Saturday, May 4, 2013

Le Camas

In his book, Trees and Shrubs: Food, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of British Columbia, [Victoria: Banfield, 1925] James Robert Anderson -- eldest son of A. C. Anderson -- described the two kinds of Camas that bloomed every May in the oak meadows that surrounded Fort Victoria:

"It is commonly called Camas or Le Camas and so the name has degenerated into Lickomas amongst those who are ignorant of the origin of the name. It is a bulbous plant, bearing a spike of beautiful blue flowers, from 6 to 12 inches in height, belonging to the Lily family. The bulb, which is about the size of a small Hyacinth, is a common article of food among the Indian tribes of North America.

"I am not aware of the limits of the territory in which it grows, but certainly in British Columbia, with which I am at present dealing, it is common everywhere where the land is sufficiently clear of trees and the soil rich enough, a rich black loam in open country being its natural habitat. The women go out when the plant is in bloom and with long, sharp, slightly curved and flattened, tough sticks dig up the bulbs, which are from 4 to 5 inches in the ground. These are conveyed to a kiln, 10 feet or less in diameter, and there cooked, after which the bulbs are divided among the contributors, who place them in baskets and store them away for future use. 

"In a raw state the Camas is perfectly white, very glutinous, sweet, with an aromatic and pleasant flavour. The kilns of which I speak are hollows in the ground from 2 to 3 feet in depth, the bottoms of which are filled with large stones, on which fires are built until the stone become red hot. Grass is then placed on the stones, on the grass the Camas is heaped, and in turn covered over with grass and mats, and earth heaped over all. The Camas is allowed to remain in the kiln for several days or until it is quite cold, when, as I said before, the bulbs are divided up. This, before the use of iron utensils became known, was a very common mode of cooking. Besides Camas, other roots were cooked in the same way."

Botanist Nancy J. Turner, in her book Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples [Royal BC Museum Handbook], accurately describes these two flowers, see below:
I saw camas in bloom in Beacon Hill Park a few weeks ago, and so I think those are the Common Camas, while the ones that are just beginning to bloom outside my window are the larger Great Camas -- I hadn't know that till now.
Next year I will be sure to get photos of the earlier Beacon Hill Park flowers, so we can, perhaps, see the difference.

But for now, this is how Ms. Turner describes the camas:
"These [two] species of camas are herbaceous perennials with large, glutinous bulbs, 1.5 to 3 cm. thick and 2 to 4 cm. long, covered by a membranous brown skin. The grass-like leaves are basal, 10 to 20 mm broad and 20 to 40 cm long. The flower stems are 30 to 50 cm long, bearing a loose terminal cluster of showy blue blossoms in late spring. Great Camas (C. leichtlinii) is generally larger and stouter than the Common Camas (C. quamash) and blooms two or three weeks later."

Both camas are common to southeastern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
Great Camas may also grow on the west side of the Cascade Mountains, but the Common Camas blooms in the Columbia Valley south of Castlegar and in parts of eastern Washington and Idaho.
Young James would have seen the camas there as a twelve-year old, when he lived with his father at Fort Colvile.
The Common Camas is the plant that early fur trader David Thompson would have known.
I call these fur traders' flowers, and that is why I use their images on both my Twitter and Facebook page.
I wait for them every spring -- so, too, did the David Thompson and the fur traders in the Kootenays, Idaho and Eastern Washington.

From Jack Nisbet's book, Sources of the River, I quote:

"On a fall day in 1809, [David] Thompson had stopped at a bend in the Pend Oreille River to smoke with a small group of Kalispel Indians led by a good-natured old chief. In his diary it amounts to nothing more than a brief exchange: "The oldest man according to custom made a speech & a Present of 2 Cakes of root Bread about 12 lb. of roots & 2 1/2 dried Salmon..." The Kalispel chief has presented the surveyor with his first basket of roasted camas bulbs. They would become one of his trail staples, a food that made his belly grumble but kept it full. Thompson had saved some of these roots, and from his desk in 1847, when he was seventy-seven years old, he could take time to savor the moment, to focus his rheumy eye on a few small tubers."

Nisbet continues with the lines that David Thompson wrote: "These Roots are about the size of a Nutmeg, they are ... near the surface, and are turned up with a pointed Stick, they are farinaceous, of a pleasant taste, easily masticated, and nutritive, they are found in the small meadows of short grass, in a rich soil, and a short exposure to the Sun dries them sufficiently to keep for years. I have some beside me which were dug up in 1811 and are now thirty-six years old and are in good preservation ... but they have lost their fine aromatic smell."

"As he sniffed the camas roots, Thompson transported himself back to the blue-petaled meadows of the Pend Oreille, and the shriveled relics on his desk brought back the taste of the whole place..."

Camas bulbs were a staple food for the Coast Salish on southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands. "Although the natural range of camas in the interior is extremely limited," Nancy Turner writes in her book, Food Plants of Interior First Peoples, "its distribution was significantly increased through trade with aboriginal groups of Washington, Idaho and Montana, where it was a staple food. Hence it was known not only to the Kutanaxa but also, at least in dried form, to the Okanagan, Nlaka'pamux and southern Secwepemc of British Columbia."

At one time I had a description of a fire pit for camas in the Thompson River district -- and after quite a search I finally found it.
This description is included in "Notes on the Shuswap People of British Columbia," by George M. Dawson, in Transactions of Royal Society of Canada,

In the section labeled "Plants used as Food or for Other Purposes," Dawson wrote:
"Several native roots still constitute notable items in the food of the Shuswaps, though their importance in this respect has much decreased since flour and other farinaceous foods have become common, and particularly since the cultivation of the potato has become customary among the Indians.
"Roots are always dug and cooked or cured by the women.
"In digging the roots a pointed stick about four feet in length, with a crutch-shaped handle, is used.....

"In some places on that part of the Columbia which is included in the territory of the Shuswaps, the camass (Camassia esculenia) is abundant, and forms an important article of diet.
"This following excellent description of the mode of cooking the camass in this district is given by Mr. J. M. Macoun.
"It will serve equally to explain this process of cooking roots of other kinds: --
""The bulbs were collected by the Indians before the seed was fully matured, at which time they consider them at their best.
"The party I speak of had between twenty and twenty-five bushels of them at the lowest estimate.
"For two or three days before cooking was begun, the women of the party were engaged in cutting and carrying to camp branches of the alder and maple.
"Several bundles of the broad leaves of skunk cabbage, and two or three of the black hair like lichen that grows in profusion on Larix occidentalis (Larch?), had been brought with them.
"Everything being ready, the men of the party cut down a huge pine for no other object, apparently, than to obtain its smaller branches, as no other portion of it was used.
"A hole about ten feet square and two deep was then dug in a gravelly bank near the lake shore, which was filled with broken pine branches.
"Upon these were piled several cords of dry cedar and pine, and this was covered over with small boulders.
"The pile was then lighted in several places, and left  for some hours to take care of itself.
"When the Indians returned to it the stones lay glowing among a mass or embers.
"The few unburnt pieces of wood which remained near the edge were raked away, and the women with wooden spades banked up the sides of the pile with sand, throwing enough of it over the stones to fill up every little crevice through which a tongue of flame might be thrust up from the coals that still burned beneath the stones.
"Then the whole was covered with the maple and alder boughs to the depth of a foot ore more after they had been well trampled down.
"Over these were placed the wide leaves of the skunk cabbage until every cranny was closed.
"Sheets of tamarac bark were then spread over the steaming green mass, and upon these the bulbs were placed.
"About half of them were in bark baskets closed at the mouth, and each holding about a bushel and a half.
"These were carried to the centre of this pile.
"The lichen of which I have spoken was then laid over the unoccupied bark, having been well washed first, and over it were strewn the bulbs that remained.
"The whole was then covered with boughs and leaves as before and roofed with sheets of bark.
"Upon this three or four inches of sand was thrown, and over all was heaped the material for another fire, larger even than the first one.
"When this was lighted the sun was just setting, and it continued to burn all night.

"The next morning our camp was moved away, and I was unable to see the results of the day's labour.
"I was told, however, by one of the Indians who could speak a little English, that their oven would be allowed a day in which to cool, and that when opened the bulbs in the baskets would have 'dissolved to flour' from which bread could be made, while those mixed with the lichen would have united with it to form a solid substance resembling black plug tobacco in colour and consistency, which could be broken up and kept sweet for a long time."
This method of cooking differs from others in this post, as you will see.
It also appears that this last, written by J.M. Macoun, was published in Garden and Forest, July 16, 1890.

Turner has much more information in her book Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, because, of course, the camas grows on the coast more than it does in the BC interior, excepting the Kootenays.
And all this is new to me!
"Camas bulbs were a staple article of diet for many indigenous groups of the northwestern United States and were also widely used in British Columbia in areas where they were obtainable. 
"They were especially important to the Coast Salish of southern Vancouver Island, but were eaten to a lesser extent by the mainland Halq'emeylem, Squamish, Sechelt, Comox, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka'wakw.....
"Methods of collection and preparation of the bulbs vary according to tradition, but most groups dug up the bulbs during or after flowering, between May and August, and steamed them in pits.... 
"Among the Vancouver Island Coast Salish, aboriginal harvesting and crop maintenance practices for camas can be termed semi-agricultural. 
"Large areas around Victoria, such as the grasslands of Beacon Hill Park, and the small islands off the Saanich Peninsula, were frequented each year by the Saanich and Songhees peoples. 
"They divided the camas beds into individually owned plots, passed from generation to generation. "Each season, the families cleared their plots of stones, weeds and brush, often by controlled burning. 
"Harvesting took several days, with entire families participating. 
"The harvesters systematically lifted out the soil in small sections, removed the larger bulbs and replaced the sod.
Even in this century, families would collect four to five potato-sacks full at a time; most of these would be used for a communal feast upon returning to the villages."

Now she describes the pits the camas were cooked in -- and it is the same, but also differs, from the descriptions I have already given you:
The Natives "cooked the bulbs in steaming pits usually 1 to 2 metres across and almost a metre deep.
"The cooks lit a fire in the bottom and allowed it to burn until the rocks lining the pit were red hot.
"After removing the ashes, they levelled the bottom of the pit and placed seaweed, blackberry and salal branches, fern fronds or Grand Fir boughs in the pit.
"Then they added the camas bulbs -- as much as 50 kg at a time.
"Sometimes they mixed them with Red Alder or Arbutus bark to give the bulbs a reddish colour.
"Finally, they covered the pit with more branches, then with soil or sand and old mats or sacking.
"Water was poured in through a hole made with a stick, and the bulbs were allowed to steam for a day and a half."

"When cooked," Nancy Turner finishes her story, "Blue Camas bulbs are soft, brownish and sweet.  They were often used to sweeten other foods, such as Soapberries, in the days before sugar was available.
"Contrary to popular belief, the bulbs do not contain starch, but a complex sugar known as inulin -- the same substance found in the roots of the Spring Sunflower and Jerusalem Artichoke. 
"Slow cooking promotes the conversion of inulin to its component units of fructose, a sweet, digestible sugar.
"This is why cooked camas bulbs taste sweet."

So now you know.
You can purchase these bulbs for planting in some gardening stores.
However, I have friends that planted many at great expense on their island property, and not one came up.

In his above mentioned book, Trees and Shrubs, A. C.Anderson's son, James, also talked of the Death Camas, or what he called Zygadenus venenosus.
In the Poisonous Plants section of the book, he writes this about the bulb:
"This is the variety which grows about Victoria in company with the real Camas; it also occurs quite commonly in the open parts of the Province... Both have the same grass-like leaves as the ordinary edible Camas, but are to be distinguished by the colour of the flowers, the former being of a yellowish-white, whilst those of the edible Camas are blue. Nevertheless, care has to be exercised by the natives in digging up the bulbs of the edible Camas on account of the resemblance of the bulbs. This is a well-known poisonous plant both to human beings and animals, the poison being contained both in the leaves and bulbs. According to United States reports, in the State of Montana 3,030 sheep were poisoned in 1900, of which 21 per cent died. Experiments in the United States show the poison to be an alkaloid related to the violent poison of hellebore. One-fiftieth of a grain killed a frog in two minutes. The dose of strychnine fatal to a frog is twice that amount. From this some idea of the intensely poisonous nature of the bulbs may be gathered."

Nancy J. Turner also warns against eating the Death Camas.
She says: "Care must be taken never to confuse the bulbs of the Blue Camas with those of the closely related Death Camas. The bulbs are similar in size and shape... Death Camas has cream-coloured flowers that are smaller and in a tighter cluster than those of the two Blue Camas species. Death Camas commonly grows together with the Blue Camas, and the leaves are difficult to distinguish. Anyone wishing to sample Blue Camas bulbs should dig them up at flowering time to avoid any possibility of misidentification.

Every year at about this time, I begin to post pictures of the Camas on various Facebook pages where the fur trade descendants gather, and we all tell our stories of Le Camas.
I will do the same this year.
It is our tradition.

1 comment:

  1. This blog-post has been updated and is found at