As its name suggests, death camus (Zygadenus venenosus) is poisonous. All parts of this native perennial plant, including the seeds, contain an alkaloid (zygacine is believed to be the primary toxic compound) that causes foaming at the mouth, vomiting, lowered body temperature, difficulty breathing, coma and death if ingested. Sheep are particularly susceptible to death camas poisoning, but all animals, including humans, can be affected. Interestingly it has been demonstrated that bees are also poisoned by death camus. For a plant that is pollinated by insects, the possession of an alkaloid that kills bees seems counterproductive.
Also commonly called white camas or meadow death camas, Z. venenosus arises from a slightly elongated bulb that is covered in black scales. As the plant ages the bulb buries itself deeper. Long, thick, linear, parallel-veined leaves are clustered near the base of the plant. The leaves appear to be folded or channeled. The white or cream colored flowers are borne in a dense pyramidal cluster. As flowering progresses the pyramid elongates and the individual flowers become more widely spaced. Each flower has three white sepals and three white petals making the blossom appear to have six petals. At the base of the petals are foul-smelling greenish glands.
Death camus, a member of the lily family, is usually found in dry soils, meadows that are moist in the spring but dry later in the summer and openings in ponderosa forests throughout the Western States. Another “camas”, the common blue camas (Camassia quamash), also grows in the same habitats, often in association with death camas. The bulbs of common camas are edible, in fact, were a food staple for many Native Americans. Unfortunately, the bulbs and leaves of common and death camas look alike. Therefore only when the plants are in bloom (white versus blue flowers and different inflorescence shapes) should the bulbs be picked for eating. I religiously follow that advice. Additionally, a burning sensation occurs when death camas bulbs are touched to the tongue.
References also caution that death camas can also be easily confused with various wild onion (Allium) species whose bulbs are also edible. Although the linear death camas leaves might be mistaken for a wild onion, wild onions have a distinctive “onion” smell.
Because it can poison livestock, death camas is often considered a noxious weed when growing in pastures, meadows or rangeland.
The genus is sometimes spelled Zigadenus. No matter how it is spelled, Zygadenus comes from the Greek and means pair or yoke, referring to the shape of the glands at the base of the petals. The etymology of the species name, venenosus, goes back to Latin and means “poisonous”.
These death camas plants were growing along County Road 87 near Lookout CA.