Indigenous Peoples in British Columbia Tended ‘Forest Gardens’

Found near villages, research suggests the Indigenous population intentionally planted and maintained these patches of fruit and nut trees

Sts’ailes forest garden
The Sts’ailes forest garden near Vancouver, British Columbia seen from the air. Nick Waber

Along the coast of British Columbia, Canada, former villages of the Ts’msyen and Coast Salish Indigenous peoples are flanked by what researchers have termed “forest gardens.” On lands covered in forests dominated by hemlock and cedar trees, these forest gardens represent abrupt departures from the surrounding ecosystem. The dark, closed canopy of the conifer forest opens up and is replaced by a sunny, orchard-like spread of food-producing trees and shrubs, such as crabapple, hazelnut, cranberry, wild plum and wild cherry.

New research, published last week in the journal Ecology and Society, makes the case that these forest gardens were planted and maintained by Indigenous peoples until roughly 150 years ago when the original inhabitants of these settlements were displaced by colonialist expansion and the smallpox outbreaks the encroaching colonizers brought with them, reports Andrew Curry for Science.

"These plants never grow together in the wild. It seemed obvious that people put them there to grow all in one spot—like a garden," says Chelsey Geralda Armstrong, an ethnobiologist at Simon Fraser University and lead author of the study, in a statement. "Elders and knowledge holders talk about perennial management all the time. It's no surprise these forest gardens continue to grow at archeological village sites that haven't yet been too severely disrupted by settler-colonial land-use."

These Indigenous-managed food production sites in the Pacific Northwest are the first forest gardens to be described outside of Central and South America, according to Science.

Armstrong and her team studied four village complexes in northwestern and southwestern British Columbia that had been occupied for more than 2,000 years. Looking at the plant species and other aspects of the forest garden landscapes near these villages, the team showed that the forest gardens featured a combination of plants not seen anywhere else in the forest, even 150 years after Indigenous land management ceased, reports Philip Kiefer for Popular Science. Armstrong and her co-authors found signs the landscape was managed by Indigenous people with fire, fertilization and systematic pruning, according to Popular Science.

The findings also suggest the unique assemblies of plant species found in the forest gardens benefit the surrounding environment. “Forest gardens have substantially greater plant and functional trait diversity than periphery forests even more than 150 years after management ceased,” the authors write in their paper. The researchers add that these forest gardens now provide “diverse resources and habitat for animals and other pollinators and are more rich than naturally forested ecosystems.”

Jesse Miller, an ecologist at Stanford University and co-author of the study, tells Science the diversity of plants in these managed landscapes may be part of what has allowed them to thrive and persist. “There’s less open niche space, so it’s harder for new species to come in,” Miller tells Science.

In the statement, Miller says “human activities are often considered detrimental to biodiversity, and indeed, industrial land management has had devastating consequences for biodiversity.” But Miller says the findings outlined in this paper show humans can also have a positive influence on biodiversity and ecosystem function, and “highlight that there continues to be an important role for human activities in restoring and managing ecosystems in the present and future.”

Demonstrating that Canada’s Indigenous population actively managed and cultivated parts of the landscape around their villages could also have legal ramifications for tribal nations looking to reclaim state-owned lands that weren’t included in any treaties. Per Popular Science, reclaiming these lands requires a legal demonstration of “sufficient occupation,” which a Canadian Supreme Court Justice described as “evidence of a strong presence on or over the land claimed.”

According to Popular Science, roughly 16 of these gardens have been documented so far. But as more sites like these come to light, Morgan Ritchie, an archaeologist at the University of British Columbia who co-authored the paper and has worked with tribal nations on land reclamation cases, tells Popular Science that “you go from being able to demonstrate long-term continuity and sufficiency for a village area to including all the forest around that property too.”

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