Monthly Archives: April 2014

Appreciating Common Camas (Camassia quamash) during Native Plant Appreciation Week

And we’re off!

Native Plant Appreciation Week began with a rousing start for me! While botanizing at 60 mph isn’t ideal, I love to glimpse the blue of one of my favorite plants, common camas (Camassia quamash), along Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Olympia during my weekly trek.

camas meadow

Common camas, Umtanum Ridge. All rights reserved

The week is full of field trips, programs, plant sales and a couple of garden tours. For more information, see the full Native Plant Appreciation Week listings. Opportunities coming up include:

Field trips to Juniper Dunes, Leavenworth Ski Hill, Golden Gardens Park in Seattle, Iceberg Point on Lopez Island, Dishman Hills near Spokane, Larrabee State Park, or the Wild Horse Wind Farm near Ellensburg.

Garden tours in the Seattle area and at the Kul Kuh Han Garden at H.J. Carroll Park, Chimacum.

Programs on Wilderness Awareness & Native Plants (Duvall), Native Trees and Shrubs for Northwest Gardens (Seattle), and Wildflowers of Bird Creek Meadows (White Salmon)

Plant sales at Bellingham’s Annual Backyard Habitat & Native Flora Fair, and the Central Puget Sound’s Spring Plant Sale and Celebration (Mercer Island)

Here is a celebration of common camas that I wrote for WNPS a few years ago. It was published in slightly different form in The Seattle Times (where you can still see it here).

Plant Profile: Common camas (Camassia quamash)

Why it’s choice: Am I blue? When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first saw meadows of common camas, Lewis wrote, “The color of its bloom resembles lakes of clear water.” Even just a few bulbs of this member of the lily family will bring a patch of sky to your yard.

What it can do in the garden: The clusters of star-shaped blue flowers will come back spring after spring, offering nectar to butterflies and hummingbirds. Combine it in a border with other bulbs, like delicate yellow jonquils or brazenly pink tulips, for a cheerful spring show.

Where to see it: In May, visit the Mima Mounds south of Olympia for a jaw-dropping display of common camas and other wildflowers in their at-risk native habitat — the South Sound prairie. In Seattle, look for common camas in native-plant demonstration gardens at Seward Park and Magnuson Park.

The facts: Enjoy the flowers now, and pick up pots of this lovely bulb at a nursery or plant sale (such as the Spring Plant Sale and Celebration on May 3rd at Mercerdale Park on Mercer Island, sponsored by the Central Puget Sound Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society).poster for native plant sale, May 3, 2014, Mercer Island, WA

Or you could plant the small egg-shaped bulbs in the fall, about 4 inches deep. Drought-tolerant common camas grows best in full sun, where it has plenty of water in the winter and spring but can dry out in the summer.

And hey, can’t you eat the bulbs? Yes, you can, but watch out. While camas bulbs are an important traditional food for native Northwest peoples east and west of the Cascades, preparation takes some doing and some caution.

The bulbs and grass-like leaves of common camas are easy to confuse with those of the aptly named death camas (Zigadenus venenosus), so even though the flowers are different colors, mix-ups and fatalities can occur.

Not only that, but if common camas bulbs aren’t cooked properly, they can cause gale-force flatulence!

In 1825, plant explorer David Douglas noted that:

Captain Lewis observes that when eaten in a large quantity they occasion bowel complaints. This I am not aware of, but assuredly they produce flatulence: when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by strength of the wind.

I hope you don’t get “tangled up in blue” this season, and that your Native Plant Appreciation Week is a grand one. What flowers have you seen? What have you learned?