Camassia quamash (Pursh) Greene
Camassia, Indian Camas
Camassia is a North American native. The species name itself, quamash, is from qém’es, which refers to the plant’s bulb, in the nearly extinct language Nez Perce. The speakers of this language, along with many other indigenous peoples including the Blackfoots and Cree, valued the bulbs as a food. Lewis and Clark and members of their party were impressed with both the industrious harvesting and processing of the bulbs, and with their flavor, described variously as similar to that of pumpkins, potatoes, or roasted onions.
Identification: Plants are 24-36" (60-91 cm) high. Leaves are 4-24" (10-60 cm) long. Flowers are an attractive blue or blue-violet color, on racemes (flowerheads) with petals ⅜-1¼" (1.2-3.5 cm) long. Fruits are a three-celled capsule, ⅛-¾" (6-19 mm) long, with 5-10 seeds per cell. Bulbs are ⅜-2" (1-5 cm) across.
Edibility: Bulbs were steamed or pit-cooked for one to three days, a process which converts the indigestible and taste­less sugar inulin into simpler and digestible sugars, notably fructose. When these plants were widespread, they served as a major food resource. Cooked bulbs taste similar to chestnuts. Bulbs may be dried and pounded to produce flour, or soaked to reconstitute them. However, these plants resemble an intensely poisonous species, sometimes called ”death camas” for its similarity, so it is essential to make a positive ID prior to experimenting with the culinary benefits of this plant.
North American Cornucopia: Top 100 Indigenous Food Plants lists this at a top 100 prospect for commerical development as a native food source. Although they are slow-growing and do best in wetter, harder to till, soils, even in their uncultivated form they produced an estimated 20-50% of some indigenous Americans’ caloric needs in the regions where they are found.
Camassia quamash on Wikipedia
Camassia quamash on Plants for a Future, a resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants
Camassia quamash in Paghat's Garden
Camassia quamash at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History (PDF)
Camassia quamash on Wikimedia Commons
Camassia quamash on CalPhotos
Camassia quamash on the USDA Forest Service's Fire Effects Information Database
Camassia quamash on eFloras
Camassia quamash description by Thomas H. Kent, last updated 28 Oct 2013.