Enchanting, diverse, rare, exquisite, unique, endangered, colourful, and national treasure are just some of the words used to describe Garry oak ecosystems. Based on these descriptors, who wouldn’t want to roam this local habitat? And local it is.
Garry oak ecosystems are unique to our region, only existing on a narrow swath of land along southeast Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, and two small dots in the Fraser Valley. South of the border these ecosystems exist in Washington, Oregon and California.

Not only are Garry oak ecosystems unique but they are extremely fragmented and increasingly rare. One estimate puts remaining Garry oak ecosystems at less than five per cent of their historical distribution and only a small portion of that number is protected.

Among the gnarly, Harry Potter-esque Garry oak trees live a wide variety of plants and animals, including many designated Species at Risk. Instead of tip-toeing through the tulips, you’ll meander among native showstoppers blooming in ethereal hues of orange, purple, pink, and yellow. Imagine flowers with imaginative names like chocolate lily, shooting star, sea blush, monkey flower, gummy gooseberry, Pacific bleeding heart, fairy slipper, and satin flower. And let’s not forget what some might call the Garry oak poster child flower, camas. These are a small snapshot of flora found in what is called the richest land-based ecosystem in coastal British Columbia. The ecosystem’s vast diversity extends beyond plant life; Garry oak ecosystems attract and support countless insects, butterflies and more than 100 species of birds.

Not all Garry oak ecosystems have standing oaks, they also exist in the form of meadows, rocky outcrops or coastal bluffs.

Look for blooms and critters in these spots this spring:
Beacon Hill Park
Matson Conservation Area
Playfair Park Garry Oak Restoration Area
Knockan Hill Park
Highrock (Cairn) Park
John Dean Provincial Park
Summit Park
Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary
Uplands Park

Many Capital Regional Parks—Bear Hill Regional Park, Mill Hill Regional Park, Lone Tree Regional Park— feature Garry oak habitat.

Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site is home to a Garry Oak Learning Meadow. This beautiful well-maintained spot has signage to teach species identification and naturalist-led tours. A small admission fee is charged for adults but youth 17 and younger can visit Parks Canada sites for free.

Another great place to ramp up your knowledge of native plants is The Horticultural Centre of the Pacific. Adults pay admission but kids 16 and under are free.

Further afield of Greater Victoria, notable Garry oak ecosystems can be found at Salt Spring Island’s Mt. Maxwell Provincial Park and Mt. Tzuhalem Ecological Reserve.

A few extra tips for exploring:
• Dress for our unpredictable spring weather.

• Watch where you step; no one wants to be responsible for damaging a rare species. Check if Fido is welcome and be mindful of where they place their paws and poop.

• Bring along a plant identification guide. (I recommend Plants of Coastal British Columbia by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon)

• Take pictures, not plants. Pictures help you identify plants and wildlife later.

• Plants bloom at different times throughout the spring months. Visit again and again to catch the full variety.

Want to protect what you see? Your family can get their hands dirty and help out with habitat restoration. From invasive species pulls to planting native species, many local organizations can use some extra heart and muscle. Check in with your municipality and ask them about organizations conducting stewardship work in your neighbourhood park. The Greater Victoria Green Team, Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary, Habitat Acquisition Trust, and Garry Oak Ecosystem Recover Team can be great resources for conservation projects.

Want to grow what you see? Many garden centres sell native plant species. Saanich Native Plants is also a good bet, saanichnativeplants.com—the latter also hosts a variety of tours and workshops. Not only will these plants help you attract birds, butterflies, and other wildlife, you’ll save time maintaining your garden. Once these plants are established, they take care of themselves. You’ll have all the beauty with little to no maintenance.

Be enchanted—visit a Garry oak ecosystem this spring.

Tina Kelly is the Director of Learning at the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea.