Two Important Coastal Food Plants

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

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. Both Springbank Clover (Trifolium wormskjoldii) and Silverweed (Potentilla anserina ssp. pacifica) roots were harvested by local Nuu-chah-nulth.

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 extremely important as a root vegetable. Roots where harvested by women using sticks in the late summer or fall. The collected roots were dried and cooked in a number of different ways including roasting, steaming in a steampit or box, and occasionally raw. Two types of roots were harvested – long thin roots (which were reserved for people of status) and short gnarled roots (which 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 and the leaves have three leaflets that are finely toothed and pointed at the tips. It can be found 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) leaves are pinnate (fern-like).

Silverweed roots were also very important as a food source for coastal people. Silverweed often grows in association with Springbank Clover and is harvested and prepared at the same time and in the same way. Two types of roots were harvested, long fleshy taproots which were eaten by people of status and shorter, curly surface roots which were eaten by commoners. According to Turner, Silverweed roots were never eaten raw because they were very bitter. After steaming they taste like sweet potatoes with a slight bitter taste.

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

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 can be found in wet areas like river edges and in sandy areas like beaches and sand dunes close to the ocean.

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.