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Camas / Quamash growing, cooking and harvesting

 
author and steward
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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4kaIXnCEEW8

http://www.youtube.com/paulwheaton12

 
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Thank Paul, I just realized I have camas (Indian camas) growing in my yard!

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camassia
 
paul wheaton
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Be VERY careful that it isn't "death camas"

 
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I am planting some Quamash in my garden this fall. 

 
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I planted some camas a few years back, and it seems to be doing well.  haven't harvested any yet.

anybody know much about harvest?  my understanding is that traditional harvest involved huge meadows with roughly inexhaustible supplies of bulbs, so harvesting too much wasn't really an issue.  what about on a smaller scale?  how much is reasonable to take form a less-than-immense patch?
 
Tyler Ludens
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From what I've read they grow rather slowly, so harvests should probably be small unless you have a ton of them like in Ye Olde Days. 

Folks say  you should harvest them when they're blooming so you know exactly what kind of bulb you're eating.

 
tel jetson
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that would seem to limit its usefulness as a wild food, unfortunately.

the stuff I planted is a few years old now, and hasn't spread yet.  the plants are really beautiful from flowering to fat seed pods.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Yeah, I'm gong to try to grow it more as a curiousity than from any plan to have it be a major part of my diet.  There are probably more productive perennial bulbs/tubers we can grow.  But Quamash is one of those legendary foods, it seems like more should be growing it just for historical reasons. 

 
Jami McBride
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For my own experience with camas - I found that digging up and/or moving the plants around, even accidentally cased more to pop up the following year.
 
tel jetson
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Jami McBride wrote:
For my own experience with camas - I found that digging up and/or moving the plants around, even accidentally cased more to pop up the following year.



that's encouraging.  do bits of the bulbs break off and form new plants?
 
Jami McBride
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The bulbs appeared to stay intact and I don't remember seeing any baby bulbs like you get with garlic.  So maybe it's something as simple as turning the soil, or giving them more room. 

They are pretty.
 
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The Wikipedia article is interesting. It seems they're not too closely related to lily, but are much closer to agave. No surprise, then, that they can be so sweet.
 
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Ludi Ludi wrote:
From what I've read they grow rather slowly, so harvests should probably be small unless you have a ton of them like in Ye Olde Days. 

Folks say  you should harvest them when they're blooming so you know exactly what kind of bulb you're eating.



I think that rule applies mostly to wild-harvesting. 
If you are planting them in the garden, and you know that you don't have any toxic bulbs in the bed with them, it should be fine to harvest.
They are not likely to suddenly metamorphose into a look-alike toxic plant.

I think cultivating them to some extent is likely to be the path forward to edible food.  Great to hear that they respond well to thinning - I've heard the same thing about wapato, and I suspect that most of our native perennial foodstuffs respond well to some thinning and maybe other forms of cultivation (like burning or pruning for berries).

tel jetson wrote:
that would seem to limit its usefulness as a wild food, unfortunately.

the stuff I planted is a few years old now, and hasn't spread yet.  the plants are really beautiful from flowering to fat seed pods.



If they're growing fat with good seeds, can't you plant the seeds and harvest as many as you like?

I think they grew plentifully in the Roseburg area, and maybe in other relatively dry valley lands.  Our landscape is mostly forest, and we use the upland meadow areas for gardens - so camas would have to be a garden plant to survive in a modern suburb, I suspect.
 
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Jami McBride wrote:
For my own experience with camas - I found that digging up and/or moving the plants around, even accidentally cased more to pop up the following year.



I have read Salish ethnography that said excess roots were planted in the early spring in different locations from where they were harvested, and that native folks consciously spread them to promising new locations for better/more foraging opportunities. It has been suggested (don't have a reference here sorry) that the vast camas fields described in the literature were actually a product of human ecology born of this practice.  The most highly prized camas roots were said to be harvested by the Nez Pierce in central Idaho, they were considered to have better flavor and larger bulbs. 

Camas is fairly easily propagated from seed, but I have had poor luck getting any sizable yield from a garden plot, they seem to thrive best in their natural meadow habitat.   
 
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we saw some thriving camas patches near Roseburg last spring, and there was a good meadow east of Portland under Parks replanting efforts.
 
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The wild camas I have seen here have grown in the sun in fairly moist soil, even a flood plain, until it dries out in the summer. In a garden, it should be watered so it doesn't dry out until the seed pods have developed, then it should be allowed to dry out after that point.

If you have it in your own garden, you could leave them until after you harvest the seeds, and then plant the seeds in a wild area where they will have ideal conditions. If you harvest them in the wild, you should harvest them when you know they are blue camas and not white death camas. They do not bloom from seed until three years after being planted, so you can't get impatient. They also arn't very competitive with more aggressive plants, so the natives often burned the fields so the camas could survive.

Instead of harvesting wild plants (probably illegal for non tribal members here in Idaho, besides which most existing camas fields are family owned), I ordered some camas bulbs. Here are two nurseries that have them:
http://www.mrcamas.com/Planting-Camas.htm
http://www.hollandbulbfarms.com/search.asp?keywords=camas
I ordered them from Holland Bulb Farms. The native plants are Camassia quamash.
They need to be planted in the fall because they need the cold weather in order to bloom in the following spring.

Plant them in easy to dig in soil, for your own sake! They arn't too fussy when it comes to soil, as long as they remain continually moist through flowering and seed production. Hot weather will kill them until they are established (by summer time), but they are cold hardy. I understand they can tolerate semi-shade. They are easy to grow if their conditions are met and well worth it. I think they are awesomely beautiful flowers!

The Nez Perce do transplant some of them to new fields, and I think that is a good idea for anyone who grows or harvests them. Most of the traditional camas fields were obliterated by non-native farmers who preferred their own crops, so it's true that present camas fields are mainly intentionally planted on Indian-owned land.
 
Lana White
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BTW, Lewis and Clark had serious gastrointestinal complaints from camas. The problem is the inulin, which has a way of creating a real case of gas for many people. But, with longer cooking, the inulin turns into sugar, and what you end up with when that happens is a sweet root tasting a little like candied yams. Jerusalem artichoke has the same problem with inulin, even though it is suggested for diabetics! (Not a very charitable suggestion).

The favorite way of cooking camas roots by the Nez Perce was in underground pits where they were left for 36 hours or more, in the same manner as clambakes in New England or luaus in Hawaii. Today, you can probably use a slow cooker or pressure cooker, or just set it on the back of a wood-burning stove and steam it for a day. You can also simmer the sliced camas roots in a little water and have a natural molasses.
 
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Great video Paul. Here in Montana, camas harvested in the spring is especially tasty. How about a video about syrup made from larch sap? I have tapped into larch and have come up with a great syrup just like the local Salish once did. Give it a try!?
 
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Hey all, I have been looking for these to plant in some new areas. I found them on https://www.hollandbulbfarms.com/fall-planting-bulbs/specialty/cammasia-or-wild-hyacinth sorry for the crappy post on my phone but these are reasonable.

These were a major food source of the native population in North America and they are spoken of highly.
 
Tyler Ludens
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Another source: https://www.vanengelen.com/flower-bulbs-index/camassia/camassia-quamash.html
 
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I planted my first camas last season and divided the bulbs to increase the plot. I replanted all the bubils the first harvest.  Looking forward to hopefully roasting some this year.
 
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So I've been interested in quamash/camas for a while and planted some different camassia varieties some years ago. The flower are really pretty and grown as ornamentals in the UK. I was sold on the idea that they would naturalise in damp grassland, which I have a lot of. Anyway I noticed that mine were all sprouting and have decided to move them to an area which I'm intending to make into a perennial root polyculture (more on that elsewhere later perhaps).
Camassia Leichtilinii sprouting in the garden in spring
Camassia Leichtilinii sprouting in the garden in spring

The ones that I had planted in the grass didn't flower last year, so I think they needed moving. The bulbs were an impressive size. They had divided and multiplied up, so there were lots of bulbs rather then just one. The camassia alba bulbs were slightly smaller and more spherical in shape than the standard Camassis quamash and C. leichtlinii, but again had divided up. These had also seeded in. I left the seedlings, but dug up all the bigger bulbs.
Digging Camassia Quamash bulb multiplication
Camassia Quamash bulb multiplication

I've not tried eating them before, so I chose one of each variety and steamed it in the oven for about two hours. The bulbs went very soft. I tried a little of each and can't say I'm that impressed at this stage. I only tried a tiny bit of each, since it my first time eating these. The larger bulbs were both a bit bitter for my taste. The C. alba was slightly more palatable perhaps. However, I had these with no sauce and all the water I put in with them was evaporated, so maybe with more experimentation I would get a better result. (edited to add:) Also the information suggests harvesting when the plant is in flower and they may be more palatable at that time of year. (I have now added more water to the bulbs remaining in the dish, and am leaving it in the oven overnight and through tomorrow to try and mimic the slow cooking in an earth oven. I will let you know how I get on, and whether they sweeten as reputed with long cooking.
Cooked quamash camas bulbs
Cooked camas bulbs (C. alba on left)
 
Nancy Reading
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As promised, I cooked the bulbs for much longer in the oven with water in the closed dish. After 24 hours I still wasn't convinced, so I left them for another night. and I can't say they turned really pleasant at all. The Camassia alba was still quite nice, and one of the others had improved, the other was still a bit bitter. I didn't even try the husband test.

So there are several possibilities here:
1) I haven't got the cooking method right
2) They aren't so nice when picked in early spring and they need to be harvested in summer to have a good flavour
3) My tastes and the native American tastes are different
4) My soil doesn't suit them and the growing conditions here give them a bitter flavour
5) I haven't actually got C. quamash at all and it was mis-sold to me - these were bought as garden plants after all

The Camassia alba was quite pleasant, unfortunately the bulbs are also the smallest - since they multiply by division I don't think they are inclined to grow any bigger.
If anyone has some experience to share, or comments on my findings it would be interesting to see if I am doing something wrong....Maybe next year I will try harvesting in summer to see if that helps.
 
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Sorry to hear they aren't that tasty. We planted some last autumn, and I had great hopes about them. Oh well. Anyways, them storing inulin rather than starch limits the usefulness somewhat. Wonder what they'd be like fermented?
 
Nancy Reading
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They are worth growing just for the flowers!
DSCN1896.JPG
Camas in bloom on Skye
Camas in bloom on Skye
 
Eino Kenttä
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Ooh, that's pretty! Which species/variety is that? Most of the pics I've seen showed darker blue flowers.

By the way, where did you read that they're supposed to be harvested when in flower? Plants For A Future specifies that Native Americans would harvest in early autumn, and it seems to me that the flowering time would be the worst possible time to harvest a root crop (after the plant has used up its energy storage to make flowers, and before it has had time to restock) although I suppose not all plants are created equal... Also, PFAF has been known to put out dubious info sometimes. Dunno.
 
Nancy Reading
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Eino Kenttä wrote:Ooh, that's pretty! Which species/variety is that? Most of the pics I've seen showed darker blue flowers.


This is supposed to be Camassia quamash, but as I said it is a garden cultivar, so the wild form may be a darker blue, also the camera/screens aren't good at showing true blue. These didn't flower last year, which was one of the reasons I dug them up to transplant them, They had multiplied quite a lot .

By the way, where did you read that they're supposed to be harvested when in flower? Plants For A Future specifies that Native Americans would harvest in early autumn, and it seems to me that the flowering time would be the worst possible time to harvest a root crop (after the plant has used up its energy storage to make flowers, and before it has had time to restock) although I suppose not all plants are created equal... Also, PFAF has been known to put out dubious info sometimes. Dunno.


Yes I thought the same until I saw this video

fromthis recent thread
The problem in their native range, as I understand it, is that the dormant bulbs are easily mistaken for a poisonous look-a-like ("death-camas"). Harvesting when in flower avoids this. If you're eating the bulb it doesn't matter that it hasn't put reserves into next year, since there won't be one, and you can be pretty sure that the bulb is big enough to eat if the plant is flowering. It is possible that the taste as the bulb grows is nicer as well.
 
Nancy Reading
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From three years at shoal water bay by James Swan

This root, which. resembles an onion in appearance, is a species of lily, found in moist places on the prairies. After the plant has done flowering, or when the Indians consider it ripe, which is usually in September and October, the root is dug up by the squaws, who go out in parties for the purpose, and are generally absent several days. After sufficient has been collected, the leaves and loose outhusks are removed, and the whole roasted on hot stones. The method is as follows: A large pile of dry wood is made, on the top of which a quantity of stones are piled; fire is then applied, and kept up till all the wood is burned, leaving nothing but the hot stones and ashes. Fern-leaves are then laid on the stones, and on these mats are placed; the cammass-roots are then placed on the mats, and .spread level; water is then thrown over them, and immediately they are covered with mats, blankets, and the whole covered up with sand,every care being taken to keep in all the steam. This heap is allowed to remain till it is cold, which, according to the size of the fire and the quantity of roots used, varie.s from twelve to twenty-four hours. The roots then are soft and very sweet, much like a baked sweet potato. The natives preserve them by pressing them into loaves, which, when eaten, are cut in slices like pudding. I never have met with a white person who was not fond of baked cammass, and I do not know any vegetable, except fried bananas, so delicious.



This account from 1857 details that the camas were harvested in autumn, which does sound more likely.
 
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I'm in the Seattle area trying to get a Camas patch going in an area maybe 50ft square.  First year I planted maybe 100 bulbs and they came up, so next year I planted a few hundred more.  Still not blue enough for me, so I planted about 400 more this year.  I lots of bulbs coming up right now, so hoping it starts looking like a sea of blue 🙂 I was surprised how many bulbs it takes to make an impact, but at 50x50 it would take 2500 bulbs to have one per square foot.  I didn't do the math when I started, just kind of experimenting.

No plans to eat them, just trying to add color and diversity to the field (and based on other replies it sounds like they are tricky to use as a food source anyway.)
 
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I’m glad this was highlighted. I think I bought Camas seeds with the intent to naturalize it to my yard (already native to my area but haven’t seen any in my property yet). Have to find seeds and get going on that!
 
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