I am, floristically speaking, a sybarite. Though I will attempt to enjoy the occasional long weekend at an Oberoi or Four Seasons, especially so as the guest of a wealthy friend, and will suffer through multi-course meals that are as unsettling to my wallet as the mucosa of my digestive tract, I am in my element under modest means. In terms of my phytogeographical peregrinations, however, not so much.
Of the numerous petty slings and arrows suffered during the pandemic, none was taken more as a personal affront than the inability to travel to my 4 Michelin Star mountains in northern Vietnam, the Arunachal Pradesh or southwestern China. This is more easily understood by those who are acquainted with the downright paucity of the flora of the Puget Sound basin that surrounds me. Of the hundreds of miles I have hiked in the local hills and trails over the past 14 months, I saw in the first 15 minutes of each the sum of the day’s botanical checklist.
For visual titillation from the not-readily-recognizable, I have ventured slightly further afield to satiate my want of diversity, while, of course, in a respectable state of paranoia and anxiety. The Wenatchees, Umpquas, Siskiyous, Trinity Alps and Olympics have done nicely.
But not so far flung is a tiny island that my husband Robert and I ventured to this weekend, approximately 100 miles north and west of Seattle. On an eleven-acre chunk of rock in the deep and frigid waters of San Juan Channel thrives one of the most opulent and culturally significant low elevation spring displays of wildflowers in the entire Pacific Northwest. After two ferries, a crab boat and the final 100 feet in a plastic dingy appearing more appropriate for a child’s bathtub than navigating tricky currents, we arrived at Yellow Island, one of 170 islands in the Orcas Archipelago.
Yellow Island was named such by Charles Wilkes, the commander of the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842, ostensibly for the radioactive haze of Ranunculus occidentalis apparent from a considerable distance in April and May. I was saddened to have recently learned of Wilke’s association to this place, as his reputation shrouds many plants and places of the Pacific Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands with his malice and ineptitude. Conceited and vain while in command, during his subsequent court-martial Wilkes was described “as a man of shallow intellect, meager understanding and emotional instability,” “a leader of a sea going expedition that was neither a leader nor a seaman.”*
Yet Yellow Island was in no need of nomenclature. For centuries before, 17 tribes are known to have ‘cultivated’ Camassia quamash on this deer-proofed chunk of rocky real estate that no one owned. The tribes’ periodic burning kept the trees and shrubs in repose, allowing prolific regeneration of their ‘crop.’ There remain large pits on the southern end of the island that might have been used to bury their harvest in soils over hot coals.
Once in the Lily Family, now Asparagaceae, the genus name is derived from the Nez Perce word for sweet: Qém’es. How sweet it is, described as equal parts of garlic, fig and pear, though its caloric value is negligible unless carefully processed. Like Jerusalem Artichoke, Yacon and Agave, the sugars produced by quamash are in the form of inulin, which is undigestible in the human gut unless unglued by long exposure to low temperatures. Though I use my AGA stove to achieve this effect, there continues to be a dearth of dealerships throughout the Orcas archipelago and slow roasting in sand pits or slow boiling was the traditional manner of preparation. In lands dominated by manly protein, it was the dried cakes of quamash that fed many people under the gloom of Pacific Northwest winter days.
Lewis and Elizabeth Dodd purchased the island in 1947, crafting a cottage from driftwood collected on the beach and the panes of glass from their chicken coop on Orcas Island. From their farm on Orcas, which itself would have been considered mind-numbingly isolated in the 1940’s, the couple ‘escaped’ the hustle on weekends for their aureated get-away. Recognizing the preciousness of a non-grazed, untrammeled, lowland maritime prairie, the Nature Conservancy purchased the property in 1979 and continues to manage the island through periodic burns. Visitors are welcomed but as there is no moorage, a beach-landing craft is necessary. Or a very cold swim.
The last and only other time we had been on the island was in the early 1990’s. It is a dangerous business to mess with memories infused with a dazzlement of color. On Yellow Island, however, though the pigments remain the same, the brilliance in only enhanced by age.
*Hawai’I’s Native Plants, Dr. Bruce Bohm