Tuesday, April 30, 2013


Camassia quamash, Camus
Springtime in the Willamette Valley of Oregon is a lush, glorious floral extravaganza.  At the southern end of the valley around my childhood home of Eugene are green pastures and meadows where remnants of once vast Camas prairies are still found.  Camassia quamash is a bulb plant with blue star shaped 6 petaled flowers in the Lily family.  They flourish in the damp clay meadows and pastures surrounded by Oregon White Oak and Douglas Fir forests here and were once a primary food for native peoples.  Being here in late April, it is hard not to pull over and admire the beauty of a sea of blue flowers where the bulbs have gone undisturbed.
Camas flourish in a well managed pasture outside Eugene, Oregon
The plant grows about 12 to 18 inches tall with a cluster of blue flowers that has its greatest impact in mass.  The blue petals have a variety of shades, from powdery and pale to a deeper shade as they age and fade.  Native cultures of the Pacific Northwest based a significant part of their nomadic year collecting the bulbs, which were roasted or boiled for their sweet flavor and nutritious content.  As white settlers arrived to homestead and begin farming the land, a significant portion of the native Camas meadows were tilled or grazed by livestock, depleting this important food source for indigenous people.
Camas and buttercups spangle the pasture on a lightly frosted Spring morning at my Mother's place
Bulbs are still collected by traditional gatherers in the fall once the foliage has died back.  They would be roasted for one to three days, turning black.  A third of the mass of the bulbs is converted to a fructose called inulin when cooked, making them a sweet delicacy for hunter/gatherer peoples.  The roasted bulbs could be dried and ground in to a flour to use in winter for sustenance.  In the fall after gathering the bulbs, prairies were set fire to burn off encroaching brush and forest to provide better habitat for game animals and Camas bulbs to ensure a steady supply of food.  Huckleberries were collected in the mountains in fall as a staple food as well.
A sea of blue
Depending on farming practices Camas bulbs can flourish in pastures and prairies if allowed to grow and bloom in Spring and then die back before a pasture is mowed or grazed.  When pastures are cut in Spring the bulbs will die out and disappear.  It takes several years for a seedling to mature enough to bloom so Spring disturbance of the bulb's habitat has caused a significant decline in the plant's native range.  At my Mother's home they grow in the front pasture that is only hayed in the fall.  I love seeing them when I walk up the long driveway to pick up the newspaper and mail.  I was driving out to visit old friends who live in the country yesterday and had to stop at one spectacular field that was painted in drifts of blue Camas to admire the beauty of the scene in late afternoon light.

Camas can be easily grown as an ornamental bulb in gardens where they will naturalize and form drifts.  They were introduced to English horticulture in the 1850s and are perhaps more prized for their exotic blue beauty there than they are in their native habitat.  There are other species and color forms available in specialty nurseries.  I rarely see them planted in American gardens, which is a shame because it is a lovely flower to behold.  I have one friend who has become very involved in native culture and goes on bulb digging expeditions in the fall to harvest this wild crop.  I have yet to taste one though.  I just admire their beauty and hope that they are allowed to flourish where ever possible to paint the fields blue in Spring.
Springtime in the Southern Willamette Valley
Thanks for reading always, Jeffrey