Camas, a perennial plant from the lily family, has played a vital part in the lives of Willamette Valley people for hundreds of years. Though its range sharply decreased with the arrival of Europeans – and continues to shrink today – the efforts of many suggest that camas may be revived in the future. Its purple-blue flowers bloom in Salem right now.
The plant was “the staple starch for the tribes throughout the northwest,” says Dr. David Lewis, Cultural Exhibits and Archives Manager and Tribe historian for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. Many native peoples, including the Kalapuya, Chinook, Nez Perce, Cree and Blackfoot, dug up the bulbs in late spring and ground or baked them. In those early days the plant blanketed the wetlands, grasslands and oak savannahs of the Pacific Northwest. It was used as a sweetener, in salmon stews and as a valued item of trade.
“Tribal families took care to pass down the traditional harvesting sites across generations,” writes Dr. Susan Kephart, Willamette Professor of Biology in The Oregon Encyclopedia. Kephart, who also serves as Scientific Advisor to the Pringle Creek Watershed Council, tells that camas saved the Lewis and Clark Expedition from near-starvation in 1805, when the Nez Perce shared the food with them.
Back then, the late spring flowers created fields of purple-blue, which from a distance resembled pools of blue water. In Salem, these ‘pools’ can be seen at Bush Pasture Park and beneath the native oaks at the Oregon State Fairgrounds.
There aren’t many other places to see them. “There are scattered fields in the valley that have camas, but few actual pristine environments,” Lewis says. “Camas fields are endangered as more of the valley floor is plowed up and in agriculture.”
While before native peoples encouraged camas by setting fire to establish open meadows and prairie, those practices have largely ended. As Lewis describes it, “The Kalapuya created the environment to make the camas thrive here, so it is a symptom of how well we cared for, and even created, the Willamette Valley as the agricultural center of the region.”
Native peoples, gardeners and Salem citizens alike are trying to bring camas back. “We are working with many partners,” Lewis says, “to restore fields of camas in Eugene, Corvallis and other areas. It’s a very important plant for its association with native culture and our history in the valley.”
Two species of camas and one hybred grow in Bush’s Pasture Park in Salem, according to Jon Christenson, Park & Gardens Committee Co-Chair of South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN.) SCAN has worked cooperatively with Dr. Kephart and South Salem High School IB Biology teacher at, Dottie Knecht, to help local high school students participate in a National Science Foundation study of camas.
There are at least two million camas blooming on Bush Pasture property as this paper goes to press, thanks to SCAN members and dedicated volunteers who have removed blackberries and English Ivy from the ancient camas habitat.
When the property was managed by the Asahel Bush family, the fields where flowers grew were not mowed until July 4, to protect the blossoms and ensure regermination. The same land is today maintained by the City of Salem, which still times its mowing schedule to preserve the extensive camas meadow.
Lewis says that most Grand Rhonde tribal members practice digging the camas in the 21st Century. They harvest the plants at Camas Prairie above Sweet Home, and at a field at the Reservation. “We are working on restoring this traditional agricultural practice at the tribe and working on projects to restore Camas fields in the Willamette National forest.”
He would like to see research on the agricultural potential of camas. “It is a valuable food plant and would go well in the newer environmentally conscious and greener diets that are healthier and better for people.”