Camas serve double duty - with exceptional beauty and an exotic taste.
Many modern gardeners expect more from their plants than just one function. Two easy-to-grow native bulbs - great camas and common camas - certainly serve double duty; they are both exceptionally beautiful and make an exotic taste treat. In fact, camas (Camassia sp.) bulbs once provided a staple and reliable form of sustenance to many people existing on drier stretches of North America's northwest coast.
A camas plant consists of an oval bulb, somewhat fleshy, grass-like leaves and a tall stalk of flowers. The bulbs are constructed from densely packed, fleshy leaf bases and are covered in a black to brown tunic. They range from 1.5 to 3.5 centimetres across to two to five centimetres long. In the wild, bulbs occur singly, but in a well-fed garden you may encounter hand-sized clusters. Tough cord-like roots penetrate into the soil from the bulb base. In spring, several narrow, slightly folded leaves rise erect from the bulb, but later become lax, reaching 50 to 60 centimetres long. A stiff flower stalk rises smartly among the leaves. Great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) sports a flower stalk that may reach 100 centimetres, whereas common camas (C. quamash) stands 80 centimetres or less. Several blooms are loosely dispersed around the upper part of the stem. Perched at the end of a stalklet, each flower faces outward. Six narrow "petals" (technically, three petals and three coloured sepals) form the showy bloom. From its centre protrude six spidery stamens and a single prominent pistil. The petals of great camas radiate evenly around the centre of the flower. However, those of common camas are arranged such that five of them cluster toward the upper half of the floral circle and the sixth one swoops down and out. Flower colour ranges from a pale bluish hue to intense dark purple.
On rare occasions, white-flowered stalks are also to be found in the wild. Common camas begins to flower in March in Victoria, while great camas begins blooming about two weeks later. Flowers open progressively up the stem, extending the blooming interval into April and May. In colder inland locations bloom time extends from May to June. The fruit matures during the summer into an elongated rattle-like capsule full of shiny black seeds.
The range of the hardier common camas extends from Vancouver Island across southern B.C. to Alberta and south to California. It thrives in moist meadows, prairies and grassy clearings. Look for it on rocky knolls and near oak trees in the Victoria area. Great camas grows west of the Cascade Mountains from Vancouver Island to the Sierra Nevada of California. It abounds on the east side of Vancouver Island in pockets of rich soil at the base of rocky knolls and natural clearings in the woods, and you may see it thriving in dry roadside ditches. By the mid-1800s the English had recognized the garden value of camas. Then Dutch growers selected several varieties, including the white and creamy-flowered types that are widely available today. These mollycoddled selections, mostly of common camas and Cusicks camas (Camassia cusickii), grow vigorously in the traditional garden situation, but do not have the natural charm of the wild species. Grow common camas in an open sunny site with rich, sandy organic soil that dries out in the summer, such as a pocket in the rock garden or the front of a dry flower border. The more-robust great camas prefers a modestly deep, rich soil in full sun, at the edge of shade or under a deciduous canopy. Despite being dry-site plants, both species can tolerate winter soaking as long as they dry out in summer. Plant bulbs about 10 centimetres (to the top) deep, in soil pre-fertilized with bone meal, then leave in the ground for years of bloom. Camas are exceptionally easy to grow from seed and will sow themselves naturally as long as the soil is not disturbed. Collect seeds as soon as they rattle in their capsule, or even slightly earlier.
If you have lots of seed, simply sow them in the fall wherever you want them to grow. Otherwise, sow in peat pellets or a mixture of one part potting soil, one part perlite and one part peat moss. Leave the sowed seeds outside over the winter and they will germinate happily and abundantly in spring. Transplant after one or two years, but not later because the bulb eventually takes on a pencil-like form and plunges deep into the soil. For the wild gardener, just scatter the seed in an open grassy place in the fall and look for camas flowers to appear about five years later. First Nations peoples of our region collected, consumed and traded camas bulbs. Gatherers would venture out in early summer when the camas was in its capsule stage and could be distinguished from the similar-looking but inedible death camas (Zigadenus venenosus). The creamy-white, small-flowered heads of death camas are easy to recognize when in bloom, but underground bulbs can be difficult to identify. For this reason, never consume camas bulbs from the wild.
First Nations people would bring sacks bulging with bulbs to great cooking pits that had been dug in the soil and lined with hot rocks. Cooking lasted a day, during which time the bulbs would turn soft and brown, while inside, they developed a buttery texture and delicious flavour like sweet chestnuts. For something new this year, try a camas patch in your garden. Enjoy its beauty and if, after a few years, you have bulbs to spare, slowly steam a handful in the oven or fireplace and enjoy a little taste of our local history. An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.