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In 1806 Meriwether Lewis wrote about Camassia: ".at a short distance, the colour resembles lakes of bright clear water." For the tribal peoples of the Columbia River and Willamette Valley, Camassia was a main staple of their diet. The city of Camas, Washington was named for it. All of this attributed to the genus Camassia.
Camassia is one of the most exquisite blue flowers to grace the garden.The Pacific Northwest is home to several species of Camasia, but two are most widespread and available to today's gardeners. C. quamash, or Common Camas, is the one most frequently found naturally in the region. C. leichtlinii, or Great Camas, is a larger but less abundant variety and inhabits similar growing locations and conditions.
The two species are often mistaken for each other, but there are a couple notable differences in the flowering habit for those who are curious to know: The tepals (think petals) of C. leichtlinii, as they wither after bloom, eventually twist together to cover and protect the fruit. Those of C. quamash don’t do this, and when in bloom the C. quamash has 5 tepals (petals) distinctively curving upward, with the 6th curved downward.
In the garden, the growing conditions for both species of Camas are the same: tolerant of many soil types and can thrive in heavy clay. They are dependent on plenty of moisture in late winter and early spring. In nature, they are often found in spring seasonal flood plains. As they go dormant in summer, they want little or no water. Translate this to “drought tolerant!” They love full sun, but seem to also do fine in part sun.
After they bloom, resist the urge to cut back the flower stem, because they will self-seed in undisturbed soil – those little grassy blades surrounding your Camas plants next spring are the self-seeded offspring. Have patience, in 3-4 years they too will bloom in all their beautiful jewel-blue hues!
Camas are a great plant to naturalize in your garden. If you’ve already tossed narcissus bulbs hither and yon to naturalize an area of your landscape, consider adding the native Camas into the mix. It would be a beautiful combination!
A few miles outside Portland, there is a 26 acre natural area preserved by the Nature Conservancy which includes a large Camas field that comes into bloom in April through early May. Read this Camas article to learn more about this local treasure.
Easy to grow, a stunning addition to your sunny border, a striking blue spire rising to the sky in your spring garden, a native plant that is easy to grow and free of most pests and predators, what’s not to love?
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Genus: Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii
Common Name: Camas, Indian Hyacinth
Origin: Western North America in areas of winter wet (meadows, swales, depressions in prairies, and on moist slopes) Zones 4-8
Characteristics: Members of the lily family, Camas have the signature strap-like leaves, with the flowering stem rising above the graceful cascade of leaves.
C. quamash typically grows 1-2 feet, C. leichtlinii, 3-4 feet. The flowers of both species rise in an open spike of lovely star-shaped blossoms, ranging from pale blue to a deep blue-violet.
Culture: Tolerant of many soil types including heavy clay. They like their feet wet in winter and early spring, but need to dry out after flowering, much like most other native bulbs.
Camassia do well in sunny perennial borders, but seem to also do fine in part sun.
Maintenance: Camas self-seed in undisturbed soil producing little grassy blades surrounding the Camas plants.
Camas plants are a great plant to naturalize in your garden.