Camassia quamash

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C. quamash subsp. maxima
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Asparagaceae
Subfamily: Agavoideae
Genus: Camassia
Species: C. quamash
Binomial name
Camassia quamash
(Pursh) Greene

Camassia quamash, commonly known as camas, small camas,[1] common camas[2] or quamash, is a perennial herb. It is one species of the genus Camassia and is native to western North America in large areas of southern Canada and the northwestern United States, from British Columbia and Alberta to California and east from Washington state to Montana and Wyoming.

The name quamash is from Nez Perce qém’es, a term for the plant's bulb,[3][contradictory] which was gathered and used as a food source by tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The bulbs were harvested and pit-roasted or boiled by women of the Nez Perce, Cree, and Blackfoot tribes. It also provided a valuable food source for the members of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806).

The pale blue to deep blue flowers grow in a raceme at the end of the stem. Each of the radially symmetrical, star-shaped flowers have 6 petals. The stems have a length between 30 cm and 90 cm. The leaves are basal and have a grass-like appearance.

Camas is not just an edible plant, it is also grown as an ornamental plant. Even in the wild, large numbers of camas can color an entire meadow blue-violet.

While camas is edible and nutritious, it may occasionally grow with species of Toxicoscordion and other genera in the tribe Melanthieae which have similar bulbs but are extremely poisonous.


There are eight subspecies:

  • Camassia quamash subsp. azurea – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. breviflora – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. intermedia – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. linearis – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. maxima – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. quamash – Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. utahensis – Utah Small Camas
  • Camassia quamash subsp. walpolei – Walpole's Small Camas

Cultivation and garden uses[edit]

This bulbflower naturalizes well in gardens. The bulb grows best in well-drained soil high in humus. It will grow in lightly shaded forest areas and on rocky outcrops as well as in open meadows or prairies. Additionally it is found growing alongside streams and rivers. The plants may be divided in autumn after the leaves have withered. Additionally the plant spreads by seed rather than by runners.

Food use[edit]

The fruits of C. quamash

Camas has been a food source for many native peoples in the western United States and Canada. After being harvested in the autumn, once the flowers have withered, the bulbs are pit-roasted or boiled. A pit-cooked camas bulb looks and tastes something like baked sweet potato, but sweeter, and with more crystalline fibers due to the presence of inulin in the bulbs. People have also dried the bulbs to then be pounded into flour.[4] Native American tribes who ate camas include the Nez Perce, Cree, Coast Salish, Lummi, and Blackfoot tribes, among many others. Camas bulbs contributed to the survival of members of the expedition of Lewis and Clark (1804–1806).

Though the once-immense spreads of camas lands have diminished because of modern developments and agriculture, numerous camas prairies and marshes may still be seen today. In the Great Basin, expanded settlement by whites accompanied by turning cattle and hogs onto camas prairies greatly diminished food available to native tribes and increased tension between Native Americans and settlers and travelers.[5] Both the Bannock and Nez Perce Wars began after Nez Perce became incensed at the failure of the US government to uphold treaties, and at settlers who plowed up their camas prairies, which they depended on for subsistence.[6][7][8][9]

While Camassia species are edible and nutritious, the white-flowered Meadow death-camas (which is not in the genus Camassia, but part of the genus Toxicoscordion) that grows in the same areas is toxic, and the bulbs are quite similar.[10]


  1. ^ "Camassia quamash". Natural Resources Conservation Service PLANTS Database. USDA. Retrieved 1 February 2013. 
  2. ^ Kozloff, Eugene N. (2005). Plants of Western Oregon, Washington & British Columbia. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press. p. 410. ISBN 978-0-88192-724-5. 
  3. ^ Etymology (pdf-document)[dead link]
  4. ^ Doherty, Craig A.;Doherty, Katherine M. Plateau Indians, Infobase Publishing, 2008, p.42, ISBN 978-0-8160-5971-3
  5. ^ The Shoshoni Frontier and the Bear River Massacre, Brigham D. Madsen, forward by Charles S. Peterson, University of Utah Press (1985, paperback 1995), trade paperback, 286 pages, ISBN 0-87480-494-9
  6. ^ Clute, Willard Nelson (1907). The American botanist, devoted to economic and ecological botany, Volumes 11-15. W.N. Clute & co. p. 98. 
  7. ^ Mathews, Daniel (1999). Cascade-Olympic Natural History: a trailside reference. Raven Editions. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-9620782-1-7. 
  8. ^ Native American History: The Bannock War Retrieved March 1, 2008.
  9. ^ Brimlow, George Francis. Harney County and Its Range Land, 1951, Binfords & Mort, Portland, Oregon, p. 102ff.
  10. ^ Pojar, Jim; MacKinnon, Andy. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, 1994, pp. 108-109, ISBN 978-1-55105-040-9

External links[edit]