The Once-Mighty Garry Oak

Credit: Gillian Reece; BC Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fish

When Victoria’s residents and visitors stroll through the city, few realize that among the lush green spaces they pass are some of the most endangered ecosystems in British Columbia, and indeed in Canada. Certainly, thickets half an acre or more of the grand Garry oaks (Quercus garryana) are becoming tough to find now as seedlings are mowed or pulled out by many of the city’s lawn-intent gardeners. How much longer these pocket meadows of Garry oaks can exist is anybody’s guess.

Garry oaks, which are also called Oregon white oaks, grow along the Pacific Coast from southwestern British Columbia, including Vancouver Island, south through western Washington and Oregon to the Coast Ranges and the Sierra Nevada in southern California. Victoria’s Mediterranean climate, with its cool wet winters and warm dry summers, is ideal for this species, where, like arbutus, it is at the northern limit of its range.

In the past, aboriginal peoples managed Garry oak meadows by setting seasonal fires intended to exclude other plant species. In particular, the natives’ goal was to remove the undergrowth and encourage the spread of the edible camas bulb, an important source of starch in their diet that was also traded up and down the coast. In fact, Victoria was originally known by the Lekwammen as Camosun or “place to gather camas.” This seasonal burning probably kept other tree species, such as Douglas firs and aspens, from invading Garry oak territory.

In the 1800s, Sir James Douglas, chief factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company and later British Columbia’s first governor, described the spring flowering of the oak meadows as “a perfect Eden.” However, as the colony’s settlements expanded, trees were cut down and oak meadows were displaced by houses, introduced plants and non-native insects. Through the past two decades habitat destruction has escalated, due in large part to the lawns and sprinkling systems around water-sensitive Garry oaks. Water encourages fungal diseases and insect infestations that would otherwise be limited by summer drought. Barely three per cent of the original oak meadows exist today, even though Victoria remains one of the few major cities in Canada with pockets of native flora within the city core.

One of the best places to see Garry oaks is in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park where city gardeners avoid mowing the satin flowers in March (Sysrinchium douglasii), the Easter lilies in April (Erythronium oregonum) and the camas bulbs (Camassia quamash) in May, allowing the plants to set seed and spread in a naturalized manner from year to year. What were once seen by new settlers as wild plants to be tamed are now revered by native-plant enthusiasts. Other stands of Garry oaks in the Victoria area are at the Horticultural Centre of the Pacific and the Abkhazi Garden.

In order to protect these important native species, the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society (GOMPS) organizes community work parties to remove invasive non-native species. “No room for broom” and “gorse is worse” are its rallying cries. Originally introduced by homesick Englishmen, gorse and broom now out-compete the delicate spring meadow flora. Katie Stewart, past president of GOMPS and a resident near Summit Park, is dedicated to protecting oak meadows throughout the Capital Regional District (CRD). An amateur naturalist, she loves to follow the meadows’ annual spring floral display from pale Easter lilies to pink shooting stars, from the heavenly blue of a field of camas to the blazing yellow of a rock outcrop dotted with spring gold. “There is nowhere else in the world like it,” she says.

Stewart maintains her own local park by organizing regular “broom bashing” parties, but she is hoping for a government solution. “Why should community groups always have to defend the environment?” she wonders. “We aren’t scientists, but you don’t need to be one to see that in order to protect the oaks, you have to protect the whole ecosystem.” She maintains there should be a moratorium on development and tree removal until all the municipalities are obligated to use the data collected by the provincial Conservation Data Centre or CDC.

The CDC has a mandate to track and monitor endangered species. Local provincial botanists have for decades conducted field trips with naturalist groups in Garry oak meadows and kept records of rare plants such as the golden paintbrush (Castilleja levisecta ) and Macoun’s meadowfoam (Limnanthes macounii), tracking their appearance and rapidly increasing disappearance. Unlike the United States or other Canadian provinces, British Columbia does not have protective legislation in place for rare plants.

While legislation is one means of establishing protection standards, stewardship of the habitat is still new and experimental. Joel Ussery, a planner with CRD Parks who spent the early 1980s as a park naturalist at Witty’s Lagoon, can attest to that truth. Over a period of time he noticed broom moving into a wild area. During his lunch hours he began pulling the invasive plant until he realized he needed a more strategic approach. He then completed his master’s thesis at SFU on broom removal, and recommends cutting broom slightly below ground level after the spring wildflowers have set seed, but not when the broom seeds are popping. Then try again in July before the broom seeds have set. Experiments have shown that if you pull broom, it causes soil disturbances that only enhance broom-seed regeneration. At the CRD, Ussery is working on a policy for management of exotic species including English ivy, Himalayan blackberry, laurel-leaved daphne, cleavers and orchard grass. Ussery says the most important point to remember when trying to manage a Garry oak meadow is not to make matters worse by trampling sensitive areas or inadvertently spreading seeds of noxious weeds.

Planting more Garry oaks is also a priority, says Rob Hagel of the Pacific Forestry Centre, who works with volunteers to grow 3,000 seedlings or more each year that a viable acorn crop is produced.

So, the next time you have the opportunity to stroll through Victoria and beautiful Beacon Hill Park, take the time to pay tribute to the awe-inspiring Garry oak meadows and consider how you can help to save one of British Columbia’s most endangered ecosystems.

10 Ways You Can Help!

1. Join the Garry Oak Meadow Preservation Society. Write to the organization at A-954 Queens Ave., Victoria, B.C. V8T 1M6, visit or telephone 250-361-1694. Also, the Garry Oak Ecosystems Recovery Team’s website at is an excellent resource. Share what you learn about the Garry oak meadows and other endangered ecosystems with your friends and neighbours.
2. If you have access to a Garry oak, collect good-quality acorns through the fall and send them to Rob Hagel at the Pacific Forestry Centre (call 250-363-0600 for details); or volunteer to help him with planting.

3. Become a steward of a local park. Watch it throughout the seasons and record your observations. Spread the word about what you see. Encourage your community to make environmental assessments in the spring when the flowers are visible.

4. Educate members of your family – especially those who ride mountain bikes, trail bikes or all-terrain vehicles – about the fragile nature of wild ecosystems. Use approved pathways when walking.

5. Remove invasive plants from your own property and join a local “broom bash” or organize one yourself with help from GOMPS or another community group such as a naturalist club or the Mt. Tolmie Conservancy Association (250-592-9089,

6. Encourage your municipality to plant native plants and trees.

7. Plant nursery-propagated native plants yourself and leave a part of your garden wild. Don’t mow. Don’t water.
8. Encourage your municipality to pass and enforce tree protection bylaws.

9. Learn what plant species are at risk and protect them wherever possible.

10. If you live in an appropriate area, grow a Garry oak!

Lynne Milnes is a Victoria-based writer/landscaper and environmental fundraiser for The Land Conservancy ( who finds stress management in the natural world.