Saskia unlocks flower power
Saskia Wolsak was always fascinated by Bermuda's plants.
She grew up in Canada, but spent summers here with her maternal Bermudian family.
“My mother was always giving me a taste of fennel or an allspice leaf to smell,” she said. “My grandfather would say you can brush your teeth with lantana leaves.”
Since then she's been on a “lifelong learning curve” to discover more about plants.
She is currently finishing up a master's degree at the University of British Columbia looking at the Bermudian relationship with endemic and native plants.
She'll be giving a lecture tomorrow night about the palmetto.
“The palmetto allowed people on the Sea Venture to survive by eating the heart of the palm and the berries,” she said. “Many people in Bermuda have an almost reverent attitude towards cedar.
“The palmetto is also an endangered endemic plant, but many people confuse it with the introduced Chinese fan palm.”
She considers herself lucky to have Bermudian roots.
“Bermudians are more in tune with their landscape than a lot of urban North Americans,” she said. “I think that helped to spark a sense of self-sufficiency and a deeper relationship with the plants around me.”
She grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, in an urban area near a beach.
“There were a few forested parks and I liked to go wandering by myself there to look at the plants,” she said. “Walking to school I loved looking at what was in people's gardens.”
As a teen her bookshelves were packed with books about plants.
As an adult she didn't go straight into botany, but wandered the world instead.
“Wherever I was I always made an effort to learn about the native plants,” she said.
She recalled hunting for raw cocoa seeds in Costa Rica.
“When she asked around, she was directed to an elderly man and his wife.
“This old man had baskets of the seeds and gave me a huge bag of them,” she said. “This couple were so friendly. I just started asking them about plant uses.”
She eagerly took up the man's offer to weave her a basket.
“He took me in the back and there was a vine going up the tree,” she said. “When you split it it smelled just like garlic. He wove the basket straight from that.”
In 2005 she was living in Bermuda and working as a sushi chef and helping a friend renovate her house.
“I did that for about five years,” she said. “I got really bored.
“I wanted more of an impassioned life. I didn't know if I wanted to go into Chinese medicine or naturopathy or what field exactly.
“I just knew I wanted to do something connecting nature, our health and wellbeing.”
She found inspiration in an essay by American ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison.
“She wrote about different plants and people's emotional relationship with them,” said Ms Wolsak. “She works in California and has a non-profit called Botanical Dimensions.
“She has a forest garden in Hawaii where she grows plants from all over the world, in among the native Hawaiian plants.
“People send her specimens and she grows them there and documents their uses.”
Ms Wolsak contacted her and they became friends.
“Until I met her I'd never even heard of ethnobotany,” she said. “It was like a lightbulb went off in my mind.
“It's a field that is physical and spiritual, includes humans and nature, is scientific, creative and artistic; all elements I think are essential for wellbeing,” she said.
“Ethnobotany is broad enough to include these dualities, and also provide the kind of knowledge and wisdom that I am passionate about and that I think the world needs right now.”
But she struggled to find the right university to study ethnobotany. It's a relatively new field.
“After looking and looking at different programmes and trying out different courses I realised that I just had to make my own degree and so I entered interdisciplinary studies at UBC in 2015.
“I am partially in botany and partially in anthropology. I have never been satisfied with a purely scientific approach to plants.”
She plans to finish up her masters this summer and then move on to a doctoral degree.
In the meantime she's enjoying meeting up with other like-minded people in Bermuda such as Omari Dill, Ronnie Chameau, David Wingate and Doreen Williams-James.
“I've done so much alone,” she said. “It is nice to meet up with others who share the same interests.”
When she's finished her studies she wants to research, write, lecture and teach about plants.
“I want to facilitate a greater sense of place, knowledge, connection to nature and selves,” she said.
Her lecture Of Fishpots, Bonnets and Wine: The Cultural Legacy of the Palmetto in Bermuda is tomorrow from 6pm to 9pm at St Theresa's Cathedral Hall, 13 Elliott Street, Hamilton.
The event is free, but space is limited.
For tickets see bdatix.bm or contact Folklife Officer Kim Dismont Robinson on 292-1681 or firstname.lastname@example.org