It was this essay, written in 1966 by Sid Belsom, a member of the original Comox Strathcona Natural History Society, that gave Hollyhock Flats it’s name. We urge readers to follow the article to the end. The first three and the last seven paragraphs are particularly relevant to today’s fundraising drive to restore the old Field’s Sawmill site.
By Sid Belsom
Over the years swamps and marshes have been portrayed in many characters, mysterious, ominous, frightening, etc., but seldom are they thought of as interesting and beautiful.
To the passengers of the hundreds of cars that travel between Courtenay and Comox, the marsh between the road and the Courtenay River is probably a very drab and uninteresting sight that doesn’t even warrant a casual glance.
However, for the interested, this “drab” swamp is full of life and beauty, and in spring and summer it is transformed into a botanical bonanza. Starting early with Trilliums, Easter Lilies, Bleeding Heart, Peacock (or Shooting Star), Skunk Cabbage, these being followed by Blue Camas, Yellow Monkey Flower, Blue Eyed Grass, Musk Flower, Wild Lily of the Valley, Wild Ginger and Chocolate Lily.
By May and June, the whole area is literally painted with Indian Paint Brush, the blush of which is liberally dotted with the white of thousands of Tall White Bog Orchid, with the edge trimmed with Chocolate Lily.
As spring warms into summer, and the spring flowers fade away, the colour continues as the scene is taken over by the Wild Hollyhock, St. John’s Wort, the Purple Loosestrife, Water Parsnip, Silverweed, Fireweed and Hardhack.
In the wet spots throughout the summer will be found Veronica, Brooklime, Canada Mint and Hedge Nettle. Under the shade of the trees will be found the Star Flower shoulder-to-shoulder with the Wild Lily of the Valley, on the edge of the gravel the Self Heal ekes out a living whilst in the tangle of logs at the edge of the road where nothing else grows. Longstem Greencaps grow in abundance.
With the smell of fall in the air, the Douglas Aster is still putting up a brave show with the Blue Sailors, Gumweed, Cats Ears and Agoseris, but now the swamp is preparing for its winter sleep leaving pleasant memories to the few that have savoured its months of glory, enjoying each flower as it buds, blooms and dies, its place being taken by the next species and the next, the colour changing week-by-week as species follows species in this parade of colour.
Also adding to this profusion of colour are the shrubs that thrive here, the western Dogwood, Ninebark, Red Berry Elder, Waxberry, Honeysuckle, Black Twinberry, Saskatoon Berry, Ocean Spray, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Blackberry, Wild Rose, Sweet Gale to name some that call the swamp home.
These shrubs also add the colour of their berries to the scene as anyone that has admired scape and black berry of the Black Twinberry will agree. They also help the other inhabitants of the swamp, the birds. The summer picture would not be complete without the sound and sight of the Red winged Blackbird, the flash of the yellow on the tail of the Cedar Waxwing, the furtive rustle in the thick brush indicating the presence of a Towhee or Song Sparrow, proud “Poppa” Robin with a beak full of worms, the thrill of finding a Killdeers nest in the gravel and the amazement of not being able to locate it the next day, the busy chatter of the Chickadees and Siskins in the tree tops.
With the fall comes an almost complete change of bird populations, the Gulls begin to appear on the gravel bar at the edge of the swamp, the migrating Bonaparte Gulls usually being the first to appear followed by the Glacous Winged Gull that stands by us all winter.
The Mergansers and Grebes begin to appear on the river, the Coots will be found dabbling in the mud in the shallow water. The scaups and Scoters begin to appear and are soon joined by an occasional Goldeneye, Bufflehead and Loon while the Kingfisher looks from a high vantage spot of his dinner.
During the dull grey days of winter, the contrasting white of the Trumpeter and whistling swans can sometimes be seen as they feed there, whilst around its perimeter the Heron patiently waits for his next meal to come swimming by.
By the end of February, however, one begins to sense a stirring amongst the inhabitants of the swamp, maybe it is just a glimpse of the breeding plumage that now adorns many of the male ducks, or the exuberant display of the bubbling Bufflehead who seems to be willing to show off his dashing ways to anyone with time to stand and watch.
Yes, there is vibrant life and beauty in the swamp, if you have eyes to see it.
One cannot ignore the human touch, however, as the piles of indiscriminately discarded garbage are all too evident, dumped by people who have no eye or feeling to appreciate nature’s prolific display.
There is little doubt that in this river marsh there are more varieties and a more prolific display of our native flowers than any area of comparable size in this area (with the possible exception of Puntledge Park), but you won’t see it rushing by at 40 miles an hour.
Nature does not die although it appears to when it rests until it is ready to burst out anew each spring.
However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that to some people this area is not looked upon as a storehouse of nature’s wonders, but as a prime piece of real estate that would make a first-class industrial site, and the green they see is not the marsh grass, but dollar bills. If this happens, it will surely die and nothing will revive it ever.
So, if you live in this area why not grant yourself an occasional few minutes this spring and summer to take a closer look while the chance is still there.
If you do take the time to look, please reap the harvest of pleasure with your eyes and heart, not by picking the flowers.
Published in the Comox District Free Press, Spring 1966