By Tim Collins
When Peggy Morfitt tells of hiking through Uplands Park with her grandchildren, her love for this wild seaside expanse of rocks, meadows and stunted trees is palpable. She describes the springtime display of native wildflowers with such passion that the riot of color is made real through her words alone.
Perhaps it’s that love of nature that has brought Morfitt back to help preserve Uplands Park for nearly two decades.The native plants in the park are threatened by an invasive, non-native species called Scotch broom. In response, an organization called the Friends of Uplands Park enlists the help of Morfitt’s troop of Girl Guides and scores of other volunteers when they host an annual event known as Broom Bash.
Uplands Park is an untamed 31-hectare expanse located in the middle of the Uplands neighbourhood. Surrounded by manicured lawns and landscaped properties, the habitat is one of the most significant areas of natural flora left on all of Vancouver Island, said Matt Fairbanks, a botanist by trade and an active volunteer with the Friends of Uplands Park. The meadows, rock faces and stands of Garry oak are home to some 22 species of at-risk plants. In fact, some 95 per cent of the Garry oak ecosystems on the Island have already been lost.
The Garry oak ecosystem in the park is at risk of disappearing as well if a gang of invaders isn’t stopped, according to Fairbanks. The culprits are what botanists call invasive species. They are plants that are not native to the park. or for that matter, to North America. They were introduced by folks like Captain Walter Grant who brought a bit of the old country with him when he planted Scotch broom on his Vancouver Island farm back in 1859. That plant now threatens every one of the native plants in Uplands Park.
There are a host of other invasive plants as well, but broom is the worst.
“Broom is the keystone plant,” Fairbanks said. “It robs the native plants of sun, moisture and nutrients. Worse, it changes soil chemistry by fixing nitrogen in its root system in little nodules called rhizobium. The nitrate level of the soil is raised to where native plants can’t survive. That’s when all the other invasive species can really take hold.
“The biggest I’ve found was 15 feet high, but I’m sure there are bigger ones out there,” he said. “It takes years of vigilance to deplete the bank of broom seeds present in the soil. Those seeds will last for five years or more and, given the chance, they will reemerge with a vengeance. You can clear an area out but if you let new seedlings get to flowering stage, it’s a massive step backward and you’re starting over.”
Fairbanks said Uplands Park has been recognized as one of the five most important ecosystems in Canada.
“This area is threatened by other invasive species as well,” he says. “My son found out years ago about a plant called gorse. He made the mistake of getting into the middle of some and it tore him up more than a little. It’s a nasty plant to be sure. Nothing else lives inside a gorse thicket.”
Oak Bay Parks and Recreation recognizes the problem and has dedicated funds for an annual attack on invasive species in the park, concentrating on gorse and other plants that are too difficult for volunteers to remove.
“They get out there with a group of five or six men for two weeks every year to attack the really nasty stuff,” Fairbanks says. “Volunteers can’t really go after plants like gorse. It’s just too dangerous to handle. But the Parks crews do get into it and they do a great job.”
Still, that leaves the Scotch broom, and it’s why the Broom Bash is held. This year’s Bash takes place on Saturday, Oct. 22 and Sunday, Oct. 23 and everyone is welcome. People are asked to bring some gloves to help preserve native plants of the park.
Bash founder passes on love of nature
Margaret Lidkea is the founder of the Uplands Park Broom Bash.
As a child growing up in Oaklands (an area just south of Hillside Shopping Center) Lidkea and her friends spent their time having adventures in the Garry Oak meadows that surrounded their home. They climbed rocks and trees, found and played with the wildlife and marveled at the amazing displays of wildflowers.
Lidkea left the Island for a time and when she returned in 1986, she was dismayed to see the meadows of her youth choked by Scotch broom.
Finally, in 1992, Lidkea saw her chance to make a difference. She was a Girl Guide leader and decided to educate her Guides about the native landscape and instill in them the same love of native plants and animals she had as a girl.
She went to the Parks board and got permission for the Guides to remove the Scotch broom. The girls attacked the job with single-minded enthusiasm and cleared their first meadow of the weed that year.
The next Spring the girls went back and saw the wildflowers beginning to come back. They pulled more broom that year. The following Spring the wildflowers were back in a spectacular display of color. “The girls were blown away … and hooked,” Lidkea says. “They saw that they could actually have an impact and they felt the same passion that I had felt as a girl. It was amazing.”
The Broom Bash opened to the general public in the fall of 1994 and has been held every year since.
• Scotch broom:
Native to Mediterranean countries (that’s right – it’s not Scottish at all).
Introduced to the Island by Captain Walter Grant in 1850.
A keystone invader, broom steals moisture and light from native wild flowers.
Broom changes soil chemistry so native plants can’t survive.