Herbs & Plants

Blue Camas

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Botanical Name : Camassia quamash
Family: Asparagaceae
Subfamily: Agavoideae
Genus: Camassia
Species: C. quamash
Kingdom: Plantae
clade: Angiosperms
clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales

Synonyms : C. esculenta. Lindl.

Common Name: Quamash, Small camas, Utah small camas, Walpole’s small camas, Blue Camas

Habitat :Blue Camas is native to western North America in large areas of southern Canada and the northwestern United States, from British Columbia and Alberta to California and east from Washington state to Montana and Wyoming. It grows in  the coastal mountain forests and wet meadows inland. Marshy meadows in coniferous forest, to 2300 metres

Small Camas, is a perennial herb. It is one species of the genus Camassia.
The pale blue to deep blue flowers grow in a raceme at the end of the stem. Each of the radially symmetrical, star-shaped flowers have 6 petals. The stems have a length between 30 cm and 90 cm. The leaves are basal and have a grass-like appearance.

The name Quamash is from Nez Perce qém’es, a term for the plant’s bulb, which was gathered and used as a food source by tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The bulbs were harvested and pit-roasted or boiled by women of the Nez Perce, Cree, and Blackfoot tribes. It also provided a valuable food source for the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806).

Quamash is not just an edible plant, it is also grown as an ornamental plant. Even in the wild, large numbers of quamash can color an entire meadow blue-violet.

While quamash is edible and nutritious, it may occasionally grow with Zygadenus species which are extremely poisonous and which have very similar bulbs.

There are eight subspecies:

Camassia quamash subsp. azurea – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. breviflora – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. intermedia – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. linearis – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. maxima – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. quamash – Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. utahensis – Utah Small Camas
Camassia quamash subsp. walpolei – Walpole’s Small Camas

Succeeds in almost any soil. Grows well in heavy clay soils. Prefers a rather heavy loam that has plenty of moisture in spring but does not remain wet over the winter. Dislikes dry soils. Prefers full sun but tolerates partial shade . The dormant bulbs are very hardy and will withstand soil temperatures down to at least -10°c. Quamash is a very pretty flowering bulb that has quite a large potential as an edible ornamental plant . It grows very well in the flower border but can also be naturalised in damp grass. We are intending to grow it in a grassed-down orchard in our Cornish trial ground. The bulbs flower in late spring and early summer and have completely died down by early July so they do not interfere with harvesting the apple crop. The grass in the orchard will be cut in early spring before the quamash comes into growth, but will not be cut again until July. The bulbs will be harvested at any time from July to December and, since it is impossible to find all the bulbs, it is hoped that those remaining will be able to increase and supply bulbs for future years. A polymorphic and very ornamental plant, there are some named varieties. The subspecies C. quamash maxima has larger bulbs than the type, up to 65mm in diameter. A good bee plant. This species can be confused with certain poisonous bulbs in the genus Zigadenus. Plant the bulbs 7 – 10cm deep in early autumn and then leave undisturbed.

Propagation :
Seed – best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. The seed can also be sown in a cold frame in spring . It usually germinates in 1 – 6 months at 15°c, but it can be erratic. Sow the seed thinly so that it does not need to be thinned and allow the seedlings to grow on undisturbed for their first year. Give an occasional liquid feed to ensure that the plants do not become nutrient deficient. When the plants are dormant in late summer, pot up the small bulbs putting 2 – 3 bulbs in each pot. Grow them on for another one or two years in a cold frame before planting them out when dormant in late summer. Offsets in late summer. The bulb has to be scored in order to produce offsets.

Ornamental uses:
This bulbflower naturalizes well in gardens. The bulb grows best in well-drained soil high in humus. It will grow in lightly shaded forest areas and on rocky outcrops as well as in open meadows or prairies. Additionally it is found growing alongside streams and rivers. The plants may be divided in autumn after the leaves have withered. Additionally the plant spreads by seed rather than by runners.

Food Uses:
The Quamash has been a food source for many native peoples in the western United States and Canada. After being harvested in the autumn, once the flowers have withered, the bulbs are pit-roasted or boiled. A pit-cooked camas bulb looks and tastes something like baked sweet potato, but sweeter, and with more crystalline fibers due to the presence of inulin in the bulbs. People have also dried the bulbs to then be pounded into flour. Native American tribes who ate camas include the Nez Perce, Cree, Coast Salish, Lummi, and Blackfoot tribes, among many others. Camas bulbs contributed to the survival of members of the expedition of Lewis and Clark (1804–1806).

Though the once-immense spreads of camas lands have diminished because of modern developments and agriculture, numerous Camas prairies and marshes may still be seen today. In the Great Basin, expanded settlement by whites accompanied by turning cattle and hogs onto camas prairies greatly diminished food available to native tribes and increased tension between Native Americans and settlers and travelers. Both the Bannock and Nez Perce Wars began after Nez Perce became incensed at the failure of the US government to uphold treaties, and at settlers who plowed up their camas prairies, which they depended on for subsistence.

While Camassia species are edible and nutritious, the white-flowered Meadow death-camas species (which are not the genus Camassia, but part of the genus Zigadenus) that grow in the same areas are toxic, and the bulbs are quite similar

Bulb – raw or cooked. The bulb, which can be up to 5cm in diameter, has a mild, starchy flavour when eaten raw, but a gummy texture that reduces the enjoyment of it somewhat. When cooked, however, it develops a delicious sweet flavour somewhat like sweet chestnuts, and is a highly nutritious food. Excellent when slow baked, it can also be dried and made into a powder which can be used as a thickener in stews or mixed with cereal flours when making bread, cakes etc. The bulbs can be boiled down to make a molasses, this was used on festival occasions by various Indian tribes. The bulbs can be harvested at any time of the year, but are probably best in early summer when the seeds are ripe. One report says that the bulbs contain inulin (a starch that cannot be digested by humans) but that this breaks down when the bulb is cooked slowly to form the sugar fructose which is sweet and easily digested. Quamash bulbs were a staple food of the N. American Indians. The tribes would move to the Quamash fields in the early autumn and, whilst some people harvested the bulbs, others would dig a pit, line it with boulders then fill it with wood and set fire to it. The fire would heat the boulders and the harvested bulbs would then be placed in the pit and the whole thing covered with earth and the bulbs left to cook slowly for 2 days. The pit would then be opened and the Indians would feast on the bulbs until they could no longer fit any more in their stomachs. Whatever was left would be dried and stored for winter use.

Medicinal Uses:
A decoction of the roots has been used to induce labor. An infusion of the leaves has been used to treat vaginal bleeding after birth and to help expel the placenta.

The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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