Camassia leichtlinii

28 Apr

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The Great Camas, Camassia leichtlinii, is one of the best of our native bulbs, and luckily one of the easiest to grow. So long as you have a good sunny spot for it, it will often thrive and produce more and more flowers each year.

The blue to purple flowers make quite a statement. As one of the signal species of the northwest prairies on both sides of the mountains, and one of the staples in the local tribes diet, it’s not too surprising this is one of the more common wildflowers on the Puget Sound prairies. Luckily it adapts to gardens well, growing generally bigger and more robust in the garden than in its natural habitat. I’ve seen garden specimens pushing four feet in full flower, with twenty or so florets on a single stem, extending the bloom time slightly as it slowly opens from bottom to top.

These flowers are a good source of nectar, particularly for bumblebees, but also for the occasional hummingbird and when they bloom late enough, for the first few tiger swallowtail butterflies when they come out. The bulbs are what native tribes harvested these onion relatives for. I haven’t tried to eat them myself, but the starch in them needs to be cooked under long slow heat to break down the starches into something edible for people, otherwise they are liable to cause dissenters and flatulence.

There is an amusing story that says the early explorers Lewis and Clark, when they overwintered at Fort Clatsop at the mouth of the Columbia River, traded for these bulbs to get through the winter. Apparently the bulbs have most of the party terrible gas, making the stay on the Columbia for the winter rather miserable for much of the party. Now the coastal tribes were used to trading with Europeans by this time, since Russian Fur traders came up and down the coast, and in California Spain had already set up colonies. Hudson’s Bay fur traders were also already in the area. It’s entirely possible the local tribes were either playing a huge joke on the small group, or someone pissed off the wrong person during negotiations, and they responded by trading them half cooked camas bulbs.

Whatever the case, they were amazed to see in spring the fields of camas in bloom, like “clear blue lakes”. It’s hard to imagine now, since most of those camas prairies have been bulldozed in the name of progress, turned into shopping malls, housing complexes, or plowed for agriculture. Nowadays a few remnants here and there are what remain to tell of once great fields of these.

Like many of the prairie plants, camas doesn’t like sod grasses, like the weedy ones that mostly make up the modern lawn. The native prairie grasses like Roemer’s Fescue are clumping grasses, which leave space between the plants for seedlings of things like camas to develop. Sod grasses. Rears a dense carpet, which smothers the seedlings, and in a dry year can create a cap which absorbed most of the water before the camas bulbs are able to get any. Slowly over texture older bulbs die out in sod, and aren’t replaced by new seedlings.

For the gardener, propagation is pretty simple. Camas bulbs divide much like tulips or daffodils. This method is slow, but if you have a nice true blue, or darker purple colored one, this method gives you identic plants to spread around. Seed is also pretty simple, and in fact they will self seed when able to. Seedlings the first year look like a single blade of chives, and are easy to weed out in the garden. But if left, in three to five years will start to flower themselves. I usually leave only a single seed pod on older plants since I want more flowers, and seed production can get out of hand quickly, lol. In good soils, these will get bigger and better each year if not asked to set tons of seed.

Bloom time is usually April into May, usually around Mothers Day. They grow really well in pots, especially when they are younger. Transplanting is easy any time of year, though when in flower I usually take off the flowers once transplanted. Apparently to harvest, natives used a digging stick and would simply flip the dirt clods over. Bulbs of the camas would be stuck to the bottom of the root balls of the grasses, easy to pick out. I’ve used a similar method to dig these in spring to transplant bulbs, carefully teasing the sprout out of the grasses.

Here in the Puget Sound, we have two closely related species- C. leichtlinii and C. Quamash, common camas. For the gardener, the main difference is that great camas puts more energy into putting more flowers on the stem, and will get taller and have longer flowering stems but clumps slower, while common camas puts more energy into dividing and stays shorter with more stems with fewer flowers. Common camas does better in pots, great camas better in perennial borders where it is less likely to get overwhelmed by aggressive neighbors. Given good sun and decent soil, both are great in the garden.

The bulbs are surprisingly moisture tolerant in winter, but prefer to dry out in summer. They will handle some summer water though, just need good drainage if grown in summer irrigated areas.

They may never be as popular as tulips and daffodils, or even crocus, but these late spring bulbs are an excellent addition to any sunny garden.

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