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Camas: common or death?

Updated: May 28

No, that's not a threat from a James Bond movie. Unless a plant-nerd were writing the next 007s. "You expect me to slow roast these bulbs??" - "No Mrs. Pond, I expect you to DIE." It writes itself!

camas flower, spider on a flower, camassia quamash, common camas

While most toxic plants are not worthy of the drama & violence of a 007 tale, some are quite exciting and a bit scary, if you're a forager. To add to the Hollywood-factor, this particular deadly plant is also pretty. And it's non-toxic counterpart, a true heroine. We refer of course, to the two famous "camas" plants. One is indeed a camas (Camassia genus) while the other is only sort of a look-alike but not very related (not a camas); common camas (Camassia quamash) & meadow death-camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum, formerly Zigadenuis venenosus).

common camas vs death camas, Camassia quamash vs Toxicoscordion venenosum
common camas behind white death-camas
camas prairie, common camas field
restored prairie with early camas bloom

In early spring, in the wide open yet truly decimated-in-size Pacific Northwest prairies, it's peak camas blooming season, with meadow death-camas following a few weeks behind. Camassia quamash (common camas) is quite the trooper and wonderfully adapted plant. Even buried under a thick old canopy of invasive Scotch broom for a decade or more, it can cling on barely getting the light for survival, to reemerge in sparse bloom again once the smothering broom thicket has been mowed in preparation (hopefully) for some prairie restoration. That's also a good step for reducing the fire danger of an area, but I won't digress, much.

Camassia quamash, common camas, meadow camas

Common camas is sadly not a common sight to most unless you happen to live near some somewhat health lowland to low-elevation prairie/grassland habitats in north & western region of North America, from the coast to the Rockies. It takes years to develop the underground bulb big enough for blooming, looking like thick grassy lily-like leaves during that period. Then the starry purple 6-tepaled flowers open on short to tall stalks (called "scapes" = flower stalk emerging from an underground organ or very compressed stem) in an open cluster/raceme. More open than the death meadow-camas. And in a different family- in Asparagaceae (really... the asparagus family!).

But BOTH have very deep bulbs for storage away from hungry animals, and humans though that doesn't stop the many North American tribes from harvesting these as a stable crop for thousands of years and still to this day.

camassia quamish bulb, camas plant, whole camassia quamash plant
whole death-camas, death camas plant, death camas bulb, Toxicoscordia venenosum

If you've never had the honor of sampling some roasted camas (or maybe even dried?), it's a sweet nutritious treat after a long roasting process, and a cross between sweet potato and the sticky caramel texture almost like a sweet onion. It's TASTY! It can be eaten in many dishes, from a ground flour for breads/cakes, or intact roasted bulbs on their own or mixed into other dishes. It was so valuable too by storing for long periods as a winter food as well.

death-camas, Toxicoscordion venenosum, meadow death-camas

Know what's not tasty???

Toxicoscordion venenosum (meadow death-camas) is a hardy bulb as well and much more adapted to discouraging animals from eating it. It was recently classified by the genetic nerds in the Melanthiaceae (corn lily) family, no longer Liliaceae, but is still in the Lily order (Liliales). Meadow death-camas grows mostly in lowland open areas throughout with western US (WA-CA and east into the great plains) and in southern British Columbia, and into Canada). They have small off-white star flowers (slightly creamy yellow look overall due to prominent yellow stamen with 6 white tepals starting in a tight cluster then expanding into a more open raceme, but much smaller flowers and larger whole inflorescence than common camas.

bear grass, Xerophyllum tenax
mountain bear grass, Xerophyllum tenax

If you're familiar with mountain hikes and the beloved bear grass (Xerophyllum tenax), that has long floppy grass-like leaves and tall stalks of subtlely aromatic tiny white flowers that form a long-pompom with a nipple point, the death-camas is like the low-elevation cousin and in the same family (Melanthiaceae). Death-camas has more spread-out flowers along the stalk (aka- peduncle) and smaller inflorescence overall. Bear-grass grows from a distinctly rhizome root structure than the bulb of death-camas.

Fun taxonomy note- both these and trilliums are in the SAME family.

So Trilliums went a more giant singular flower route in evolution than raceme/spike of tiny flowers plus the giant tri-leaves instead of grassy thin many leaves. Wrap your head around that odd cousin. I'll just trust the genetic work they're doing out there to figure these phylogenetic relationships out.

false hellebore, Veratrum viride
false hellebore

False hellebore (Veratrum viride) those giant beautifully crinkled leaves spiraling up the stem) is also in the Melanthiaceace family, but at least the flowers do look sort of similar.

Got to love evolution right?

Back to death-

Meadow death-camas / death onion to some North American tribes who must be skilled at telling this apart from highly edible and nutritious common meadow camas (Camassia quamash). Harvest timing is very important! It would be easy for a plant-inclined person to tell the two species apart when blooming; even the white variant of common camas (possibly from recessive genes, so only homozygous rec. ones) because the flowers are so much bigger than death-camas'. Confusion between them is during non-flowering times, so harvest is often right after blooming to be sure the bulb to each as a crop is the correct species.

Death-camas has several toxic chemicals, including alkaloids like Zygacene, which is common across several of the Toxicoscordion species, and acts as a neurotoxin on animals. Some indigenous tribes even poisoned their arrow tips with the mashed bulbs.

The whole plant is toxic, even the NECTAR and POLLEN!

Their toxicity is going above and beyond to keep predators away, making their own pollination and thus reproduction a challenge. Honeybees can be poisoned by trying to pollinate these flowers which are not native to North America (a human-made hybrid, good at quick but inefficient pollination of all sorts of plants). Eating even 1 death camas bulb could be fatal if not treated. Appropriate name, right?

death-camas, toxicoscordion venenosum

So how do death camas get their flowers pollinated if visitors die? Do bees learn like grazing animals who recognize the bitter warning taste in the leaves of the toxic alkaloids? Well at least one bee, and maybe the only one, can survive collecting from the death camas- the miner bee Andrena astragali. This bee must have a very unique metabolize, maybe lacking an enzyme that metabolizes the neurotoxic alkaloids. Yay for conserving native bee species. Turns out the toxic food cache that momma-bee leaves for her beeabies will poison parasites on her young, helping reduce their numbers. The Nomada spp. parasites emerge from eggs lain near the miner bee's and eat her young, then done in by greed, they eat the toxic food cache then kick the bucket. Life lessons from bees & parasites- don't be greedy.

death-camas flowers, prairie with death camas, Toxicoscordion venenosum
mid-spring PNW prairie with young death-camas flowers

Let's not neglect another less-seen camas- the great one. Literally "great camas" (Camassia leichtlinii), is just like an extra large common camas, often a deeper purple (depending on the subspecies/population of either), with large flower spikes and individual flowers. They're distribution is less though- only along the western coast of North America and in the lower nearly coastal regions and not east of or even near the mountains. There are some spots in the South Puget Sound of WA that I know of with all 3 species in the same site. Magical spots.

Great camas, Camassia leichtlinii
great camas

All three (common, great & death) camas'es rely on a frequent low-intensity fire cycle to keep out shrub and tree competition and dense grass cover, and the importance of edible camas helped extend and preserve prairie & grassland habitats through early use of human-spread fires. This helped expand what was basically the native-species farms of North American tribes in the area, with families claiming and maintaining specific camas-dense patches for generations. A very sustainable style of agriculture thanks to spreading the little bulblets back into the soil from off the main large bulb, which will then be taken for the harvest.

white common camas, white Camassia quamash
mix of white and purple/blue common camas

What's not to love about either camas? Which would you choose?

Give me edible or give me death?


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