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Common Camas

Scientific Name:
Camassia quamash
Family:
Native Name(s):
  1. Northern Paiute: pa˙si'go'o (Kelly 1932); tapa'kogi (Kelly 1932); paazigo (Couture et al. 1986)
  2. Pit River: bohwari (Garth 1953)
  3. Klamath: Pâks (Coville 1897)
Description:

Plant

Camassia quamash is a perennial stout, robust forb that grows from 30 to 70 cm tall. Each stem has a singular bulb that is 1 to 5 cm and has a black to brown coat, Its leaves are long, narrow, grass-like and emerge from the base. The flowers are 2 to 5 cm across with 6 narrow, blue-purple tepals. The fruits are barrel-shaped or three-angled capsules that split into three parts to release many black, angled seeds. The species blooms from May to June.

Identification Tips

Camassia quamash is difficult to distinguish from its close relative Camassia leichtlinii. C. quamash has bilateral to radial flowers and C. leichtlinii has radial flowers.

Starch Granules

This species produces sparse amounts of starch. Starch granule sizes are bimodally distributed. One variant is generally round with a centric hila and range in size from 5 to 15 microns in length. The second variant is oval with a highly eccentric hilum, asymmetrical arms and range from 10 to 20 microns in length. 

Habitat:

Camassia quamash occurs at elevations below 2500 m mainly in sage-steppe, most often in wet meadows, wet praries, swales, depressions, annual floodplains, moist hillsides, and streamside habitats. The soil moisture is ephemeral, however, drying out by late spring.

Distribution:

This species grows throughout the northwestern United States.

Ethnography:

Camassia quamash was widely consumed by many tribes. Its roots could be boiled, steamed, roasted, or dried and was valuable because it could be stored over winter and is said to have a sweet taste.

As food

Northern Paiute: "From early spring well into summer root gathering was an economic activity of great importance.  Women went each day to dig ya'pa', tu˙nu'˙yu, mu'˙a', hu'˙nibui, pa˙si'go', and other roots.  These they prepared by boiling or by pit-roasting, or sometimes preserved by drying in the sun." (Kelly 1932:100-101)

Northern Paiute: "Camas, called pa˙si'go'o or tapa'kogi (Camassia quamash Greene), was plentiful in certain districts such as Fandango and Big valleys.  The roots were gathered in large quantities and dumped into an earth oven with a few handfuls of rye grass separating the piles of different individuals.  They were allowed to cook overnight with a small fire on top of the pit.  When cooked, the roots were either eaten directly or else dried, in which condition they are said to have kept well." (Kelly 1932:102)

Northern Paiute: "Early in spring, when the snow was still on the ground, they fished in the creeks and streams.  As soon as the snow melted sufficiently, those camped in Surprise abandoned their winter quarters and crossed to the hills along the east side of the valley, stringing from Cowhead lake south to Poison spring, there to consume food buried the previous year and to dig whatever roots they could find.  All spring and well into summer they continued to wander about, gathering roots which they dried and cached for future use.  Their wanderings did not follow any set scheme; they roamed wherever the food supply seemed most promising.  A considerable range was necessary, however, for roots such as camas are essentially swamp plants, and other such as epos occur only in higher and drier country.  In late summer they returned to the valley to pick berries and harvest seeds.  With the approach of fall, the season for plant foods terminated, and attention was centered upon hunting." (Kelly 1932:76)

Northern Paiute: "Camas grew profusely in the northeastern part of the Harney Valley. At the same time that camas bulbs were collected, diatomaceous earth for body paint was procured in the surrounding hills." (Couture et al. 1986:153)

Pit River: "Bohwari, cammassia (qamash), were cooked in an earth oven.  A pit was lined with rocks and a fire was built in it.  The ashes were raked out and the bulbs were placed on top of a layer of pine needles and covered pine needles and a layer of dirt.  Then a fire was built on top.  After cooking all night they were taken out and mashed and then made into cakes, varying from a foot in diameter to biscuit size.  These were again cooked in the pit.  When done, they had a sweet taste.  These cakes might be dried and stored, being soaked when they were to be used.  They were not made into soup." (Garth 1953:138)

Pit River: "Wild onion (suyi) was cooked together with Bohwari." (Garth 1953:138)

Pit River: "Eagle Lake was said to have been formerly in Atsuge territory, but Coyote tired of the manzanita berries and camass roots which the people fed to him here, so he moved the lake to the Apwaruge country.  Here the people fed him epos roots and treated him better." (Garth 1953:195)

Pit River:  "In addition are found in the marshy areas camass roots, a number of species of lilies, Indian potatoes, and seed-bearing grasses.  Most of these could be immediately consumed or stored for winter usage." (Kniffen 1928:301)

Pit River "[In regards to the Hammawi] From April to June the gathering of roots was the important task…From the drying depressions on the mesa above Tulukupi, from the borders of Madeline Plains, came the paha or epos.  This was dried and stored for winter.  From the swamps came the "tule potato," knocked from the bottom with long sticks when the ice still remained; also the camass root and a variety of tulips, not to mention the tule itself.  Then from the higher lands came the berries: salmon berries, bear berries, juniper berries; with the wild plum and wild buckwheat.  All these could be dried, ground, and stored away for the winter." (Kniffen 1928:305)

Modoc: "The chief vegetable food of the Modoc seems to have been tubers and bulbs, notably camass and ipos." (Barrett 1910: 243)

Modoc: "The Modoc roasted camas bulbs in the ground, kneaded them into cakes, and dried them. Joaquin Miller reported, in this state if kept dry it will retain its sweetness and fine properties for months." (Anderson 2005:296)

Klamath: "Pâks.- The well-known camas, a liliaceous plant with a raceme of blue flowers, narrow almost grass-like leaves, and a bulb resembling that of a tulip.  It is common in the open meadows of the yellow-pine forests, and from its extreme abundance gives to them the popular designation "camas meadows."  The bulbs are gathered in spring, about the 1st of April, and either stored, without preparation, for future use, or steamed in pits after the manner of Valeriana edulis...Capt O.C. Applegate informed me that in Willamette Valley before the days of cultivated fruits the early settlers' wives used camas bulbs in making pies.  The camas of that region is probably Quamasia leichtlinii (Baker) Coville....In gathering camas, a pointed instrument, in the old days usually made of the wood of mountain mahogany, Cercocarpus ledifolius, is thrust into the ground and the bulbs pried out.  A modern camas stick, manufactured by an Indian blacksmith, was made of a bar of three-fourths inch steel 76 cm. (30 inches) long, with a crossbar at the top 12.7 cm. (5 inches) long, the lowermost 10 cm, or more tapering to a sharp point, and bent forward about the diameter of the bar." (Coville 1897:93)

Other

Northern Paiute: "A nice looking pony" could be got in exchange for a sack of camas, but buckskin seems to have been the preferred medium." (Kelly 1932:151)

Klamath: "Teething is not considered a difficult process. The gums are massaged if the child becomes fretful. Otherwise his is simple finding something to chew on—the inside layer of certain barks or a bit of camas." (Pearsall 1950:341)

Distribution Map: