In W̱SÁNEĆ areas, removing invasive English ivy makes room for native plants
Sarah Jim is a W̱SÁNEĆ from the village of W̱SÍ¸ḴEM (Clay Place) – the area also known as the Saanich Peninsula on “Vancouver Island”. As she got older, she began spending more time in her family’s woods, and noticed that English ivy – originally brought from Europe – was a big problem.
Jim took it upon himself to remove the plant, cutting the ivy from the trees and pulling it from the ground. But since the vines covered most of the forest floor and wrapped tightly around almost all the trees, she quickly realized she would need help.
So, in the spring of 2021, she founded the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy Project (Healing the Place of Mud) and began inviting volunteers to help. By the summer, it had partnered with the Habitat Tenure Trust (HAT), a nonprofit focused on land restoration, which had extensive volunteer outreach and was able to provide resources so withdrawals could be made once a month.
This approach is an act of decolonization, healing and cultural revitalization. English ivy and other invasive plants have dramatically altered traditional forest ecosystems over time by suffocating native plant species. Due to its aggressive and fast-growing nature, it is viewed as a plant pathogen as it invades forest thickets, suppressing and stifling growth.
However, by removing the plant, volunteers create space for the return of native plants, a trend Jim calls “physical decolonial action.”
“Most of us love and appreciate nature for its beauty, but living in connection with the land through ecosystem restoration, stewardship, or harvesting creates a different appreciation and perspective,” Jim said.
“Once I started seeing the land for what it was and who it was trying to be, then I realized that the ivy wasn’t allowing the land to be what it was supposed to be.”
Jim has been doing restoration work since 2018, when she began working with PEPAKEṈ HÁUTW̱, a non-profit organization focused on restoring W̱SÁNEĆ ecosystems and promoting Indigenous food sovereignty. She is also a visual artist whose works consist of murals, paintings and prints. Taking care of the earth is the main inspiration for her art.
Before working at PEPAKEṈ HÁUTW̱, Jim’s knowledge of plants was limited because she did not have the privilege of growing in a rich cultural environment due to the influences of colonialism.
As she fostered a deeper connection to her native lands, working the land helped her become more aware of how language, culture, traditional knowledge, and art are intimately connected to the natural realm.
Since founding the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy Project two years ago, Sarah and her family have seen positive changes in the forest. Native plants such as trilliums and blackberries have returned, along with animals such as ĆIYE (Stellar jays) and WEXES (chorus frogs).
“When you spend more time in a place, you care about it and appreciate it more because of building that relationship,” Jim said.
HAT employee Max Mitchell has been supporting the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy project since its inception.
Since partnering with the project, Mitchell said there have been dramatic changes to the land due to the strategic approach to removal. The first step was to target trees on which the ivy grows because climbing ivy plants produce berries that are consumed by birds that spread the seeds.
“When you walk in the woods, if you know what you’re looking for, the first thing you’ll notice is the ivy climbing up all the trees, which are all dead now,” he said.
“This looks like a huge success in managing ivy around here.”
Common invasive plants such as English Ivy are considered invasive because they can colonize an area to which they are introduced, establishing themselves, spreading rapidly and monopolizing resources.
English ivy was intentionally introduced to North America as an ornamental plant by settlers during the 19th century. Once established in an area, its climbing vine creeps up and encircles tree trunks. This weakens the tree by inhibiting the absorption of nutrients and makes it vulnerable to disease. The shrubs begin to die because light does not reach their leaves.
It is no wonder that its Latin name, “Hedera,” is of Greek origin and means “to seize, seize, take.”
English ivy has become a major problem throughout Turtle Island – it can affect soil chemistry, fire, geomorphic processes, and hydrology, all of which are essential to a functioning ecosystem.
Native plants in W̱SÁNEĆ ecosystems did not evolve alongside a plant like ivy, so they have a hard time competing with it for resources, Mitchell said.
“What will often happen is that the ivy will completely take over an area, creating a monoculture that crowds out what could be habitat for a variety of native plants,” Mitchell said.
Garry Oak ecosystems are sensitive and highly threatened ecosystems restricted to the southeastern coast of Vancouver Island and the southern Gulf Islands. It is of great importance to the people of W̱SÁNEĆ from an environmental and cultural perspective. Less than 5 percent of it now remains in near-normal conditions. Many human factors are linked to their decline, and the introduction of invasive plants is one of them.
Jim believes the Tseycum Woods were once a Garry Oak ecosystem because she found Garry Oak trees in the middle of the forest while clearing the ivy.
“It was really weird because Gary Oak trees don’t like to be shaded,” she said.
“They like big open spaces with lots of sun, so it makes me wonder if it’s a Gary Oak prairie. But because regular burning didn’t happen — burning was prohibited because settlers were afraid of fire — the forest grew around these oaks.”
The volunteer aspect of the project has also created a tangible way to support non-Indigenous people. In the age of “reconciliation,” many people want to learn about Indigenous culture and build relationships – however, reciprocity is key.
Mitchell said he has noticed that settler organizations often approach “reconciliation” in a extractive manner, where people consider a particular desired outcome from that partnership.
At the same time, he said it was important for settlers to do this work because the settler worldview of economic growth and extraction of the natural world had facilitated the environmental crisis the world is experiencing today.
“This partnership feels like it’s built on friendships, which is my favorite way to work,” he said of the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy project.
“Doing restoration, especially supporting Indigenous-led restoration, is a practical repudiation of this colonial worldview where you decolonize the land through the physical act of removing non-native invasive plants from the local ecosystem.”
Jim said that when she first started learning about plants, many people wanted to go on plant walks, but she felt uncomfortable with that dynamic.
“It feels transactional because I get paid a certain amount to walk around and talk about plants. It felt like it was one-sided and not very productive for me,” she said.
“Most people want to know what plants can do for them. I turn them around and ask them what we can do for (plants). So restoration is a really good way to guide people to learn about plants in a mutual and meaningful way.”
At the end of each draw, Jim facilitates a sharing circle. In one of her circles, Jim talked about the restoration process and how it’s not a one-time engagement. It is a commitment that requires constant presence to build a relationship with the land and with each other.
“By working together to heal the Earth, we in turn come together to heal relationships with each other, with ourselves, and with this place,” she said.
“Ecosystem restoration not only enhances biodiversity, recreates habitats for plants and animals, and creates landscapes that are more resilient to climate change, but it also reconnects people to place.”
People are also invited to share their thoughts and feelings after the draw, and without fail, people report feeling calmer, grounded and connected.
“Everyone is so thoughtful and generous with what they share, like how being on the ground and pulling ivy with the community is good for their mental health and how healing it is for them,” Jim said. “Making it easy seems important because in this economy, in this climate, people need independence and empowerment.” And healing.”
Speaking with settlers in particular, Mitchell says he has witnessed the impact that participating in the project has had on volunteers.
“I think another important part of the work is restoring community connections between people,” Mitchell said.
“Sometimes it feels like we live in an increasingly isolated and individualistic world. In order to address the biodiversity crisis, I believe we need to engage in work that restores not only the individual’s connection to the land, but also to their broader community.”
Mitchell encourages the community to look out for projects like the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy project happening in the areas where they live.
“I think taking action to make an impact can be very empowering because it gives you that feeling of being able to do something that helps and contributes to positivity in the world,” he said.
“Getting out there and doing something in person and in the community can be powerful in a way that engaging in online activism can’t be.”
Jim also hopes that volunteers will take what they learned from the W̱SÍ¸ḴEM Ivy Project and feel motivated to create their own projects so that it creates a ripple effect.
Jim expects it may take several years to control the ivy on her family’s land. ŽÁU, WELṈEW̱ also known as John Dean Provincial Park, is located near Sydney on southern Vancouver Island. Jim says she heard stories that the garden used to be covered in ivy, but with the help of volunteers, it was eradicated within 10 years. Although it has been a long time coming, Jim is in no rush for the project to be “done” because of the strong community she has built through the project.
“I joke that I hope the ivy never goes away because people won’t come here anymore. But it’s going to be a long, beautiful project.”