Lakes of blue (camas)
Blue camas is a signature plant of what has become an increasingly rare habitat in the South Sound—our native prairies—and was a critical source of food for indigenous people and early settlers. It used to be so widespread that in his journals Meriwether Lewis described the prairies as resembling deep blue lakes. The bulb was a valued trading commodity (second only to smoked salmon) as well as a primary food source—when cooked for a day or two the bulb turns into fructose.
Today camas plays an exciting role, as one of the plants that we are using to restore our properties which contain remnant South Sound prairie habitat, including establishing it at the Duwamish Hill Preserve in Tukwila as part of the rocky bald restoration efforts there. It is estimated that only 3% of our native prairies are left in the South Sound and 90% of that acreage is on US Army Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which is being actively managed to maintain and restore the prairie habitat and oak savanna.
The history of the camas plant is rich. It was cultivated by indigenous people as a “garden” plant for which they went to great lengths, including using fire to suppress the encroachment of conifers into the prairie. Weeding was done during the spring, when the camas blooms and blue camas can be easily distinguished from death camas (it has smaller, white flowers) which contains a neurotoxin that can be fatal if consumed—hence the name. By removing the death camas there was less likelihood of mistakenly harvesting a toxic twin during early summer through fall, once all the flowers and leaves had died. Digging camas bulbs and rendering them edible required significant amounts of work. The work was done largely by women, and it is estimated that a single woman with a digging stick might have harvested up to two tons of camas bulbs a year!
Right now is prime viewing season for camas and other flowering native prairie plants. To see Lewis’ “lakes” of blue flowers, check out the 20th Annual Prairie Appreciation Day celebration on May 9th or explore our Morse Wildlife Preserve (also celebrating its 20th anniversary this year!) on May 10th as part of the Second Sundays event series.