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Remembering the Camas Harvest
A brief history on Camas cultivation and it's legacy for white folks and native folks
For those who don’t recognize this plant, you should - it’s a tragedy if you don’t, and a sadness that we don’t talk about our land more. This plant (and it’s purple flower) is called Camas (Camassia quamash) and it is arguably the most important plant in our region. It’s so important that the town of Camas, Washington is named after it. Just 200 years ago the native peoples were spending their Spring season, on a day like today, finding this flower all throughout the pacific northwest, it was their staple food, as important as Corn is to us.
Wherever you sit today in Portland or the Willamette Valley was almost certainly a Camas field just 200 years ago, and today this plant can only be found in the urban environment in the rare places of stewardship where cultivation of local plants is admired as a curiosity. The picture above was taken at a Portland park, in the very back of one of those “Natural preserve” areas, fenced off, far out of view, where some local seeds were haphazardly scattered around years ago to maybe help the bees or something. Over the next 4 to 6 weeks you will see this flower tucked away in ditches, on the sides of hills, in stray yards, and a few “local native plant” boxes, and scattered nearly everywhere in truly wild zones.
Camas grows all across the inland pacific northwest, from the coastal hills of Oregon and Washington all the way to Idaho, Montana, and the wetter parts of Nevada and Utah. Locally here in the northwest, anywhere human were found in our region they cultivated Camas. The tribes found this crop so valuable that they would burn back forests and prairie lands to propagate it, and the cultivation lands so valuable that wars were fought over it, family inheritance and wealth was based upon fields of Camas. Camas cultivation was so staggeringly prolific that Lewis and Clark noted that “meadows resembled lakes of clear water” from afar because of the purple flowers.
This plant has been cultivated for over 4,000 years, and is almost no where today, and most people have no idea what it is.
What was Camas used for?
Camas was a food preserve. In the words of the Nez Perce:
“The camas (Qém’es) bulb, a staple food of the Nez Perce, is more nutritious than a potato. It is gathered with a digging stick, then roasted, baked, broiled, steamed or dried.”
The natives would collect this plant whole (with the flowers intact) for its root bulb, only separating the bulb when it is prepared to be cooked. The bulb, which is about the size of garlic, can be slow cooked, where it becomes semi-sweet, often compared to a Pumpkin or sometimes a Banana. The natives would mash these bulbs into a paste and let them air dry, then preserve the paste in straw sacks and baskets, where it would be consumed all year long. A side dish high in fiber, there is ample evidence it was served the same way we consume potatoes, often with fish or meat.
When the Lewis & Clark expedition came out of the Rocky Mountains and into Nez Perce territory they were nearly dead from starvation and dehydration, “Nearly all the men were sick.” The Nez Perce fed them Camas, the first time they had heard of this plant. It is reported that the Expedition was so sick and unable to continue that the Nez Perce considered killing them, but a woman named Watkuweis argued to spare their life, as she had lived along white settlers in Canada as a child. Before leaving Nez Perce area on canoe, Lewis and Clark purchased a large amount of Camas for sustainment. The Camas soured while on the river and allegedly made a good beer. Why did they buy Camas and not dried meat? Well, decades later in 1857 James Swan wrote:
"I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass [sic], and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious."
Fun fact: if you under cook Camas it produces a byproduct nutrient that if consumed causes a build up of gas in the digestive system, the Nez Perce called this effect the “Great Wind.” I can only imagine how many fathers entertained their children with impressive displays of camas-fueled flatulence, surely it must have been a common gag.
We know that every tribe consumed Camas as well, it was equally important in their diets and traditions. For example, the Coast Salish people attribute Camas cultivation traditions to their early adoption (in 1820 if not earlier) of potatoes.
It is important to only harvest Camas while it is in bloom (in the months of April & May) and to preserve the purple flowers on the root stock. This is because Camas has a cousin plant called Death Camas indistinguishable from edible Common Camas, with the exception of the flower colors, and indeed it is very poisonous. Death Camas has white flowers, edible Camas has purple flowers. Therefore, if acquiring Camas it must be in full bloom, you must have the flowers on the stock, as the buyer must see the lush purple flowers. The bulb naturally lives only a few inches in the ground, so it’s easily extracted with sticks or small tools. There are many types of Camas with a variety of white and purple combination flowers, avoid these as well and only consume deeply purple flowers as pictured above.
The native agricultural tradition was remarkably straightforward: a plot of land would be identified and cared for by a family group, they would carefully clear the land of all vegetation and then plant wild Camas. In the fall they would burn the fields to suppress other plants from taking root and their seeds spreading. Fire records support evidence of this cultivation practice, with the natives routinely burning large areas of the Willamette Valley, often on a 1 or 2 year cycle, and often a small acreage at time. One can imagine how it this would be in the dry summers of August and September. In the following spring large Camas bulbs would be harvested and the small ones returned to the earth. The plant is very sturdy and resilient, easy to transplant, so as necessary the natives would acquire more camas from wild areas to plant in their farms. The harvesting was done primarily by women across all the tribes. No additional agricultural infrastructure is needed: you don’t need to water the plant or provide nutrients & supplements, it does just fine in this climate undisturbed.
One may not recognize the Native Americans as prolific agricultural farmers, operating on a wide pre-industrial scale, but all the evidence suggests that they had a vast land cultivation practice and a complex system of trade and wealth, with Camas harvesting rights and labor controls being a chief element of power.
You can find many other European varieties of 6-pedal purple flowers on a bulbous plant cultivated around Portland today, many of these ornamentals are Hyacinthoides or Bluebells or other plants within the Scilloideae family, and are often treated as garden weed. These will show up in your garden. These are not edible.
Modern Camas Cultivation
Traditional cultivation of Camas by the Natives was largely replaced by potato cultivation by the 1850’s. Potatoes simply divide more quickly and make an easier harvest. The cultivation of the potato may or may not have anything to do with white settlers, as genetic testing by Salish Sea people shows they cultivated a potato native to California & Mexico, and may have simply traded by the sea, with the arrival of the white settlers being a coincidence. Early settlers at Vancouver Island noted that natives were cultivating the potato before white people arrived.
The botanist Luther Burbank did try to cultivate it commercially starting in 1890 and working on the project for 20 years, detailed in his paper “The Camas: Will it supplant the Potato?” His vision was rather beautiful: edible lawns of Camas throughout the west that one could keep at their home with virtually no maintenance:
I desired to produce plants that would be ornaments in the flower garden and at the same time would grow enormous bulbs that would make them valuable acquisitions to the vegetable garden.
While this vision was not achieved, the dream was not forgotten. In 2014 the Washington State Department of Agriculture conducted a study to investigate large scale propagation techniques.
I have personally tried cultivating Camas and have come across other botanists and gardeners who have an interest. Wide scale and large scale cultivation seems to be difficult and costly, the secret is patience and harvesting a limited number of Camas from your field each year, only the biggest of bulbs from the tallest stocks. So, it’s unlikely that you’ll see your local brewery do anything more than a small batch of Lewis & Clark special “Camas” beer, but I would certainly appreciate them trying.
If you would like to try and cultivate it at home, Portland Nursery has in the past sold the bulbs. You could take the tradition of wild foraging. It can also be grown by seed (seed collection can be done in July) but will not be ready for harvest for a few years.
Enjoy Camas while it lasts
If you want to really appreciate this icon of northwest history, you can visit virtually any natural area today and find this flower in bloom, albeit in small quantity.
If you would like to appreciate it in some glimmer of how it used to be, try the Camassia Natural Area: 4800 Walnut St, West Linn, OR 97068 - In addition, several tribes still maintain private Camas fields throughout our region in order to maintain the traditions.
As you spend your spring outside and come across this plant let it remind you that for thousands of years people have lived here before us. Their treasures are still estranged to us, we’ve arrogantly discarded amazing resources in exchange for something familiar. Every year gardeners and farmers devote a great deal of resources toward the cultivation of foods that can’t naturally survive here, while our own native beautiful little plant, perfectly edible, delicious, nutritious, has to contend to being ignored and forgotten. Our culture is ours to make, and we can make culture by recognizing what we find valuable and distinct about our area, it’s natural beauty and abundance, and I invite you to find a way to make recognition of Camas a part of your Spring traditions.