Northwest, USA

Dave Brigante

The surprising floral
explosion of
Camas Lilies

by Dave Brigante
Oregon USA
Click images to enlarge

If you haven't seen them in full bloom before it's unlikely that you will ever forget that first experience. Over a decade ago, I enjoyed my first winter as a fledgling rural property owner by taking in multiple snow events, ice storms, flooding and frequent power outages. While I knew spring was an inevitable occurrence that was still pending, I did not realize what we had lurking in our seasonally moisture-saturated creek bed area.

Camassia quamash
The property where I live is bowl-shaped with forest on one side and a pasture and our house up on the other. We have a partially contrived moist soil habitat with an enormous amount of native Camas Lilies (Camassia quamash) that come up on an annual basis. The vastness of the sky blue wonderland that came to life that first spring was truly an unforeseen floral explosion. There are thousands upon thousands of these bulbs growing deep down in the soil where the moisture level stays constant for practically seven months out of the year. The bloom period here in western Oregon, USA, begins in mid-April and ends in the first part of May.  

The genus Camassia has six different species. The two typically found here are Camassia quamash, also known as Indian Camas or simply Quamash, which is usually found in the western part of the state, and there is also Camassia cusickii (Cusick's Camas Lily) that is found out on the colder east side .

Camas Lilies can also be found in British Columbia, Canada, northern California, Utah, Wyoming and Montana. As spring begins in the various locales they are normally found growing in moist meadows or alongside streams and rivers. The two that grow in this region reach a height of about 2' to 3' (.6m to .9m) and have flower color variations of pale lilac to white and deep purple to blue violet.

The colors produced by these flowers are so vivid that they inspired this well-known quote from the great explorer Meriwether Lewis' personal travel journal in June of 1806. He said, "The quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could I could have sworn it was water."  

As Lewis and Clark became more familiar with the ways of the Pacific Northwest Native American Indians, they came to realize that the Camas bulb was a main staple in their diets. The bulbs were cooked in large pits and provided large amounts of energy, supplying fructose when ingested. It was said that the cooked or dried bulbs were almost as valuable as smoked salmon for trading purposes. The bulbs are harvested after they are finished blooming and can be replanted and divided in the fall. They grow well from seed as well and can come into flower in two to four years. 

A single Death Camas

A "lake" of Camas Lilies

It should be noted that there were systems in place to weed the precious fields of Camas Lilies to remove the very similar looking Death Camas Lilies (Zygadenus venenosus) that oftentimes were found growing together with the common Camas Lilies. The two were distinguishable by their different flower color and size, with the Death Camas being smaller and having pure white flowers. It was easily recognized and removed during the bloom season. The main issue is the fact that the bulbs are practically identical. People and livestock fell victim to this unfortunate similarity if the necessary precautions were not taken.   


As is true of most plants in our kingdom there are natural predators for just about anything that grows. Camas Lilies are no exception to this rule. In more controlled growing environments aphids will sometimes work their way down between the leaves to slowly reduce a plant's overall vigor. Hosing them off with water can be useful or, in situations of heavy infestations, a mild over-the-counter insecticide may be necessary.
The gully where they grow here in Yamhill has become a rich feeding ground for some of our native pests, deer! Last year I'll bet they devoured 99% of the newly formed flower stalks before they were able to open. This was the first time they had done that and it was very disappointing. The deer repellent sprays that I have used in the past on other trees and shrubs have been very effective. I may have to try a bit of that on the lilies this year to try to break the cycle, or maybe I'll just hose the deer the down like I do the aphids, hmmm? 

The next time you are lucky enough to make a springtime visit to the Great Northwest, or if you already live here, and you think you may be looking at a pristine blue lake out in the middle of a moist meadow, take closer look. You may really be seeing a field of Camas Lilies. One last thing, if you happen to see any deer nearby, can you please take a minute to shoo them away? Thanks.   

Gallery of Camas Lilies >

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