Cammassia leichlinii

Common name: camas or large camas

Scientific name: Cammassia leichlinii

Plant family: Liliaceae

Description: Perennial herb from a 2 cm bulb. Leaves are basal with a linear-lanceolate shape. Flowers are dark purplish-blue or sometimes white or cream-colored arranged in a simple raceme. Each flower is 3-5 cm. in diameter suspended by a slender bract having 6 sepals and petals; stamens 6 and shorter than the sepals and petals. Sepals and petals twist together above capsule upon withering. Stigma is 3-cleft. Fruits are egg-shaped capsules up to 2.5 cm long. Roots are white bulbs that look like small onions and can be as big as 2.5 inches long.[1],[2]

Habitat and Range: Cammassia leichlinii grows in meadows, prairies and hillsides that are moist, at least in early spring. They are also found along road sides. It can be found in low and middle elevations growing in semi-shade such as in light woodland. It spreads from British Columbia down to Washington, Oregon, California and extends inward into Nevada.

Historical and Contemporary Uses: Cammassia leichlinii has been one of the most important plants harvested of Indians in the Western Interior Valleys. This is because the bulbs are rich in carbohydrates and provided the Indians with a balanced diet.[3] The bulbs are first harvested in March or April when they are most tender [4] and persist throughout the summer after they have flowered and the leaves have died down.2 Harvesting the bulbs was and continues to be a seasonal event and often involved setting up temporary living shelters in which entire families participated. Camas bulbs were historically gathered in large quantities so that they could be of supply throughout the winter and also because they served as a cash crop.  The Salish, Straits, and Halkomelem people traded the bulbs to the Nootka and Nitinaht tribes.[4] According to a Sannich source, a family would gather ~10,000 bulbs a year.[5]

The bulbs were traditionally slow cooked in earth ovens for 10-12 hours in order to make them more digestible to the body. This is because the bulbs are made up of inulin, a long chain sugar that gets broken down into its component fructose molecules when cooked for long periods.[4] The collected bulbs were cooked in a variety of ways.  Some tribes would make them into molasses during festival occasions where up to 50 kg of bulbs would be cooked at a time and the remaining would be sun-dried for trade or storage. They were often consumed as ‘cakes’ which were formed by cutting the roots and compressing them into small sacs and heating them on warm stones.  These were covered with leaves and mosses or grass and left to bake for a night. These ‘cakes’ were stored for winter use and when warmed are said to taste like baked pears. [3, 5]

[1] Gilkey, Helen M. and  Dennis La.Rea. 2001. Handbook of Northwestern Plants. Corvallis, OR: Oregon State University Press.

[2]Plants for a Future Database.

[3] Turner, Nancy J., John Thomas, Barry F. Carlson and Robert T. Ogilvie 1983. Ethnobotany of the Nitinaht Indians of Vancouver Island. Victoria. British Columbia Provincial Museum

[4] Pojar, Jim and Andy MacKinnon. 2004. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Canada:  Lone Pine.

[5] Turner, Nancy. 2005. Keeping it Living. University of Washington Press, Seattle.