"Tireless in her quest, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner works with indigenous elders to preserve plant knowledge dating back to the First People in the New World."
"The neatness, the orderliness, the sheer scientific preciseness of the death lying at our feet is impressive. It is a sunny spring day near the mouth of the Big Qualicum River on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island; Nancy Turner is hard at work. With long, straight, graying hair tucked behind her ears, brow slightly furrowed, the 69-year-old ethnobotanist arranges hundreds of newly cut plants, 20 to a bunch, into two neat green lines along a gravel lane. Turner straightens, satisfied. The greenery arrayed below is death camas. Its teardrop-shaped bulb contains enough poison to kill a child, maybe even a small adult.
For centuries, indigenous people here carefully cultivated meadows like the one where we are standing. Among the grasses, they tended a host of edible plants—from field strawberries and chocolate lilies to one of the staples of Northwest coast life, a starchy root vegetable called common camas. These wild-looking gardens yielded food in abundance, but a century and a half ago, government officials began pressuring the local First Nations to adopt European agriculture. Reluctantly, they complied, grazing cattle and growing hay in their gardens, until weeds invaded the meadows, and knowledge of their valuable plants began fading.
Today, some want to reclaim their traditional foods. A few days ago, elders from Qualicum First Nation asked Turner for advice on restoring one of these lost gardens. She was happy to oblige. This afternoon, she and two old friends, Kwaxsistalla (Clan Chief Adam Dick) and Kim Recalma-Clutesi, have combed the meadow, searching for the remnants of the edible plants that once thrived here and halting the spread of a lethal intruder, death camas. After flowering, death camas looks almost identical to the edible variety; harvesters could easily make a fatal error. The fruiting stalks at our feet contain more than 55,000 death camas seeds—thousands of averted possibilities for further dispersing the toxic plant."