Scientific Name: Camassia species
Family: Asparagaceae (the Asparagus family) formerly in Hyacinthaceae (the Hyacinth family) which is now considered the subfamily Scilloideae under the Asparagaceae family
Common Species (well actually all of them, since there are only six):
- Prairie Camas (Camassia angusta)
- Cussick’s Camas (Camassia cusickii) – mostly occurs in eastern Oregon, but can be found native across North America… not a favored food plant
- Howell’s Camas (Camassia howellii)
- Large Camas, Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii) – occurs west of the Cascade Mountains from British Columbia to the Sierra Nevada
- Quamash, Indian Camas, Small Camas (Camassia quamash) – the primary food species
- Atlantic Camas, Bear grass (Camassia scilloides) – occurs in eastern North America. From Maryland to Georgia and west to Texas and Wisconsin.
This North American native plant is most commonly known today as a showy ornamental, but traditionally this bulb was eaten. Camas also attracts beneficial insects and requires almost no maintenance. This was a staple food for Native Americans. While it is unlikely to be used as a staple today, it is a great addition to the Forest Garden and is perfect in the suburbs as an edible landscape plant.
Native and widespread in the western United States and Canada, this was a very important food source for Native Americans and early American settlers. As white settlers brought cattle and swine to the area, many of the very large, natural camas prairies were destroyed. Fortunately, there are a number of Camas prairies and marshes that still exist.
- Camas was such in important food source for Native Americans in the west, that there are a number of cities and counties named for it in Washington and Idaho.
- The flowers can range from white to pale lilac to deep purple or blue-violet.
USING THIS PLANT
- Edible Bulbs – Although I have never tried it, there are reports that Camas bulbs are edible raw, but they are said to have a gummy texture. Typically, the bulbs are roasted or boiled for a long time. In traditional use, the bulbs were pit-roasted for up to 2 days. Similar to sweet potatoes or chestnuts in flavor.
- Flour – cooked bulbs can be dried and then pounded into flour. This flour can be added to cereal flours for bread making. The flour can be used as a thickening agent in soups, stews, and sauces.
- Molasses – there are a few reports of Native Americans boiling the bulbs down to make molasses
- General insect (especially bees) nectar plant
- Ornamental Plant
Yield: Variable, older plants have larger bulbs. Improved varieties also have larger bulbs.
Harvesting: Bulbs can likely be harvested whenever desired. One report states they are best when harvested in early summer. Another states Autumn through Spring. Obviously, this is not a plant that is commonly eaten enough to have consensus on this type of information.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh. Can be stored for many months if dried – some sources state to dry it as you would any bulb (like garlic), and other sources state it can be dried after being cooked, probably in an oven or dehydrator.
USDA Hardiness Zone: Most sources state only Zone 4, but it is likely Zone 3-8
AHS Heat Zone: 8-1
Chill Requirement: Likely considering where this plant originates, but no reliable information is available.
Plant Type: Small Herbaceous Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Underground Layer, Herbaceous Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of varieties available for this plant, but they have almost all been developed for their flowers. Not a lot of work has been done with this plant… well, it is more accurate to say that only a few people have ever put a lot of work into developing this plant for food.
Flowering: Late Spring to early Summer (May-June)
No good information available as we typically harvest bulbs and eat them. Considering that the plants can be propagated from bulb division, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.
Size: 1-2.5 feet (30-76 cm) tall and 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) wide
Roots: Medium-sized bulb
Growth Rate: Fast
Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Moist to wet soils. Can tolerate very wet Winter soils if allowed to dry in the Summer.
pH: 5.1-7.5 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)
Special Considerations for Growing:
Camas prefers moist soils. Other than that, it doesn’t appear to be too picky.
Typically from bulb divisions in Autumn after the leaves have withered. Can be propagated by seed – seed best sown in place in Autumn. Seeds likely need about 4 weeks of cold stratification. Germination can take place in 1-6 months… this is typical for a “wild” plant to ensure continuation of the species.
- As with many wild tubers, Camas may have a high amount of inulin. This natural fiber is not digestible by humans. If not a regular part of the diet, large amounts of inulin can cause lots of gas and bloating. It is best to gradually increase the amount of inulin-containing foods in your diet.
- There are a few species of plant that live in the same areas at Camas which are toxic to humans. These plants, commonly known as Deathcamas, are from at least four different genera, and they all resemble Camas and share the same habitat. It is best not to collect from the wild unless with an expert. Most people just purchase bulbs from a reputable dealer to get a patch growing.