The Camassia: from Pacific North West to Scottish South West

As a student of anthropology in the early 1970s, I still remember some classes we had on the phenomenon known as Potlatch. Part of the culture of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific North West, it relates to large gatherings in which alongside story telling and feasting, a special emphasis is placed on the conspicuous display of wealth and largesse, in some cases even the destruction of valuable possessions in order to demonstrate one’s high status in the community.

I have often thought of the parallels between these practices and the ‘conspicuous consumption’ so prevalent in Western culture. But until now I had no idea there was a link between the Potlatch and the world of horticulture, and in particular my own Dumfriesshire garden.

Here’s some background.

It was about six years ago that I first stumbled across the camassia plant, on BBC Gardener’s World. A few months later, and with the assistance of my expert horticultural neighbour, I acquired a stock of camassia bulbs. There were two variants one with plain leaves and a deep, dark blue flower, the other with a variegated leaf and a paler bloom.

The first I planted among grass in a circle of nine mop head beech trees. The second were given a home in a slightly smaller circle of nine hazels. 

Both have thrived, the flowers increasing each year and this year reaching an intensity of colour never before seen. They have proved easy to look after among old meadow grass and in the last few years I have gathered copious amounts of seed and scattered it in other parts of the garden. Apparently it can take a quinquennium for seed thus sown to come to flower.

The Camassia has been variously grouped and classified over the years. For a while it was seen as a form of lily, then it migrated into the hyacinth family, but it’s now classed as part of the asparagus group. 

The two sets of Camassias in the Dumfriesshire garden flower in sequence. Depending on the year, the deep blue variety starts to bloom around the first week in May and has a couple of weeks of spectacular glory.  As that fades, the paler form comes into its own and is probably at its peak around the beginning of June.  The Camassia is another one of those plants that just keeps on giving.

But what, you are no doubt asking, does this have to do with the Pacific North West and the Potlatch? Well, this is what I have learned.

The ‘Blue Camas’  or ‘Quamash’ seems to originate in damp meadows in those North Western regions, where it can grow in abundance in the wild. Over millennia this has been enhanced by the stewardship of local tribal groups that have a long history of tending defined areas of Camassia, sometimes with specific boundaries between them. These people employed various cultivation methods, including burning sections of ground,  splitting and transplanting clumps of bulbs and attaching responsibilities for different areas to particular kinship groups. Place-names provide further evidence of where all this took place, such as Camas Valley in Oregon.

The bulbs were an important food source to indigenous tribes and were eaten roasted or boiled. They were lifted in large quantities in the carefully tended Camas lands. There was also a trade in these bulbs and this was linked in turn to the gatherings where overt displays of Camas wealth were placed on display. I am picturing huge piles of these slow growing bulbs which were of high food value and had good keeping qualities through the Winter. The anthropological record includes detailed accounts of cultivation methods, trading practices and the nutritional use of Camas bulbs in the North West Pacific regions, with botanical and archaeological evidence indicating such activity began as early as 7,000 BP and was significantly intensified by 3,000 BP.

How these wonderful plants came to be cultivated in European gardens is not a story I can tell. As they say, more research is needed. What I can say however, and as these pictures and the short video demonstrate, Camassia bulbs are well worth contemplating if you have a damp grassy area of the garden where they can be left undisturbed, catching some sunshine and gradually expanding into a mini prairie of colour that nods and shimmers in the late Spring breeze.

So I am showing off the Dumfriesshire garden Camassias in a miniature Potlatch of my own. Not to enhance horticultural status, but rather to spread the word about these somewhat unrecognised, but most wonderful of plants. All the while celebrating of course the fact that somehow they have made the journey from the Pacific North West to the Scottish South West!

An earlier version of this piece first appeared in Garden Musings on 26 May 2022.

Published by David Graham Clark

I am a sociologist and writer. Pieces on this site include reflective writings, stories, and memoir on aspects of daily life, along with associated images and videos. In these various ways I try to illuminate what I call the quotidian world, particularly my own.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: