Saturday, May 10, 2014
BLUE CAMAS-Camassia Quamash, Camassia Leichtinii, Camassia Cusikii, Camassia Homellii, Camassia Scilloides, Camassia Angusta, Camassia Esculenta
Also known as: camas root, giant blue camas, Cusick's camas, Howell's camas, wild hyacinth, prairie hyacinth
Parts used: root/bulb
Meridians/Organs affected: digestive
Properties: nutritive, fibrous
Blue camas is a member of the Liliaceae family (although more recent studies have shown its components to be more like those in the Agave family so...take your pick). It is a slender perenneial plant that can get up to two feet tall. It has thick, grass-like leaves and blue to lavender colored flowers that bloom from April to June. The flowers are star shaped and have yellow sepals and the root is egg-shaped with a brown coat. It can be found in moist meadows from British Columbia to California, Wyoming, Utah, Montana, Oregon and Idaho.
Blue camas has a long history with several Native American tribes. The Nez Perce Indians perhaps used it most often in trade with other tribes such as the Cayuse, Crows, Umatilla, Warm Springs, Flatheads, and Walla Wallas. In fact, there were often tribal disputes over who has the right to harvest bulbs in certain areas. Some tribes would travel hundreds of miles to harvest camas bulbs so it was a big source of their diet and their way of life. Aside from dried salmon, it was the most widely traded item among tribes. It was also the job of the women to harvest and prepare them properly. Any female wanting to be married could show her worth by digging camas bulbs. The women would use a sharp digging stick to harvest the bulbs and often could harvest as much as a bushel per day per woman under good conditions. The bulbs were taken and baked in stone lined pits and roasted for up to four days. (A large fire was built in the pit to heat the stones, then the fire was removed and up to 100 pounds of camas bulbs were put inside the fire pit and covered. Then another fire was built on top and kept going for the entire roasting period which was usually about four days).
Bulbs were usually gathered after the flowering stage had passed. During the flowering stage however, the INdians would weed around the blue camas plants to assure the death camas was not harvested instead when harvesting time came around. (Death camas has white flowers when in bloom). Apparently, many people, cattle and even bees dies by feasting on the wrong camas as the only way to distinguish one from another was at the time of flowering. The two share the same growing spots.
Camas contains a large amount of inulin, which is an indigestible fiber that can cause immense intestinal gas, nausea and even vomiting if eaten raw-whereas roasting it converts the inulin to fructose (which is why they taste sweet when roasted) and was a sweetening agent for the Native Americans. The bulbs were roasted and dried and then re-constituted for use. Sometimes they were pressed flat and made into cakes before drying. The concentrated liquid from boiling the bulbs was also made into a sweet hot drink or mixed with flour to make gravy. Alma Hogan Snell (author of "A Taste of Heritage, Crow Indian Recipes and Herbal Medicines") said, "Pretty Shield would trade something with the Piegan Indians when they cam through with their roots. They had already baked the camas in the ground for four days, and they were delicious. The outside was black and a bit leathery-not really tough but rather chewy, kind of like a prune-and the whole thing had a wonderful licorice-like flavor." Some have said it also tastes similar to molasses. Meriweather Lewis spoke of how he and his men became ill from eating too much of it, and how the 'wind' inside an Indian tepee was almost overwhelming from the natives ingesting it raw.
Medicinally, camas was boiled down (decoction) into a syrup to induce labor and an infusion of the leaves was used to help expel the placenta and assist with vaginal bleeding after the birthing process. The Nez Perce (some of which still gather and use the plant) boiled the bulbs, drained the juice and mixed it with honey for coughing.
There is no doubt that camas is an important plant and, to be honest, should only be used in survival times and only then should it be harvested by those who know the plant well to avoid being killed by eating the wrong kind. Pregnant women should not use camas as it can stimulate the uterus.
I am not including any links with this post as to mistake one for the other kind of camas could be fatal. I will merely leave you to surf the web on your own in search of books and/or more information to teach you how to use this plant in its entirety. Be safe and live happy!