The Troubled Purple Thistle Wetland

A warm and sunny Sunday afternoon tends to bring out the gardener in many of us. What happens when there is no access to a green yard, a farm field or a sunny patio for planters? The trend toward community garden space and urban agricultural interventions has exploded, and Vancouver seems to be peaking when it comes to greening initiatives. From large-scale urban farming projects, such as the sea of raised plots put up by Solefood, to smaller community initiatives seen behind hi-rises and on street corners, there are so many examples of a real passion for food security and sustainable living. So what do wetlands have to do with this movement?

This question has been answered in an example we’ve been presented with by members of The Purple Thistle (a youth-run arts and activism centre). A registered participant of this year’s BCWF Wetland Institute Workshop has recently become engaged in the troubled life of an ephemeral wetland that sits on the fringe of a Purple Thistle urban garden in the Strathcona neighbourhood off of Clark Drive, in Vancouver. They invited Neil Fletcher (BCWF’s Wetlands Education Program Coordinator) to come out and visit the wetland in question and I, as usual, came along for the site visit. We found a team of young people in sun hats working hard in the midst of grounds mulched with straw. The weather has been warm recently and water is hard to come by in this area as the city and adjacent buildings have not supplied a tap. While this “Food Forest” they have created looks clean, well-maintained and productive, the grounds just to the left were covered in trash (which these volunteers have attempted to remove). This is where we found the ephemeral wetland: hemmed in by industrial development on one side, and CN Rail on the opposite.

I’ve only attended a few related site visits in the past: urban wetlands are an uncommon breed for the consideration of restoration. Suburban/fringe wetlands have adjacent wildlife corridors and can be considered for habitat value; rural wetlands receive greater attention for their fewer impacts. An urban wetland cannot be protected from human impact and the rehabilitation of such a site would come with this understanding. We look beyond these challenges in a case like this to see the social values of an urban oasis: as something that accommodates urban birds, as a learning tool for city-bound youth, as a purifier of run-off and the toxins of nearby traffic.

The upcoming Wetlands Institute workshop will see individuals from the Lower Mainland and Sea-to-Sky region work on their own local wetland projects. This bi-annual intensive workshop covers the logistics and practice of wetland protection, restoration and construction by a series of experts over the course of one week. Adam Huggins, a key member of Purple Thistle, hopes to attend this workshop and take the experience he gains to his urban wetland. He thinks it could add great value to the adjacent “Food Forest” and will function as an educational tool for Vancouverites and youth. Both Purple Thistle and the Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) bring large groups of young volunteers into the area for urban gardening and food cultivation. A wetland could easily be incorporated into this mix with an emphasis on native hydrophytic plant life and the importance of nearby water sources to beneficial wildlife such as Mason Bees (who need a water source and exposed mud to create their nests).

The link between sustainable food and productive wetlands is often forgotten. Visiting rural farm land we often simply see ditched marshes that have helped to drain the land for productive crops. Not only will wetlands provide the service of flood control, but they will also ensure productivity by welcoming a variety of pollinators. When the pressures of urban development and industry are imposed on wildlife and our access to fresh, local food this relationship becomes an important one to consider. Despite the great challenges to rehabilitating this urban wetland, there are so many reasons to put in the effort.

Before we left, Neil took a soil sample to get a better sense of what we were standing on. There were many tell-tale signs that this disturbed space was in fact an ephemeral wetland: amid the invasive grasses and weeds were flowering clumps of Common spike-rush (Eleocharis palustris) and Soft-stemmed Bulrush (Schoenoplectus tabernaemontani): two hardy native sedges that typically inhabit tidal flats, marshes and shorelines. There were also the bright pink flowers of the Hardhack (Spiraea douglasii) that camouflaged an orange fibre optic cable marker. Adam acknowledged the Skunk Cabbage he had seen flowering earlier amid the makeshift homeless encampment in the shrubbery. When Neil dug into the earth with the soil auger he hit standing water at only 3″ below the surface, under a layer of decomposed leaf litter and gravel fill. The Purple Thistle gardeners have reached a clay layer when preparing their “Food Forest” which is also in line with the area’s history as a large estuary of False Creek.

We know that the ground holds water and the toughest and most persistent wetland flora cling to the history of the site. Can garbage dumping be kept at bay? Can the grounds be successfully be replanted and appreciated? These are the remaining questions. We look forward to updates on the improvements of this site from The Purple Thistle and are happy to welcome their challenges to the 2012 Wetlands Institute.

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