Great Camas is a stunning and iconic Northwest wildflower with a sweet, edible bulb and blue-purple flowers.
The sweet bulbs of the Great Camas are considered by many to be a Northwest native food delicacy. The taste is often compared to a baked pear, fig, or sweet potato, and can even used to sweeten other foods. The longer they’re cooked, the sweeter they get.
Great Camas is also a major source of carbohydrates and very high in protein. It contains 5.4 ounces of protein per pound of root, even more hearty than a filet of Salmon with 3.7 ounces per pound. Bulbs can be eaten immediately after siow cooking, or dried for future use.
CAUTION: If harvesting from the wild, only harvest with expert advice. Especially when not in flower, Great Camas can be confused with another species called Death Camas.
Stunning in flower beds, ornamental borders, and rock gardens, Great Camas is the Northwest’s gift to the ornamental flower industry. For many decades, the bulb has been propagated and sold to flower enthusiasts around the world. The deep blue-violet flowers of the Great Camas are a sight to behold, opening and closing in succession along a 24-48 inch flower stalk. At its base grows a rosette of long, narrow grass-like leaves.
Environment and Culture
Great Camas’ wild home is in wet meadows, wetlands, and moist hillsides up and down the Pacific Northwest. In the last 150 years, since the arrival of Western settlers in the region, Camas has been greatly diminished by disruptive modern agricultural practices, removal of native peoples, and extensive urban development. In certain special places, it can still be found growing along a myriad of other native wildflowers like Chocolate Lily, Tiger Lily, and Leopard Lily, as well as wet-meadow grasses like Northwest Territory Sedge and Panicled Bulrush. This is a very important plant to restore in our region.
Northwest Native American tribes today still deeply value this special plant, a foundational food which nourished their people for thousands of years. Despite great cultural losses, they continue to work towards stewarding and restoring wild populations of Camas throughout the region, both strengthening the integrity of the ecology and sustaining their cultural heritage and wisdom. These strong and recovering peoples and plants deserve our respect, gratitude, and reparations. (Learn more & how to help on our “About Us” page.)
Even in modern Western agricultural systems, Camas has great potential for sustainable gardening and agriculture. In fact, Luther Burbank spent years breeding hybridizing Camas to create bulbs the size of small potatoes. With a little effort, this nutritious perennial could once again be a no-till staple food of our region’s productive agricultural areas.
Harvest, Care, and Preparation
Great Camas is very low maintenance in the garden setting; it’s main unique requirement is it needs to dry out during the Summer months to avoid fungal disease. This flower attracts many beneficial insects, especially bees. However, be aware of deer and burrowers who also like this tasty treat.
Camas should be allowed to grow and multiply from bulblets and seed prior to harvesting. The bulbs are best dug after the plant sets seed in mid-late summer. They push themselves down as they grow and can be as deep at 6 inches. Harvest any seed and then dig deep and give a wide berth. Sift the soil between your fingers to find the white bulb, and any bulblets that might be surrounding it. Replant seed and bulblets.
Camas bulbs need to be cooked at low temperatures for at least 12 hours, allowing maximum conversion from inulin to fructose - making them sweet and sugary like a pear or fig. Native peoples have refined the art of slow-cooking Camas in an earthen oven - a finely tuned skill. For many of us, we will choose to bake bulbs in a slow-cooker on low or in a casserole dish in the oven at 200 degrees for a minimum 12-18 hours, although if possible, its best to extend the time for up to 36 hours for an even sweeter taste. Ensure there is adequate moisture throughout the cooking process. NOTE: Eating without cooking properly can lead to bitter tastes and indigestion. Check out this recipe on a related blog for more details.
Native Range: CA, OR WA, BC, NV
USDA zones: 3-7
Ease of Care: Easy
Deer Resistance: Low-Moderate
Light Requirements: Prefers full sun/tolerates light shade
Soil Type: Any, prefers well-drained.
Water Requirements: Moist-Wet, drying out in Summer (important)