Common Camas

An important food staple of some American Indians was the common camas (Camassia quamash), also known as the blue camas. This early blooming perennial grows from a starchy bulb. This bulb can be eaten raw. However, native peoples would dig the bulbs and steam them in large pits for 24 hours before eating. The cooked camas bulbs are brown, soft and sweet. The carbohydrate in camas is inulin, a long-chained sugar that is not very digestible. Prolonged cooking breaks the inulin down into its component simple sugar, fructose, which is readily digestible. Without knowing the chemistry, the indigenous natives determined how to raise the nutritional value of the camas. The cooked camas was also pressed into bricks and sun-dried for storage later use.

Common camas is found on grassy slopes, non-salty low areas and meadows throughout the West – places that are wet in the spring and dry out by late summer. It can be abundant and turn meadows into seas of blue flowers. The bulbs grow deep (6″ or more underground) and are usually surrounded by grass roots, making them difficult to dig. Occasionally Leonard and I will dig a few in our meadow pasture (Lookout CA), where these photographs were taken. The bulb resembles an onion in that it is formed of layers or “leaves”. The texture is crisp like a water chestnut. Raw camus bulbs have a very starchy, almost mucilaginous, but not unpleasant, taste.

There is a very important warning associated with eating common or blue camas. The white or death camas (Zygadenus venenosus), which is deadly poisonous to livestock and humans, grows in association with blue camas. The leaves and bulbs of the two plants are almost impossible to distinguish. To be safe one should only harvest blue camas in blossom so it is not confused with the death camas.

This member of the lily family has numerous, basal, grass-like leaves with parallel veins. The flowers are pale to deep blue, purplish or very rarely white and occur in a terminal spike. The three sepals are the same color as the three petals, making the flower appear as though it has six petals.

The name camas comes from the Nootka Indian word “chamas” meaning “sweet”.

There are no medicinal uses for common camas.

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4 Responses to Common Camas

  1. Pingback: Death Camus | The Nature Niche

  2. Pingback: Lupine | The Nature Niche

  3. Lin says:

    There is a Camas, Washington…on the north side of the Columbia Gorge across from Portland.
    I’m sure it was named after this plant…there are many Native American names in that area (rivers, counties, etc.)

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