. The first nations cultivated camas, whose bulbs are rich in carbohydrates. Early European settlers mistook distant fields of the brilliantly blue flower for lakes, a floral mirage. James Douglas, the first colonial governor, pronounced the land surrounding Victoria's natural harbour to be "a perfect Eden."

Much of what is now the city of Victoria was covered by Garry oak meadows. Today, one has to go to Beacon Hill Park, or the grounds of Government House to see a meadow in a natural state.

Story continues below advertisement

Elsewhere in the city, small patches of meadow are maintained, with volunteers supervising the well-being of the sites. Near my own house, two small city-owned plots of land, smaller than a residential lot, are home to Quercus garryana, a species named for Nicholas Garry, deputy-governor of the Hudson's Bay Company. Fort Garry in Winnipeg is named after him, too, which is how far east you have to go in Western Canada to find another native species of oak.

Mr. Webb, who graduated from the University of Victoria with a biology degree, grew up in Port Hardy, outside the range of the ecosystem that now dominates his working life. As a boy, he played in the surrounding rain forest, building forts and playing hide and seek.

In Victoria, he reminds himself to make an effort to introduce his young son to natural wonders.

"In the city," he said, "it's so easy to get disconnected from nature."

We live amid natural wonders, from the arbutus, whose bark peels like the aftermath of a bad sunburn, to the towering Douglas fir. No tree says Vancouver Island, or the Gulf Islands, quite like the Garry oak, for which we can all give thanks, even as we spend the holiday rake in hand.

MEMORIAL TREES: In 1917, as war raged overseas, 14 silver maple saplings were planted on the grounds of Victoria High School to commemorate the fallen. The school lost three teachers and 83 students in the Great War, later to be known as the First World War.

Those 94-year-old trees stood as silent sentinels along the Vinning Street entrance until earlier this year when, to the dismay of many, they were cut down because of rot.

On Nov 10, the day before Remembrance Day, a row of 10 red maples will be planted in a ceremony at which the 5th Field Regiment Band will perform, as it did back in 1917.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.