Camassia quamash, Blue Camas - 6 (1)

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by Joe Arnett

On both sides of the Cascade Mountains, blue camas (Camassia quamash) offers one of the most alluring displays of spring flowers in the Pacific Northwest. When Meriwether Lewis first surveyed this region, he noted this striking lily in stands that to his eye resembled lakes of blue water. Along with its close relative, giant blue camas (C. leichtlinii), blue camas continues to be a signature species of grassy balds in the San Juan Islands, and east of the mountains camas still forms pools of deep blue in dry grasslands that burst into colour in the flush of spring. As in many places that soon dry up, flowering happens quickly, presenting a spectacular, if ephemeral, view.

This species was the most important “garden plant” of the first people here, people who subsisted by hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. However, obtaining camas required more than just gathering. Exceptional camas patches were weeded, periodically burned to keep them free of shrubs, and harvested by the families and tribal groups that tended them. This was gardening, in a real sense, and people developed strong bonds to traditional gathering areas. The Nez Perce War flared when settlers began plowing camas lands to convert them to European-style agriculture.

This attachment to camas was based on necessity: the plant was a mainstay for people east of the mountains and also important in coastal areas. The bulbs are rich in an indigestible carbohydrate, inulin, which is converted to usable fructose by cooking. The food value is high, and cooked material yields large amounts of sugar, approximately one-third of the dry weight of the bulbs.

When eaten raw or only partially cooked, the plants can produce substantial amounts of intestinal gas, as Captain Lewis eloquently noted: “…when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by the strength of the wind.”

Large volumes of camas bulbs were baked in stone-lined pits that may still be found near traditional camas-gathering areas. David Douglas, a famous early botanical explorer in the Pacific Northwest, reported on this roasting process. First, a large fire was built in the pit, heating the stones thoroughly. Then the fire was removed, and up to a hundred pounds (45 kilograms) or more of bulbs were piled in its place. Sometimes other plants, including red alder (Alnus rubra) or madrone (Arbutus menziesii) bark, were added to give the cooked product a reddish colour, and black lichens (Bryoria spp.) could be added to raise its value for trade. The bulbs were then covered and a fire was built again on top. Baking may have extended for up to two days. Cooked and dried bulbs were second in importance only to smoked salmon as a trade item.

To dig camas bulbs and then render them edible required a large amount of labour, performed almost entirely by women. While a man’s attractiveness as a potential husband was based partially on his success at hunting and fishing, a woman was valued for her ability to gather volumes of camas bulbs. An average day of harvest may have yielded a bushel of the bulbs, and it has been estimated that one woman with a digging stick could harvest as many as two tons (2,000 kilograms) of bulbs in a year.

Though the bulbs were traditionally gathered after the flowers had withered, weeding was done during flowering. The primary objective was to remove death camas (Zygadenus venenosus), which often grows mixed with blue camas. With much smaller, white flowers, death camas is easy to distinguish from blue camas when the plants are flowering, but at the time of harvest the two species appear identical. Death camas is well-named: fatalities were not rare. Full-grown cattle have died from eating it, and even mortality of bees visiting the plants has been reported. The poison involved is an alkaloid neurotoxin called zygacine. This provided strong motivation to weed camas beds in preparation for the time of harvest, and anyone eating these plants was well-advised to pay attention to taxonomy.

However, eating death camas is not always fatal. I heard about a young child a few years ago who ate some of the plant, out on one of the remote islands where medical help was not quickly available. Thankfully the child survived. And sometimes there are near misses. One day on a field trip in Deception Pass State Park in Washington we came upon a man and his young son busily digging up bulbs along the trail, presumably to eat. Among the plants they had gathered was death camas. In addition to his behaviour being illegal and inappropriate in park lands, the man’s ignorance could have been fatal. We asked him if he knew what he was digging. “Wild onion”, he replied. We warned him about the danger of the plants he had.

Six species of Camassia are recognized in North America. Blue camas is the most widespread one in the west, ranging from British Columbia to Alberta and south into California and Utah. Giant blue camas grows from southern British Columbia to central California, and two other western species are more restricted: Cusick’s camas (C. cusickii) in northeast Oregon and adjacent Idaho, and Howell’s camas (C. howellii) in southwest Oregon. In the east, wild hyacinth (C. scilloides) is found from Texas and Georgia to Ontario and Pennsylvania. Prairie hyacinth (C. angusta) is less widespread, restricted to the central portion of the range of wild hyacinth.

The words camas and quamash both came from Chinook jargon names for blue camas. Death camas, placed in the genus Zygadenus, is a fairly close relative, though in native languages the names for the plants are not similar; the first people’s system of naming was based on use, not similarity or genetic relationship. Zygadenus and Camassia are both traditionally placed in the Lily Family, Liliaceae. More recent treatments tend to subdivide this family into several others. These genera are included in the “hyacinth group”, which some authors segregate into a separate family, the Hyacinthaceae.

As the name indicates, blue camas blossoms are most often a deep clear blue, borne in showy narrow racemes, and an individual flower may be an inch and a half (four centimetres) across. Occasional individuals with pure white flowers can be found, and there is also regional variation in the flower’s shade of blue or violet. Eight subspecies have been described. Typical of lilies, the corolla consists of six tepals, which in Camassia are nearly all identical. Blue camas is unique in the genus in having flowers that are slightly irregular, with the lowest tepal separated from the others and curving outward from the stem. The fruit is a three-parted dry capsule, bearing seeds that are characteristically black. The leaves are basal and linear, growing from a deep bulb.

Blue camas is apparently still a rarity in modern gardens. I have a single plant in my yard, a survivor salvaged by a friend from a construction site. Reports of success in the garden or in restoration sites are mixed, and I suspect that camas requires very specific soil and moisture conditions to thrive. Where it occurs in nature it is often quite vigorous, growing in dense and healthy-looking patches. If natural settings provide the best guidelines, as I believe, blue camas needs somewhat acidic soils, high in organic content, moist in winter and spring but drying completely in summer.

Reportedly the species grows readily from seed, flowering in two to four years, and commercial sources are available for seeds and for bulbs of plants produced from seed. Because of the increasing scarcity of native habitats, bulbs collected from the wild are not an appropriate source of plant material, with the exception of verifiable salvage efforts.

First Nations people still gather and consume blue camas bulbs, certainly more for their traditional and cultural nourishment than strictly for their carbohydrate content. And modern gardeners appear to have a hunger for the natural beauty of this native species, so rich in tradition and history with the people of the Pacific Northwest.

Joe Arnett has been a professional botanist in Washington State for over 20 years, specializing in rare plant studies, floristic inventories and vegetation analysis. He teaches plant identification through the Washington Native Plant Society, the North Cascades Institute and Bastyr University.