Camas

Common camas - Photo by Walter Siegmund

Common camas – Photo by Walter Siegmund

Great camas - Photo by Epibase

Great camas – Photo by Epibase

Meadow death-camas - Photo by Walter Siegmund

Meadow death-camas – Photo by Walter Siegmund

Common names: common camas, great camas, and meadow death camas

Scientific names: Camassia quamash (Pursh) Greene, C. leichtlinii (Baker) S. Watson, Zygadenus venenosus S. Watson  

Family: Liliaceae (lily family)

PLANT DESCRIPTION

Common – common camas is a perennial herb that arises from a deep, egg-shaped bulb. Its leaves are numerous and basal; they resemble grass. The flowers are usually pale to deep blue but can be white; 5 or more flowers occur in a terminal spike. The flowering stalks are taller than the leaves. The fruit of common camas is an egg-shaped capsule with a stalk that curves inwards toward the stem. Great – great camas can be distinguished from common camas using flower characteristics. The tepals of great camas gradually twist together to protect the maturing fruit while common camas has 5 tepals that curve upwards and one the curves downwards.

Meadow death – meadow death-camas is also a perennial however it grows from an oval bulb covered with blackish scales. Its leaves are similar to common camas; while mainly basal they can occur up the stem, unlike common camas. The flowers of meadow death-camas are creamy-white with a shape that resembles a bell or saucer; they are smaller than the flowers of common camas. Green glands that emit a foul odour are present at the base of the petals. Numerous flowers occur in somewhat compact terminal clusters. The fruit is a cylindrical capsule.

FOOD AND MEDICINAL USES

Common/great – An important staple food for First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest, especially the coast; the bulbs were consumed whenever available. The bulbs were pressed into small bricks and steamed in pits, usually for 24 hours. The cooked bulbs were sweet and therefore often used as a sweetener. They could be eaten immediately or sun-dried and stored or used in trade. The bulbs were not consumed raw. The Thompson combined camas and black tree lichen into cakes; these cakes as well as plain dried camas bulbs were considered winter foods.

Meadow death – The entire plant is DEADLY POISONOUS if consumed. The Chehalis and Squaxin used death camas as a violent emetic (induces vomiting). It was also used in poultice form to soothe sprains, bruises, boils, rheumatism and pain in general. For example, the Thompson would roast or bake the bulbs, mash and mix them with water and grease, then apply them to broken bones and painful areas. Dried powder alone could be rubbed on affected parts.

General disclaimer: It is recommended that individuals seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. The University of British Columbia is not responsible for any adverse effects that might result from the use of this plant.

OTHER USES

Meadow death:

  • The bulbs were used as part of a grouse-hunting charm. A man whose daughter had just reached puberty was believed to be unsuccessful in trapping and hunting for a month; making a charm would allow him to snare grouse. The charm was made as the daughter was reaching puberty. To make the charm a grouse had to be snared and decapitated; two bulbs were then put in place of its eyes and one in its mouth.

INTERESTING POINTS

Common/great:

  • An 1806 journal entry by Meriwether Lewis hints to the existence of vast expanses of camas prior to agriculture and urbanization that resembled water. Lewis also stated that consuming large amounts resulted in “bowel complaints”.
  • For the Vancouver Island Coastal Salish bulb harvest lasted several weeks. Temporary shelters were built and entire families would participate. Pointed sticks were used to dig up bulbs; the larger were taken while the smaller were left to continue growing. They were harvested after flower production to avoid confusion with meadow death-camas.
  • The Vancouver Island Coast Salish are known to practice “semi-cultivation” of camas.
  • Beds of camas could be owned and inherited. Each season controlled burning was often used to control weeds (especially death camas) and brush while stones were removed by hand. Large beds existed on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
  • Camas does not grow in Thompson territory or in the Fraser Valley; the Thompson most likely obtained dried bulbs through trade with peoples from north central Washington (possibly from Vancouver Island Coast Salish).
  • The majority of the bulb’s carbohydrates are in the form of inulin, which does not break down readily in the body. The lengthy cooking period, mentioned above, was required in order to break down the inulin into digestible fructose molecules. This process increased the amount of available calories.
  • Some steaming pits were large enough to cook around 50kg of bulbs.
  • Common camas is also known as blue camas, small camas and early camas (because it flowers a few weeks before great camas).
  • Great camas is also known as large camas and Sagebrush Mariposa Lily.
  • Considered an ornamental plant by settlers, they shipped it back east and even to England. Collection of wild plants is no longer recommended.

Meadow death:

  • Both the bulbs and leaves are poisonous to humans and grazing animals; they produce a burning sensation when touched to the tongue. Consumption results in dizziness, vomiting, decreased body temperature, breathing issues and eventually coma.
  • Several complex alkaloids are responsible for the poisonous nature of death camas.
  • Consuming large amounts of salmon oil was the only remedy that the Thompson knew of to combat the poison.
  • Zygadenus means “joined glands” and refers to the pairs of glands within the flowers.
  • Meadow death-camas is also known as grass-leaved death-camas and death camas.

LOCATION IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

Common – Grows on grassy slopes and meadows at low to mid elevations; only in rainshadow climates (moist meadows that become dry by late spring. Common camas ranges from British Columbia to California and as far east as Montana and Wyonming.

Great – Found in similar habitats over a similar range to common camas; it is not however as abundant.

Meadow death – Found at low to sub-alpine elevations in sparse forests and along forest edges, grass or rock-covered slopes, and during the spring, in damp meadows. Meadow death camas’ range stretches east into Alberta and south down to Utah, Nevada, and California. It is common in southern British Columbia, particularly along the coast.

LOCATION IN UBC

Unknown

For more information on common camas visit E-Flora BC: http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Camassia%20quamash&redblue=Both&lifeform=7

For more information on great camas visit E-Flora BC: http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Camassia%20leichtlinii&redblue=Both&lifeform=7

For more information on meadow death-camas visit E-Flora BC: http://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Zigadenus%20venenosus&redblue=Both&lifeform=7

SOURCES

Pojar, J. & Mackinnon, A. (1994). Plants of Coastal British Columbia: including Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Publishing.

Turner, N.J., Thompson, L.C., Thompson, M.T., & York, A.Z. (1996). Thompson Ethnobotany: Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Victoria, BC: Royal British Columbia Museum.

Holmes, R. (2010). Celebrating wildflowers – Plant of the Week. United States Department of Agriculture: Forest Service. Retrieved from http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/camassia_quamash.shtml

Photo credits

Epibase (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c3/Camassia_leichtliniiCaerulea1abb.UME.jpg

Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Camassia_quamash_6380.JPG

Walter Siegmund (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4c/Zigadenus_venenosus_5657.JPG

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