No Northwestern meadow plant is more iconic than Camassia quamash, common camas. A plant that despite its name, isn’t common, at least not anymore. But it could be again.
Arriving over the Rocky Mountains into the Northwest Meriwether Lewis recorded the sight of vast blue-flowering camas meadows in several journal entries,
"the quamash is now in blume and from the colour of its bloom and at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have swoarn it was water."
By the 1860s and 1870s, many of the camas meadows were already being plowed-up by white settlers, and the careful work that first nation people had done to maintain camas productivity, such as burning was being undone. On Whidbey Island, where our farm is located, the expansive prairies were used for pig farming, with the animals encouraged to churn the soil and grow fat on camas. In fact, some of the old hedgerows on central Whidbey are believed to hold the original fencelines that contained pigs.
Today it’s likely that less than 1% of the original camas meadows west of the Cascade mountains remain.
Despite the monumental loss of camas, and the other plants and animals that co-existed in those meadows, it’s actually one of the easier plants to bring back. Unlike many natives, camas can compete relatively well with introduced grasses that now cover most open sunny habitats in our regions. Camas also happily withstands saturated winter soils and parched dry summer conditions. Various small gentle Andrena sweat bees work the flowers incessantly for pollen in the spring, and you can eat the tubers. It’s the perfect plant.
We establish common camas by both bulb and seed. Each method can yield high rates of establishment success:
Planting Camas from Seed
Camas seed can be surface scattered, or just slightly buried on cleared ground in the fall, even if site preparation is less than optimal, and some patchy grass remains in the planting area. With good seed-to-soil contact, common camas typically has high rates of germination. Larger areas can be established this way with minimal effort, in our case, we have even established camas into residential lawns this way. Expect very slow growth from seeded camas meadows – the plants spend many years establishing their root systems and bulbs before flowering, often 5-7 years later. In the meantime, the slender grass-like foliage can be nearly impossible to spot within a grassy field or rough lawn. We frequently hear of people complaining that they tried this and it failed for them, only to see their surprise several years later when the first flowers appear.
Planting Camas from Bulbs
Bulbs offer more immediate gratification, although even newly-planted camas bulbs sometimes don’t flower until the second year, as they re-establish their root systems. We use a spike-pointed 6-inch dibble bar to plant bulbs, and make our own sturdy waxed canvas field aprons to hold the bulbs while we plant. It’s a fast process, and in wet winter soil, we can plant hundreds of bulbs per hour at the appropriate depth. When planting the bulbs, the sprouts obviously should face up (and roots down), and we simply kick soil over the planting hole to cover it up. It’s common to find small offsets sprouting from the bottom of bulbs, which can usually be gently broken off and planted separately. When planting from bulbs, site preparation isn’t even usually necessary, instead they can simply be plugged into existing grassy fields or lawns where they will compete perfectly fine as long as they are not mowed until flowering is finished.
Using both approaches on the same piece of land will result in a slow steady increase in camas abundance over many years. Continuously adding more seed and bulbs to field year after year will further amplify this effect – producing blue meadows that with a little bit of care, will outlive all of us.
We believe in camas.
(PS – We’re testing the waters with offering restoration tools beyond just seeds and bulbs. If you’re interested in buying a handmade field apron, drop us an email. We make them out of heavy-gauge waxed fabric with sturdy stitching. Aside from holding bulbs, we use them for seed collection, as well as storing grafting knives, notebooks, pens, pruners, field ID guides, and assorted meadow and orchard management tools – it’s easier than stuffing the things you need constantly need into pants pockets or backpacks).