Camassia Bulbs Offer Spring Beauty with American Heritage

This fall I planted camassia bulbs in honor of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark historic expedition that started in 1804. I always think of them when I see a field of the blue flowers so I thought I would try growing them this year. Mine is a cultivar called ‘Blue Melody’ but of course they were dealing with the wild species Camassia quamash.

Like daffodils and tulips, these bulbs are planted in the fall, and bloom in the spring. The foliage is about one foot tall, and the star-shaped, two-inch blossoms are borne on spikes, opening from the bottom of the spike to the top. As spring turns to summer, the foliage fades so other plants should be grown in that space for the remainder of the growing season.

Unlike daffodils and tulips, camassia bulbs prefer moist soil in full to partial sun and do not make good container plants. Sometimes called wild hyacinth, Indian hyacinth, or quamash, these native plants can be seen at the edge of the woods or in moist meadows The plants are hardy to Zone 4 and are deer and rodent resistant. If they like their accommodations they may multiply. There are lots of cultivars and species with yellow, pink, blue, white, or purple flowers.

The camassia plant was an important food staple for Nez Perce in Idaho. The bulbs were roasted, boiled, or dried and pounded into a flour-like substance. This plant contributed to the survival of the Lewis and Clark expedition members. In the early 1800s, the hungry group walked out of Bitterroot Mountains and entered the home of the Nez Perce who fed them with berries, dried buffalo and salmon, and a bread prepared from the camassia root. Meriwether Lewis wrote about the plant extensively and described the technique for collecting and preparing the roots. In fact, the dried, pressed plant parts collected by the expedition are in a museum.

I love the fact that a beautiful flowering bulb has so much history and practical use. Even more interesting is that the tribal women managed the cultivation of this crop. They did not forage, they purposely managed the camassia meadows by using fire to prevent trees from encroaching. They knew the value of the camassia plant as food for their families.

Try growing this bulb for beauty in your garden. It comes with a good story. These photos are courtesy of John Scheepers Beauty from Bulbs, a reputable online source of bulbs. For additional bulb sources, click here

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