A foundational meadow plant, important first food, and eye popping flower!
Camas (Lushotseed: c'abid) was once found in enormous quantities across the western half of North America. Huge, shimmering fields were filled with blue flowers, each marking the location of a bulb. Camas was so prolific that there are multiple accounts of people believing they were looking at lakes, when they were actually looking at prairies filled with these blue flowers.
Camas bulbs are edible, and traditionally they are dug with a curved digging stick, then slow-cooked in pits. The bulbs contain a lot of inulin, which is difficult to digest, but which breaks down into sweet fructose when cooked. It is said that Camas responds well to the disturbance from digging - this could be because digging some bulbs leaves room for the others to grow, or because digging opens up areas of soil for Camas seed to germinate.
It is hard to overstate the culinary or cultural importance of Camas. Here in the Seattle area, large Camas prairies were maintained by many Coast Salish tribes south of the Puget Sound, on the San Jaun islands, on Vancouver Island, and in various other areas. Camas was the second most widely traded food, behind only salmon. Throughout much of this continent, various species of Camas were managed similarly, with similar levels of importance.
Today, Camas is less prevalent, as its habitat has been much decreased by habitat destruction, fire suppression, and invasive species. For example, it is estimated that only 3% of the original Puget prairies are still in existence.
Great Camas is one of the two primary species of Camas in our area, along with Common Camas (Camassia Quamash). Great Camas tends to be a bit larger, and its bulbs also tend to sit deeper in the soil. To tell the two species apart, it is easiest to look at how the petals curl up after blooming - Great Camas petals tend to curl together as if to protect the fruit, and Common Camas petals tend to peel apart.
Great Camas is considered a "facultative wetland" plant, which means it is more often found in wetlands. However, it does very well in dry areas as well - it just needs moist soil through spring, and moist spring soil is found everywhere in the Pacific Northwest. Great Camas needs to dry out in summer, otherwise the bulbs can rot.
Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management Oregon and Washington - Great Camas, San Juan Islands, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45635455
Photo Credit: AndyScott - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=117316599