Camas bulbs were at one time, well-used by the first people of the south coast, it was a staple in their diet.
A Camas plant has grass-like leaves and a tall stalk of flowers, but it’s the bulb that is consumed. The bulbs have a densely packed center covered in a black to brown tunic. They are up to 3.5 cm across and up to five cm long. They usually grow as single bulbs, but sometimes you will find clusters.
In spring, several narrow, slightly folded leaves rise erect from the bulb, reaching 50 to 60 cm long. The flower stalk rises out of the middle. Six narrow petals form the showy bloom. From its center protrude six stamens and a single pistil. The petals of the flower are arranged such that five of them cluster toward the upper half of the floral circle and the sixth one swoops down and out. Flower color ranges from a pale bluish hue to intense dark purple.
Camas begin to flower in March on the south coast. Flowers open progressively up the stem. In colder inland locations bloom time extends into May or June. The fruit matures during the summer into an elongated rattle-like capsule full of shiny black seeds.
The range of this plant extends from southern B.C. to Alberta and south to California. It thrives in moist meadows, prairies, and grassy clearings. Look for it on rocky knolls that are near the sea.
First Nations people consumed and traded Camas bulbs. Gatherers would venture out in early summer when the plants were in their capsule stage and could be distinguished from the similar-looking but inedible Death Camas. The creamy white, small-flowered heads of death Camas are easy to recognize when in bloom, but underground bulbs can be difficult to identify. For this reason, never consume these bulbs from the wild unless you know how to harvest them.
First Nations people would bring sacks bulging with bulbs to great cooking pits that had been dug in the soil and lined with hot rocks. Cooking lasted a day, during which time the bulbs would turn soft and brown, while inside, they developed a buttery texture and delicious flavor of roasted nuts. They are quite delicious.