Nature Alert: Winter Blues Bring Camas Hues

April showers can really give one the blues after such a mild winter. For some Valleyites, these rains have meant flooding that feels personal. Others who were more fortunate, are just tired of feeling cooped up during constant downpours. But once these waters come to pass, all parties can unite in the appreciation of blues of a different sort: camassia, quamash, and camas. 

All these lovely names refer to a gem of a group of wildflowers whose blue-purple petals form remarkable displays in the wet prairies and oak woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, beginning right about now and lasting through June. 

In our humble state of Oregon lies the greatest diversity of camas, with over 65 percent of the named species. Four species and 10 different subspecies grow at elevations from sea level to the alpine, in a climate that ranges from the lush Coast Range to the rugged Hell’s Canyon in eastern Oregon. Here in the Willamette Valley, the two most common species are found: Camas leichtlinii (in common speak, great camas) and Camas quamash (a rather redundant way to say common camas).

Native Kalapuyan who have occupied the valley for thousands of years, use annual burning to control the growth of underbrush and trees. This makes it easier to hunt and also improves growing conditions for edible plants such as camas. Camas bulbs can be eaten raw, but are best when cooked. Traditionally, bulbs are steamed in fire pits for days, creating a brown, soft vegetable, sweet to the taste, or pressed into cakes and dried for later meals. While Euro-American explorers suffered gastrointestinal misery when introduced to camas, they could at least appreciate the display created during their spring blooming. Meriwether Lewis himself recorded that meadows of camas “resemble lakes of fine clear water, so complete is the deception that on first sight I could have sworn it was water.”

Today, camas is much less prevalent due to the cessation of burning practices and habitat encroachment from human development. But hope exists for seeing these mirage-meadows in full bloom again. Across the northwest, camas is becoming a more popular fixture in everyday gardens, and is used extensively in programs to reintroduce native species in wetland and prairie restoration projects. 

Locally, two such sites open to the public come to mind: Jackson-Frazier Wetlands and Finley National Wildlife Refuge. With a range of walks and driving tours possible between the two, you can certainly find a way to get your fill of the blues.

 

By Ari Blatt