Blue Camas

Flowers like clear blue lake

Words Kaitlyn Gendemann

Blue camas (Camassia quamash), a perennial lily found in the meadows and valleys surrounding the Cascade Range, was once an abundant food source and valuable commodity for the native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Part of the Asparagaceae family, blue camas consists of an edible onion-like bulb, grassy leaves, and a multi-flowered stalk. Known to colour an entire meadow when in bloom—so much so that Captain Meriwether Lewis once mistook them for “lakes of fine clear water” during the Corps Discovery Expedition in 1806—they can reach approximately 75 centimetres in height.

Foragers must be careful when harvesting camas bulbs: death camas (Zigadenus veneosus), a toxic relative of the common camas, often grows in the same fields. Nearly impossible to identify from the bulbs alone, gatherers must wait until flowering occurs in the spring (April–June) to distinguish the two species; blue camas flowers range anywhere from pale lilac to deep violet, while death camas flowers range from white to beige.

Although not easily digestible in their raw state (blue camas contain high amounts of inulin, a gas-inducing carbohydrate), roasting the bulbs in a pit oven for 24–36 hours allows ample time for the release of natural sugars; the result is a sticky, caramelized bulb similar in flavour to a sweet potato. Camas, derived from the Nootka Indian wood chamas (“sweet”), was often used as a natural sweetener, but the bulbs have also been found to contain high amounts of protein and fibre. Cooked bulbs were regularly dried and stored for later use, making them a popular article of trade among aboriginal groups and settlers in the early 19th century.

Found exclusively within Garry oak ecosystems, blue camas fields were harvested and maintained by the Coast Salish, Cree, Nez Perce and other native peoples in Canada and the United States. Characterized by wet meadows, shallow soils, and shady woodlands, Garry oak ecosystems were once scattered from southern British Columbia to the northern tip of California, but have since degraded as a result of urban and agricultural development. Today, only five percent of Canada’s Garry oak system remains along the southeast coast of Vancouver Island (a region once known as Camosun or “place to gather camas”).

Although rare, blue camas continues to have a significant role in BC’s aboriginal culture and efforts are being made to preserve what’s left of the island’s Garry oak habitat. When the ecosystem was declared endangered in 1999, First Nations and volunteers banded together to form the Garry Oak Ecosystem Recovery Team (GOERT); they have since been working to restore and conserve these unique environments and the rare species that live within them.