My relationship with the Garry oak (Quercus garryana), British Columbia’s only oak species, goes way back. I grew up near a large Garry oak meadow, an undeveloped park with a maze of trails just wide enough for our bikes. The twisting oak trunks called out for climbing, and the tall, dry grasses and wildflowers provided a wonderful playground into which we could disappear all day. (This was, of course, back in the days of free range children.)
Well before my time, Garry oak (also known as Oregon white oak) used to grow profusely throughout southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, in meadows that were important habitat for songbirds, butterflies, snakes, insects and larger animals. Grazing by black-tailed deer thinned out enough of the newly sprouting trees to keep the canopy open, allowing the remaining trees to flourish, and aboriginal people harvested the camas and other edible bulbs that grew among the grasses.
By the time I came along, urban development had reduced Garry oak stands to isolated patches like the park in my neighbourhood. Today, these Garry oak meadows are among BC’s most endangered habitats, and many of the plant, birds and insect species that these ecosystems support are themselves at risk.
The photo above was shot at Uplands Park in Victoria, a large (at least by today’s standards) Garry oak meadow. We have small patches of these trees on Gabriola Island as well, most notably at Drumbeg Park.
A small Garry oak tree grows in our yard on Gabriola, protected from the deer by a wire enclosure. A friend started it from an acorn and, 10 years ago, brought it to us in a one-gallon pot as a housewarming gift. It’s now about six feet tall and doing well. To my surprise, it turns out Garry oak is fairly easy to grow. So if you have a well-drained, sunny, relatively open spot – south or west-facing preferred – and a little bit of space in your yard, you may like to give it a try. You’ll be helping to preserve an important piece of our region’s natural heritage.