Two Important Coastal Food Plants

Two very visible coastal plants that I’ve noticed along the top of the beach at South Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are also important food plants for a number of first nations groups. Local Nuu-chah-nulth harvested both Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii) and Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica) roots.

Springbank Clover

Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii)
Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii) often grows in association with Silverweed.

According to Nancy Turner (Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples), Springbank Clover rhizomes were an extremely important root vegetable. Women harvested roots using sticks in the late summer or fall. They dried the collected roots and cooked them in a number of different ways including roasting or steaming in a steampit or box. Occasionally, the roots were eaten raw. People of status ate the long thin roots while short gnarled roots were for commoners. The taste of the rhizomes is similar to that of sweet young peas.

Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii)
Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii) has compound leaves with three leaflets that are finely toothed.

Springbank Clover looks like other clovers except that it has a cluster of bracts under the flowering head. The flowers are red to purple in colour, usually tipped with white. The leaves have three finely toothed leaflets with pointed tips. It often grows in wet seepage areas close to the upper part of sandy beaches, around estuaries and rivers.


Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica)
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica) can be found in wet seepage areas and sandy spots near the ocean.

The roots of Silverweed were also very important as a food source for coastal people. Silverweed usually grows in association with Springbank Clover. As a result, harvesting and preparing the roots occured at the same time and in the same way. People of status ate the long fleshy taproots while commoners ate the shorter, curly surface roots. Unlike Springbank Clover, Silverweed roots are very bitter and therefore, never eaten raw. After steaming they taste like sweet potatoes with a slight bitter taste.

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica)
Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica) leaves are pinnate (fern-like).

Like the name suggests, Silverweed has leaves that are distinctively wooly-silvery on the underside. The leaves are basal, compound and pinnate, creating a sprawling look. The flower of Silverweed is yellow. Silverweed grows in wet areas like river edges and in sandy areas like beaches and sand dunes close to the ocean.

Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica)
The woolly underside of the leaves of Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica) give it its common name.

Seeing both of these plants growing in association at South Beach and knowing that the Nuu-chah-nulth often tended patches of Silverweed and Springbank Clover makes me wonder if these are the remains of an ancient garden.