The Outdoor Schoolroom

Prince George's Westwood Elementary School students plant a native, medicinal garden.

Credit: Courtesy Barbara Rayment

A native-plant medicinal garden brings joy and inspiration to Prince George students

It is late fall in northern B.C. and a group of children gathered around a K’i tree are admiring the golden-yellow leaves that still cling to the twigs, as well as the dark-red hips of the nearby Whus ghaih.

The purpose of the exercise is not just to appreciate the splendour of nature, but to learn about the historical medicinal and ceremonial uses of native plants. The real beauty of the event is that it is taking part not on a field trip out in the bush, but in a schoolyard in the centre of Prince George.

The schoolground greening project began late in 2005, with an application to the Evergreen Foundation for funds to establish some native trees and shrubs in a barren gravel schoolyard. The initial project was a great success that led to more planting, more donations, more volunteer and community buy-in, and a thriving playground and outdoor schoolroom.

Native-plant Resource Books

Here is a selection of useful books on native plants for anyone doing a similar project:

Ethnobotany of the Gitksan Indians of British Columbia, by Harlan I. Smith

Plants and Medicines of Sophie Thomas, by Jane Young and Alex Hawley

Plants of Northern British Columbia, by Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar and Ray Coupé

The most recent addition to the garden has been the 2009 planting of a native-plant medicinal garden, designed by teacher-librarian Diane Sales with the assistance of the school’s Aboriginal Education workers and the local PAC (Parent Advisory Committee). Historic medicinal uses were researched, and a challenging selection and planning process began. Plants had to be attractive, non-poisonous, adaptable enough to survive on a tough site, and have a known historic First Nations use. They also had to be commercially available, and it quickly became clear that this was going to be a major stumbling block. Many changes and a few compromises later, the final garden plan came together, and everyone is more than happy with the results.

Asters and goldenrod enhance the “prairie” meadow, a tamarack bog collects rainwater from a rock-lined swale, and an “alpine” knoll is covered with tough native stonecrops. Clumps of birch and mountain ash are already starting to fill in and to enrich the soil below with their leaf-drop every fall.

Each class in the school made a concrete stepping stone inlaid with glass and tile, and these create a path network through the growing garden area. Colourful fish from two years’ worth of “Stream of Dreams” projects leap along the bordering chainlink fence. Local volunteers and companies donated time and labour, plants, concrete, mulch and benches.

This is a project by the children as much as for them, and the high First Nations enrolment at Westwood Elementary School makes it especially relevant. Sales says, “It has been rewarding watching the kids take pride in their neighbourhood. I had kids tell me that they packed water from home to make sure their plants were good for the weekend. I got a great letter from a mom this week thanking me and this project for being such a positive influence on her son’s life, as he seems to be in trouble with everyone else!”

Native Plants for School Gardens

Botanical names, with English and Carrier translations:
Achillea millefolium (yarrow or Latalba) – zone 3
Alnus incana (grey alder or K’us) – zone 2
Aquilegia formosa (columbine or Whulecho) – zone 3
Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (kinnikinnick or Duniht’an) – zone 2
Artemisia frigida (sage or Tse’ul) – zone 3
Betula papyrifera (paper birch or K’i) – zone 2
Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed or Khas) – zone 3
Juniperus communis (common juniper or Datsan ‘angut) – zone 2
Larix laricina (tamarack or Netspul) – zone 2
Rosa woodsii (Wood’s rose or Whus ghaih) – zone 3