June 7, 2011
Down on the floor of Driftwood Canyon, about 15 kilometres east of Smithers at the foot of the Babine Mountains, it’s understandably colder and darker than up on the canyon rim. In winter we can get as little as two hours of direct sunlight a day, depending on the month, and in summer, even on the longest day of the year, the sun drops below our horizon at 5:30 p.m.
Still, by the end of the first week in June, the birdsong starts at 4 a.m., the sun is coming through the windows by 5:30, there are harlequin ducks on Driftwood Creek (known to the Wet’suwet’en First Nation as C’ide Wi’ kwah which translates as “it flows into it”) and the sweet smell of the cottonwoods fills the air.
And there’s something else in the air, something one horticulturalist from York, England refers to as “poo-filled smelly socks.” Fritillaria camschatcensis, also known as the chocolate lily or northern rice root, is a bulbous perennial with lance shaped, glossy, light-green leaves and pendent, cup-shaped, dark black, purple, green or yellow flowers.
In Plants of Coastal British Columbia, Pojar and Mackinnon say the chocolate lily “is pollinated by flies attracted to the flowers by their colour and the smell of rotting meat or faeces.” It’s not surprising then to learn that the plant is also referred to as the skunk lily, dirty diaper and outhouse lily.
Despite its smell, which occurs when the flowers bloom and is short-lived, the chocolate lily was a staple in the diet of virtually all of the Indigenous northwest coast people of British Columbia and Alaska. The bulbs, which resemble tightly packed clusters of rice, were cooked immediately or partially dried and stored for winter when they would be eaten with eulachon grease or ground into flour which could then be added to soups or stews.
According to some, the bulbs have a slightly bitter taste which can be reduced by soaking them overnight. Others say the bulbs taste like baked chestnuts.
This is a plant that likes the wet. It grows on moist tidal flats, in meadows and open forests, on rocky beaches, stream banks and coarse grained soils of glacial origin. It can be found in a geographical arc which runs from Japan, Kamchatka, northeastern Siberia and into Alaska, British Columbia and as far south as Oregon.
Unfortunately, it has become much less common than in previous times due to the loss of salt marshes, estuarine wetlands and freshwater wetlands. It is also threatened by timber harvesting, trampling, hydrologic changes and collecting.
Such is the concern over the loss of this iconic food plant that the Squamish First Nation, north of Vancouver, is working with a researcher from the University of Victoria to create an experimental plant garden in the Squamish Estuary with an eye to establishing a population of chocolate lilies “high enough to sustain a certain level of food harvesting in the future.”
Closer to home, there is also reason for concern. One of the healthiest populations of the chocolate lily can be found in Old Man Lake Provincial Park, 326 acres described by BC Parks as a “significant complex of small lakes, marshy shorelines and wetlands … known for wild rice (Fritillaria camschatcensis) and wild celery” 20 kilometres east of Houston. According to BC Parks there are plans to drastically reduce the water levels in the park by removing an old dam, which could put the lilies at risk. The park is also in an area of intensive logging and is located about 20 kilometres north of the proposed Enbridge pipeline route.
Meanwhile, back in chilly Driftwood Canyon (there was frost last night), we are putting wild onions in the stew, eating breaded morels fried in butter, making a Spring tonic with the nettles and wondering if this year we should try the outhouse lilies. Blue cheese, after all, isn’t that appealing until you try a piece.