Preserving and Restoring First Nations Foods and Medicines

in 2016/Climate Change/Indigenous Food Systems/Seeds/Summer 2016

Nicholas Peterson

I feel a deep connection to the land, a feeling that spans more than just a couple generations, but a feeling of millennia. Having a First Nations heritage from the Nicola Valley it’s impossible not to recognize that I am at the very place where my ancestors gathered, living on the same land they too survived upon, especially as I take my own family to gather foods and medicines. Growing up with a relationship to this place, and an understanding of being stewards of the land, organic farming seemed to be a logical fit, both for raising my family and for my own lifestyle.
With my love and knowledge for farming, I can’t help but see the importance of filling knowledge gaps to assure beautiful and productive grasslands for future generations. Observing land disturbance through mining, pipelines, and transportation corridors, I didn’t feel in my heart that best practices for reclamation were being used.
Government and industries will continue to impact and disturb natural areas, no doubt about it. This leaves an urgent and constant need for land reclamation to not only help mitigate the negative impacts of such disturbances, but also to restore stable and resilient ecosystems and the beneficial ecosystem services they provide (Dong et al. 2015). After land disturbance, agronomic seeds are typically used in restoration and the disturbed areas become swathes of land that to me are an eye sore on the landscape.
In order to restore disturbed sites to their natural, pre-disturbed condition, which should be our goal, there is a great need for a more abundant, consistent, and higher quality supply of native seed (Burton et al. 2002). Demand for the use of native plants in restoration is increasing and due to the current and growing need for native seed there is a lack of supply. As well, there is a lack of research on seed storage methods, seed viability, and germination success of native plants. Native species are often expensive and difficult to obtain in large quantities (Burton et al. 2002).
Fortunately, there is exciting research happening on native seeds around the world – including our own backyard. Currently, my research is focused on a masters thesis (Use of Native Seed of British Columbia’s Interior Grasslands: Seed Storage & Germination Trials Using Smoke Application on First Nations Traditional Foods and Medicines). I am exploring seed germination with the aim of filling some of the knowledge gaps on breaking seed dormancy in native plants, especially through testing the effects of smoke on seed germination.
Fires are and have been a part of the local natural history. Fire has also been used as a land management tool by First Nations to help ensure abundant and healthy food sources(Miller et al. 2010).Many seeds have evolved to inherit specific characteristics that not only allow them to survive fire, but to break dormancy and germinate based on cues caused by wildfires (Landis 2000). Seeds of many species appear to respond positively to the application of smoke (Franzese et al. 2011, Gonzalez et al. 2012, Landis 2000, Read et all. 1999).
The main objective is to increase the germination success of native species, which in turn will hopefully increase use of native species used in reclamation and restoration projects. Knowing that many projects are proposed years before initial construction, we can collect and stockpile seed from the very natural areas that will be affected by scheduled projects, before they are disturbed. This assures best genetic appropriateness and local plant adaptability to the area when it comes time for rehabilitation.
Species selection for the germination trials was difficult. Deciding to use many First Nations foods and medicines, I reflected on childhood gathering and consulted with local First Nations elders and wisdom holders. I asked if there were species of particular importance and ones that they continue to harvest and use today. Grasses are the dominant species in a grassland but because of my interest in cultural importance I knew there had to be an emphasis on the forbs. The forbs are a large and important part of the food and medicine crops harvested by First Nations. Coincidentally, forbs have a considerably larger knowledge gap in seed research with little to nothing found on certain species.  
Table 1:Species, common name, and life forms of seeds tested for germination response to smoke water. Nomenclature follows E-Flora BC database.
Common Name:
Life form:
Achnatherum hymenoides
Achnatherum occidentale
Achnatherum richardsonii
Allium cernuum
Allium geyeri
Amelanchier alnifolia
Arnica latifolia
Balsamorhiza sagittata
Berberis aquifolium
Calamagrostis rubescens
Calochortus macrocarpus
Claytonia lanceolata
Crataegus douglasii
Erythronium grandiflorum
Festuca campestris
Fritillaria affinis
Fritillaria pudica
Gaillardia aristata
Juniperus scopulorum
Lewisia rediviva
Lomatium macrocarpum
Lomatium nudicaule
Prunus virginiana
Poa secunda
Pseudoroegneria spicata
Rosa woodsii
Sheperdia Canadensis
Indian Ricegrass
Stiff Needlegrass
Spreading Needlegrass
Nodding Onion
Geyer’s Onion
Mountain Arnica
Arrow Leaved Balsamroot
Oregon Grape
Mariposa Lily
Western Spring Beauty
Glacier Lily
Rough Fescue
Chocolate Lily
Yellow Bell
Brown Eyed Susan
Rocky Mountain Juniper
Large Fruited Desert Parsley
Barestem Desert Parsley
Choke Cherry
Sandberg Bluegrass
Blue Bunch Wheatgrass
Prairie Rose

I am grateful to Thompson Rivers University for the opportunity to do research and to further my education. I have high hopes of seeing more native seed used in future restoration and reclamation projects. My intention is that this research will further the practical application of these techniques in restoring ecosystems, while encouraging farmers, backyard gardeners, and anyone who manages land to include native plants in their ecosystems.

Nicholas Peterson is a farmer at Nicola Valley Produce ( with his wife Vileena and five children, specializing in gourmet garlic cultivars. He is a member of the Lower Nicola Indian Band in Merritt, BC, and was elected Councillor in 2013. Nicholas is currently working on his Masters of Environmental Science from Thompson Rivers University, exploring Native Seed Germination for land reclamation and restoration. Nicholas has always had a passion for growing plants and learning more about his natural surroundings. He loves learning and applying the principals taught to him through his First Nations heritage.

Photos: All photos by Nicholas Peterson

Reference Cited:

Burton, Philip j.; Burton, C.M. (2002) Promoting genetic diversity in the production of large quantities of native.Ecological restauration,20, 117–123.

Dong, X., Dai, G., Ulgiati, S., Na, R., Zhang, X., Kang, M. & Wang, X. (2015) On the Relationship between Economic Development, Environmental Integrity and Well-Being: The Point of View of Herdsmen in Northern China Grassland.Plos One,10, e0134786.

Franzese, J. & Ghermandi, L. (2011) Seed longevity and fire: Germination responses of an exotic perennial herb in NW Patagonian grasslands (Argentina).Plant Biology,13, 865–871.

Gonzalez, S.L. & Ghermandi, L. (2012) Fire cue effects on seed germination of six species of northwestern Patagonian grasslands.Natural Hazards and Earth System Science,12, 2753–2758.

Landis, T.D. (2000) Where there’s smoke…there’s germination?Native Plants Journal,1, 25–29. Miller, A.M., Davidson-Hunt, I.J. & Peters, P. (2010) Talking about fire: Pikangikum First Nation elders guiding fire management.Canadian Journal of Forest Research,40, 2290–2301.

Read, T.R. & Bellairs, S.M. (1999) Smoke affects the germination of native grasses of New South Wales.Australian Journal of Botany,47, 563–576.

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