The surprising floral
by Dave Brigante
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.
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
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.
of Camas Lilies
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?