Can I Mess With Some Camas?

Cruising idly down the aisles of a local garden centre, my eye was suddenly drawn to the remaindered bulbs. I always feel sorry for these poor shrivelled critters, randomly scattered in sawdust-lined open coffins, in a state of incipient mummification. Sometimes I take pity on a few and buy them.

On this occasion some forlorn camas bulbs impinged on my consciousness. Oooh. The bulbs of Camassia species were an important food source for native Americans in western North America and are also eaten by bears, gophers and deer. I've been meaning to grow them for years, but somehow have never got round to it. Tell a lie, I have grown them before, but when it came to harvesting and eating them, I flunked.

There I stood, presented with the opportunity to purchase two of the most important culinary species, C. quamash and C. leichtlinii. I knew I had more than enough on my plate, I knew I shouldn't, but my heart went out to these benighted bulbs (plus I was more than a little curious to grow and taste them).

So I bought a few of them. I suppose I ought to issue a warning about not trying this at home - don't do as I do, do as I say. Camas bulbs are definitely edible, but can be mistaken for death camas (Zigadenus venenosus),which definitely isn't. Luckily, death camas flowers are white and have a different appearance to the true camas. I will be checking the identity of this lot scrupulously before consuming them. I chose two blue flowered varieties to further eliminate the chances of misidentification. On the left are the bulbs of C. leichtlinii; those on the right are C. quamash. Having failed to provide a more accurate means of measurement in my photo, I'm reduced to comparisons with other bulbs: C. leichtlinii are about the size of daffodil bulbs, whereas the C. quamash are similar to onion sets. Yeah, a ruler would have been better.

They are supposedly edible both raw and cooked and like Jerusalem artichokes, their carbohydrate reserves are stored in the form of inulin. I bet this has all sorts of advantages for the health of your gut flora. How long before someone starts marketing them as, for example, "the Wonder Food of Washington State, sustainably harvested" ?

Although these ones were looking a little soft and sorry at the time of planting, I have no doubt that they'll recover and I'll get my chance to try this taste treat in due course.

Those First Nations camas harvesters took considerable pains to keep favoured patches free of extraneous objects and brush, often maintaining the camas meadows by burning. It was gardening in all but name. They lifted the bulb-bearing turf in chunks, removed the biggest bulbs and then replaced it. This kind of disturbance favoured the growth and spread of the bulbs. Once harvested, the bulbs were pit roasted, often for several days, using hot rocks in a deep hole lined with seaweed, fern fronds, tree branches and other plant material. In went the camas bulbs and the pit was sealed with more branches, sand and soil. This slow cooking broke down the inulin into fructose, producing a very sweet mass, supposedly tasting a bit like baked pear. I can't yet validate this claim, but it sounds good.

Camas grows well in this part of the country and there's no reason why some of our otherwise unproductive lawns couldn't support a crop of it; in terms of edible ornamentals it's definitely in the first rank. If a bluebell wood meets with your approval, then a camas meadow like this should be a welcome sight. Photo by Jenny A. Moore.
So, in answer to the question posed in this post's title - I can and I will.


Emma said…
I have two C. quamash bulbs which look like they will flower this year. I'm not sure I'm brave enough to eat one - I've read they're tricky to cook properly and, improperly cooked, are not very nice!

I will make sure they have blue flowers though, thanks!
I have Camassias on the allotment, but I didn;t realise they were edible. They're too nice to eat though!
Catofstripes said…
Ha, I tried this years ago, bought my bulbs, tenderly planted them and never saw them again. Don't know if moles and voles had them or something worse than that happened but it hasn't inspired me to try a second time. Good luck.
Rhizowen said…
Hi Emma - seeing as they're full of inulin, I'm guessing they'll have the same flatulence inducing properties as Jerusalem artichokes. That's probably why they were cooked for so long. Perhaps that's how the native Americans prepared their Jerusalem artichokes too.

Robert - they're normally harvested after they've died down, so you could admire them in flower and then eat some of them later on.

Catofstripes - you might have accidentally imported
camas pocket gophers (Thomomys bulbivorus) whose favourite food is, apparently, camas bulbs. I've met carnivores, omnivores, vegetarians, vegans, fregans, fructarians and feastarians, but have yet to meet a bulbivore.
Mark said…
They look stunning. Next the Erythroniums!
Unknown said…
I tried quamash from seed a few years back, but got no germination. Maybe it requires stratification, but I gave up on it. Now, if the garden centre sold rolls of lawn turf with the bulbs already installed...
bella said…
oh my, what a lovely blog you have. looking forward to exploring it more!
Rhizowen said…
Mark - good idea!

IAP - camas seeds definitely need stratification - sow in autumn for spring germination

bella - thanks for your kind comment
Mark said…
Spotted a spelling error in the Tag Camassia quamash. It has been put in with 3 's' instead of two.
PS its the penalty of having been a biology teacher at one point in London.
Rhizowen said…
Hi Mark

Well spotted! It's funny how hard one's own typos are to see. Glad my post has now been peer reviewed.