Traditional Ecological Knowledge

For many years we have partnered with the Switzmalph Cultural Society and the Salmon Arm Neskonlith Community in the conservation of the fragile eco-systems of the Shuswap Delta and the Salmon River.   Through cultural educational programs and the application of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) based on the teachings of revered Secwepemc Elder Dr. Mary Thomas, we are introducing some of the culturally important native plants into a constructed wetland environment alongside common sedges, mosses and herbaceous plants.

Some native plants found at the Shuswap Lake-Salmon River Delta

Cow Parsnip – Secwepemc name: xwtállp
Cow-parsnip, or “Wild Rhubarb” :”Indian rhubarb” is an important traditional green vegetable for the Secwepemc and other British Columbia aboriginal peoples. However, it can be used only when young, must be carefully prepared or it can be harmful. This vegetable has not been used much in the past 25 years or so, according to Mary Thomas; before this time, it was very popular; many people today remember their parents and grandparents enjoying it. The stems are picked in the early spring, usually from March through April. People distinguish two parts: the “female” plant (the leafstalk), nuxwenxwúpye7, and the “male” plant (flowerbud stalk), sqelemcwúpye7. The “female” leafstalk is prepared by splitting it along its entire length, then peeling away and discarding the outer fibrous part and eating the fleshy inside tissues. The “male” flowerbud stalks are picked while the flowerbud itself is undeveloped, and is just a small bulge along the side of the stalk, covered over by a sheathing leaf base. The bud stalk is peeled all around, leaving a hollow cylinder of mild, crunchy edible tissue (Kuhnlein and Turner 1987). Usually both parts are simply eaten raw, but they can also be steamed, like asparagus, or cut up and boiled in stews and soups. The plant is boiled and the solution used to wash bedding, clothing, furniture, floors and walls, or, alternately, the leaves and stems can simply be placed under chairs, couches and beds as a repellent.   Mary Thomas said that in late summer, when the “Indian rhubarb” is finished, the stalks become hard. If these hollow stalks are cut open, small, white insect larvae can be found inside. Mary’s grandma and grandpa would use these larvae for bait when they went fishing. Many of these bait-filled plants could be found along the Salmon River, exactly where they were needed. There was also an abundance of cow-parsnip sought for its edible green shoots in spring, as Mary Thomas remembered.Ecological Requirements: Fairly common at low to subalpine elevations in moist sites; along waterways, in drainage areas, valley bottoms, etc. Prefers deciduous forests.

Black Cottonwood – Secwepemc Name: mulc

An important wildlife/habitat tree

Cottonwood logs were used to make dugout canoes. The resinous, sweet-smelling buds, called melcqín’, or stet’qe7, were used to make a medicinal salve. Mary Thomas recalled a number of different medicinal uses for cottonwood. The inner bark, leaves, and buds were used for treating coughs, colds, lung problems, and kidney and urinary disorders. The leaves were also used to stop bleeding on fresh cuts. A mixture of the buds and inner bark was used to prevent scurvy, and a tea of the buds was used as a gargle.

Ecological Requirements: Requires moist soils and can withstand some flooding. Can grow in nutrient rich soil or in sandy soils (most often in soils deposited by water), will not tolerate shade.

Green Willow – Secwepemc name: q’wlsállp

Willow was widely used as a technology material; the inner bark was used as twine; the sticks were used as reinforcement for baskets, fish weirs and traps and many other implements, and the roots were used as a lashing material.  Mary Thomas used to use the bark to make little dolls, like the ones her grandmother once made for her.

Ecological requirements: There are several species of native willow that grow in the area.  They range in height from 0.5 – 5 meters. Generally willows prefer low to mid elevations; they can tolerate a wide range of soils from the sand and gravel of lakeshore and riverbanks to the drier soils inland.

Western Red Cedar – Secwepemc name:  estqwllp OR astqw 

Very culturally-important tree.  The wood was used to carve paddles, tools, and a variety of implements. Cedar bark was used to make roofing for homes, and a variety of smaller objects such as bowls, mats, trays, rope, etc. The roots were extremely important as a basket-making material, and were also valued as a trade good for that purpose.

Cedar bark sheets were sometimes tied at the ends to make an elongated dish for broth and other foods. The inner bark is then divided into strips and woven into mats, or trays for enclosing food to be pit-cooked. Whole slabs of cedar bark were used for roofing, both for old-style pit-houses and for temporary shelters and cabins. Cedar root baskets were used for various purposes, such as storing clothing.

Mary Thomas also recalled that her mother used to keep a big pot of cedar or Rocky Mountain juniper tea boiling on the stove all through the winter. This acted as a vaporizer and air freshener, but it was also drunk: “That is drinkable too, lots of vitamins [including vitamin C].” The wood is a good fuel, especially for kindling. Some people say it is good for smoking hides because of its low pitch content. Other traditional uses included construction (where it was available), and raw material for spoons, paddles, river poles, fish spearing poles, and drying racks for meat and fish. Mary Thomas and others used to make cedar shakes from the wood, and these were sold as a source of income. The wood is easily split and rot-resistant, making it ideal for such uses.

Ecological requirements: Moist, wet soils at lower elevations.  Prefers rich soil but tolerates shade.  Low resistance to drought and frost.

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