Blue Camas - Camassia quamash

blue camas botany with brit

Blue CamasBlue Camas is a beautiful flower that was also a staple food of Indians in the Northwest. Now before you get excited about foraging, let me discourage you. Problem numero uno - Blue Camas when not flowering looks almost totally indistinguishable from Death Camas. As you can probably ascertain by its name, ingesting this lookalike can be fatal. And if risking death is not adequate discouragement for you, do it for the plant itself. Camas' habitat has been significantly reduced by development and agriculture, and it's much rarer to come upon than it once was. So if you do find it in the wild, leave it to grow.

The spike of blue star-shaped flowers sits at the end of a long stalk rising above the meadow, and the leaves are narrow and grasslike. When Meriwether Lewis saw the plant he wrote

"the quamash is now in blume [sic] and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is its deception that on first sight I could have sworn it was water."

I would speculate that the plant might have been so abundant because the native populations were intentionally cultivating it as a food crop. Even if it were to fall short of the definition of "agriculture," they were surely encouraging it through controlled burning to maintain meadows. The Coast Salish had camas beds that could be inherited. Each summer they removed rocks and weeds from the plots, harvested the large bulbs, and left the smaller bulbs to grow.

Camas is a member of the Lily family, and the edible bulb is composed primarily of a carbohydrate called inulin. Inulin is not digestable, but long cooking converts the inulin to fructose. And when I say long, I mean LONG. Somewhere between 10-72 hours worth of cooking. They would dig a shallow pit and lay flat rocks in it, then build a fire on top of the rocks. When the fire had burnt down and adequately heated the rocks, the ashes were then removed and cakes made of the crushed camas bulb were placed on the hot stones. Grass, moss, or skunk cabbage leaves were then placed on top of the cakes and dirt was shoveled on top to create a sort of oven. After the cooking was complete the bulbs could be removed and further dried for storage for the winter.

The name Camas comes from the Nootka word meaning "sweet." But from another journal entry from David Douglas, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, it appears that one might still have to develop a certain tolerance for the remaining levels of inulin in the bulb. He wrote:

 "Lewis observes that when eaten in large quantity they occasion bowel complaints. Assuredly they produce flatulence: when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by the strength of wind."

In summary, a beautiful flower but one that has led to a lot of farting.

Blue Camas

All photos by Helen Scholtz