Bringing Back The Wocus, One Plant At A Time

Jul 21, 2016

At one time, a network of wetlands and marshes surrounded Southern Oregon’s Upper Klamath Lake. These were the hunting and gathering grounds of Native Americans. One of their major subsistence foods was an abundant water lily they called the wocus.

Wocus used to cover the wetlands in the Klamath Basin.
Credit Jes Burns / Earthfix

But then came dam-building and the conversion of the fertile wetlands for agriculture. The wocus began to disappear.

The marsh is alive with the chatter of hundreds of birds. They get more agitated as Blake Eldridge steers his small boat near a tangle of head-high vegetation on the shore.

Just a decade back, this place looked like a different world.

Blake Eldridge: “There was nothing out here, just open pasture. And now we see cattails coming up, willows, some tules. It’s really coming around.”

Eldridge works for the Nature Conservancy, which owns this property where the Williamson River flows into Upper Klamath Lake. It was all farmland until the group blew up the dykes, letting the lake flood in and restore the original wetland.

The spire-like tules and billowy willows came in naturally, but there is one native plant that’s conspicuously missing – the wocus.

Perry Chocktoot: “For us in particular, it was the Upper Klamath Marsh – there was 10,000 acres of wocus. It was said a woman could gather her height in a pile in a day.”

But that’s changed says Perry Chocktoot, Jr., Director of the Culture and Heritage Department of the Klamath Tribes. As the wetlands were drained, the lilypads vanished, and the tribes lost a valuable resource. Seeds from the wocus yielded a yellow dye for their baskets. Those seeds also provided a major food staple -- flour.

Perry Chocktoot: “It’s like farina and oatmeal had a baby called wocus.”

The tribes would like to add wocus back to their diet. But reintroducing the pond lily should also create habitat for endangered fish species, says the Tribes’ ecosystems restoration scientist Megan Skinner.

Megan Skinner: “Wocus provides a lot structure and habitat for native species. In particular larval and juvenile suckers out in the lake need cover from predation.”

This is part of the reason the Nature Conservancy is reestablishing wocus in the Williamson Delta marsh. The lily isn’t moving in naturally, so Eldridge and a small crew are giving it a helping hand.

Blake Eldridge: “We’re looking, usually trying to target places with relatively good cover from wind, and a nice soft substrate. If you saw where we harvested these from, it’s in a roadside ditch.”

U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s Christie Adelsberger is working with Eldridge to transplant clusters of wocus throughout the marsh. She stands chest-deep in the mucky water, wearing a bright blue drysuit that’s a little too big and mirrored neon orange sunglasses.

Megan Skinner: “Christie, do you want me to take your sunglasses?”

Christie Adelsberger: “No way.”

She takes a deep breath and disappears underwater – sunglasses and all -- pulling a floating wocus with her.

Suddenly, Adelsberger’s feet shoot up to the surface, thrashing at the water, keeping her top half under. She pins the pineapple-sized bulb to the bottom with a huge rebar staple.

Christie Adelsberger: “Success!”

The crew calls this this awkward dry-suit ballet the “wocus dance.”

Blake Eldridge: “Yeah it’s not pretty, a bunch of flailing about.”

This is the third year the Nature Conservancy has transplanted wocus into the marsh shallows. Some clusters seem to be thriving, sending numerous yellow ball-shaped flowers to the surface. Others haven’t made it, says Eldridge.

Blake Eldridge: “I probably wouldn’t be happy until all the open water in this part would be wocus, but I likely won’t see that in my lifetime.”

Still there’s been enough success that Eldridge thinks it’s worthwhile to keep going, making the wocus dance an annual event.

Copyright 2016 Earthfix.