Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Ode to Wapato

Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Ode to Wapato

Somehow, again, we’re heading towards the end of summer. The long, light-hearted days are already shortening and the lakes and ponds will soon begin to cool. We’re heading back into fall’s months of busyness when we just don’t have time for those hour-long swims, for noticing each quarter degree change in the water’s temperature.

I mourn the end of summer swimming days. Averse to over-chlorinated pools, I try to get my fill of the drink in those summer months when nothing feels so good as slipping into the silky northern waters and staying in until hungry friends, impatiently waving at the shore, call you in to join the party. I love my swims, and I know I am not alone in this passion. Water plays a big part in Canadians’ enjoyment of our fairer months, and for many of us, our time spent in lakes, streams and ponds can provide defining moments in our summers, if not in our lifetimes.

This summer was no exception for me, and I’d like to share with you one of those moments – a tale from my field work, and a bit of summer memory I’ll now carry with me forever:

Have you ever heard of Wapato? Neither had I until this July. When the term was brought up on the first day of my summer course, I thought my professor must have been referring to a town – sounds vaguely familiar, I thought, but don’t ask me to point it out on a map. Over the next couple of days, however, the import of this word began to grow on me, and by the end of my field work I couldn’t believe there was a time when Sagittaria latifolia didn’t hold a special place in my heart.

What is Wapato anyway, you probably ask. And why would some aquatic plant come to mean so much to a traveling group of nineteen students? Also known as arrowhead, for the distinctive shape of its leaves, this lovely wetland plant is found in ponds and lakes in many parts of the country. Although the leaves help to easily distinguish this plant from others, it is its underground portion that in fact gives it its cultural significance, and that originally set us off on our Wapato expedition.

In a similar fashion to our domestic potato, only in a wetland rather than a dryland environment, the Wapato produces a network of edible tubers. Functioning as storage organs for the plant, these tubers are stock-full of nutrients and carbohydrates. What the potato was for Europeans is comparable to what the Wapato was in the diet of the Secwepemc people of Interior BC, the area my colleagues and myself were studying. However, where not long ago entire villages could, year after year in the same location, harvest enough Wapato to feed everyone plus a few, there are now very few plants to be found. The Wapato has declined considerably in distribution and abundance, and where found, it is typically of very small size. According to our expert Secwepemc elder, a Wapato harvest from present populations would yield a quantity of little use to the harvester.

But our group did not walk the back field toward the pond to harvest the Wapato that evening. We did not remove shoes and socks as the ground filled beneath our feet because we wanted to collect the plants’ tubers. We didn’t roll higher and higher, then finally take our pants right off as the water became waist-deep to satisfy any physical hunger. It was not due to our stomachs that we paid so little heed to the thick muck of the pond’s bottom, its oozing between our toes:

We had come to this pond to see the restoration of the Wapato. We had come with wide eyes and hoping hearts to see the now limited plant in its native habitat, to find if the replanting efforts of the previous year had paid off, to see if the Wapato was recovering, and to find hope that one day it may again be harvested by those who once relied so heavily upon it for survival.

It was our group of nineteen, trudging pantless through the murky waters and mucky bottom of the pond, eaten alive by hungry mosquitoes, and thinking of only one thing – the Wapato; growing here, spreading there, sprouting and popping up between exclosures and decidedly making its mark again where once it had reigned supreme.

Itchy, mucky and wet; elated, admiring and in awe at this little sign of recovery and healing – this is my highlight, my new favourite water memory, this year’s taste of summer’s delights. Thanks to Wapato, thanks to the sweet pond it grows in, thanks to summer months and times in the field. Another memory to keep, another story to share:

Photo Credit:
Global Forest Science: Restoring Arrowhead in the Thompson Valley, B.C. (http://www.globalforestscience.org/research/projects.html?projectName=Restoring_Arrowhead_in_the_Thompson_Valley,_B.C.)

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at zk_dalton@hotmail.com.

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