When I moved to the Victoria area I had heard about the wonderful climate, the slower pace and the stunning Garry Oaks. Naturally I was curious about everything, but it being the end of October when I arrived I had to wait to see what the spring would bring. I saw the Garry Oaks and waited in anticipation for the drier weather. I explored and read about the native plant and saw the Erythroniums (last weeks post) and then started to notice the bluest of blue Common Camas (Camassia quamash) blooming from what seemed to be the grass at the side of the road.
Common or Early Camas have probably been one of the most important plants in establishing a permanent aboriginal population in the Victoria area long before the area was visited by the Spanish and later by Captain Vancouver who visited in May of 1792 and saw the blue Common Camas fields in bloom. They were first discribed by David Douglas in 1827
West coast native groups were lucky to live in an area of abundant natural food resources and were able to set up permanent settlements. Camassia quamash bulbs were the main starch source for the people here. In fact families used to farm designated areas such as the Beacon Hill Park fields which were full of Commoon Camas. Like we do today they weeded, enriched the soil and harvested the Camassia quamash for a food crop in sustainable way. The bulbs were harvested in the fall and then processed. One favorite method was to pit roast them for 24-36 hours, this produced a it becomes a product similar to a sweet potato except sweeter. These pit roasted Camas bulbs were eaten as soon as cooked. They are a rich source of inulin and fructose a natural type of sweetener. Another method was to dry the bulbs and then pound them into a powder like material to add to thickens stews and other liquids. The other importance was as trade material, in this case the bulbs were dried and flattened into ‘Camas cakes’ for easier travel.
Who would not be dazzled when seeing the brilliant blue Camas fields in bloom for the first time. This is one of the prime tourist spots to go and have your picture taken. Many tour buses every day stop along Dallas Road at the bottom of Beacon Hill Park. Some other well known areas for Camas viewing are Uplands Park, Playfair Park, the Government House Woodlands area below Terrace Garden. Common Camas can be seen along most sunny rural roadsides.
Common Camas species are part of one of the rarest ecosystems in Canada, the Garry Oak meadows which are endangered by development in southwestern British Columbia. Much of southeastern Vancouver Island was dominated by this ecosystem at one time. When settlers came they found vast open Camassia quamash fields already cultivated by the local population. These fields were perfect to introduce European crops to. Over time most of the meadows where turned over to crops and then to housing and commercial development. We are now learning to appreciate the importance of these areas and are trying to protect and reclaim areas from invasive and non-native plant materials.
If you are lucky you will see rare plants such as Shooting Stars(Dodecatheon), Trailing Yellow Violets(Viola), Spring Gold(Lomatium) and the rare Chocolate Lilies(Fritillaria) blooming in more undisturbed sites.
Fortunately for us Common Camas are an easy plant to incorporate into the garden. They require deep well cultivated soil with plenty of water during their growing season in the spring and early summer. Add well composted material when planting them. Full sun is a must to produce good crops of flowers. If happy Camassia quamash will produce masses of seed which will germinate and form colonies for you. When grown from seed Common Camas will take 2-3 years before you will see the first blooms. In the wild there is some variation in the blue shades, but all are spectacular. Bulbs are now mass produced and named hybrids have been developed. Common Camas bulbs and plants readily available from reputable nurseries therfore they should be seen more in gardens.
So Much More to learn About Camas and the Garry oak Ecosystem:
Garry oak ecosytems and restoration: http://www.goert.ca/index.php
Paghat’s notes about Common Camas: http://www.paghat.com/camas.html
Cooking with Camas bulbs: http://mrcamas.com/Cooking-with-Camas.htm
Until We Meet Again Later This Week….