Tag Archives: trees

The Kelowna Savanna

Premier Gordon Campbell at the 6 billion tree planting ceremony.

The gentle curve of the hillside draws me forward. Maybe it’s a guy thing, being attracted to curves, but with each step I see more of this grassland, and more of Okanagan Lake’s northern reach. Then come subtle ecological changes, as the hill’s aspect gently shifts from southwest to northwest. Here I am, just twenty blocks from Kelowna’s downtown, on a remnant piece of Okanagan sublime: Knox Mountain Park. As I start down the trail, I’m on a dry and rocky southwest face. I see sagebrush and cactus, reminders of our biological connection to the Great Basin of distant Utah and Nevada. Then further along this curving footpath is the signature Okanagan landscape trinity; delicate bluebunch wheatgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot in full flower, and the statuesque ponderosa pine. Still further along the footpath, as the land shifts around to a northwest aspect, I see the hallmarks of a cooler, more northerly flora: rough fescue, rose, and snowberry. Here a tiny but outrageous shootingstar commands me: get on my knees to honor its royal purple. 

I am at pains to face away from the City on my dawdling walk. The lake beside me is completely still. If I stick to certain trails, I can avoid seeing the sprawling suburbs that surround the Park.  A trailside sign informs me of the City of Kelowna’s Official Flower: the arrowleaf balsamroot. I do hope City officials are aware of this vast irony: naming balsamroot the official flower while doing their level best to eradicate its habitat.

A friend of mine is working on what she calls the “Okanagan Esthetic.” She’s got a tough job. Hard to visualize a local spirit of place when we can zip down Highway 97 at 110 kilometers an hour, pass row on row of identical suburbs and chain big-box stores, while Boeing 737s shuttle overhead, and our car radios blares the latest American pop song. But I am convinced that a true local esthetic is possible. Bunchgrass, balsamroot and ponderosa pine would certainly be a part of it. Along with pinot gris and merlot. 

The landscape pulls me along, and I allow myself the distractions of botanical identification, knowing all along that the most important view is not at the species, but at the ecosystem level. Or perhaps at the artistic level. Maybe the person best equipped to understand the subtleties of Knox Mountain is the landscape painter.

Psychologists say humans, if given the choice, overwhelmingly prefer the intermediate landscape–scattered trees in grassland—rather than closed forest or open grassland. And this is what we have on Knox Mountain: the intermediate landscape, Okanagan savanna. But for how long, I worry.  The absence of recent fire here, on a landscape that demands it: too many juvenile trees are sprouting up on this dry mountainside. We have extirpated the frequent, light, housekeeping fires that Indigenous folks formerly used to keep grass and trees in that savanna balance. 

Finished with my walk, I’m back at the viewpoint by the parking lot, a good place to think about an Okanagan Esthetic, with the Valley’s biggest city in front of you, and a wonderful remnant piece of Valley habitat behind. Okanagan Mountain Park in the distance triggers memories of Firestorm 2003.  Rough fescue and shootingstar behind me; several good coffee shops, a great independent bookstore, and Ballet Kelowna in front. A magnificent but overstressed lake to my right, a four-lane commercial strip to my left. Raw materials for an esthetic.

This viewpoint is a dry and bony rock outcrop. It hosts a small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier. The tree seedling soon died a drought-stricken death, leaving a patch of bare dirt next to the plaque. Tree planting has a long and honorable tradition in this Province, but no self-respecting tree planter would ever put a seedling in such an inappropriate spot. I’m sure the Premier meant well, and it was a good photo op, but ecologically misguided. He should have planted arrowleaf balsamroot instead.

small bronze plaque commemorating the six billionth tree planted in BC, spaded in by a former Premier

Ponderosa Contemplation


A long, low ridge borders our neighborhood, about a kilometer distant. Dry and grassy, with scattered pines here and there, it is fortunately too steep to build houses on. From the leisurely perspective of a backyard evening I scan this hillside, and speculate on a fundamental duality of Okanagan nature: trees and grass. Forest and grassland. The tree that grows here is the hardy Ponderosa, which reaches farther out into dry grasslands than any other tree.

On the ridge’s lower slope the three-dimensional bulk of each tree is visible, as well as the shadow it casts on the grass below. But the trees lined along the hill’s ridgeline are two-dimensional, seen only in profile. With evening light behind them, they are like the black and white illustrations in old forestry textbooks. A few have the classic Christmas tree shape, but most are funky and asymmetrical. There is the beanpole, the bonsai, and the lightbulb. Dead top, leaning left, Charlie Brown and windswept. Red attack, witches broom, schoolmarm crotch. Some an open filigree of branches, others a solid black blob. One perfectly triangular specimen is right next to a standing dead snag. Life on a dry, windy ridge does not make you pretty. It is a rogue’s gallery, a police lineup of deviant conifers. Some have branches all the way to the ground, others their yellow trunks are naked halfway up. Some look like they have stood since the glaciers; others appear new, temporary or even rudely invasive.

When the evenings are longer and supper is over, it is fun to sip another glass of wine and assign adjectives to certain trees on the ridgeline. Aspirational. Overbloated. Calligraphic. And so on.

Ponderosa is not my first iconic tree. As a kid living in Southern California, a large old pepper tree was my gymnasium, refuge, and friend. It’s sturdy trunk and spreading main branches were perfect for climbing. The long, weeping terminal branches with pinnate leaves hung vertically around the tree’s perimeter, creating a large, shaded canopy. It was a quiet, pepper-scented room, with a plush carpet of duff and pure adventure on the ceiling. On one of my more daring climbs I lost my grip and fell, landing flat on my back. Unconscious for a few seconds, I opened my eyes to the radiant canopy. Part of my mind struggled to comprehend what had just happened, while the rest fixed on the infinitely complex mosaic above me, delicate pinnate leaves shot through with light. It might have been a transformative moment.

Trees not only evoke memory, they contain it. Ponderosa remembers fire, and lives somewhere in the ambiguous realm of either withstanding it, or requiring it. Does it withstand fire so well, with its thick bark and progeny that germinate on burned ground, that it actually needs it? When its forests go a long time without fire, creating a dense canopy and cooler microclimate that allows the Douglas-firs to take over, is that a voluntary surrender, or a defeat? When First Nations added millenia of their own prescribed fires to the natural regime of lightning starts, and then when our white settler culture set about stopping all fires, does the Ponderosa even care? Fires and drought suppress trees, and favor grasses. Closed forest canopies suppress grasses. It is a pity the Okanagan didn’t come with an operating manual.

The long, graceful needles of the Ponderosa have a clear surface coating that reflects sunlight. If you are under a mature ponderosa on a mid-afternoon with a breeze, gaze upward through the foliage and you will see thousands of tiny moving points of light. While you sit there, it is also a good time to contemplate the relationship of trees, grass, humans and fire, in no particular order. One of those traditional Spanish leather wine skins, filled with an Okanagan Pinot Noir, would be a helpful asset.