The native wild hyacinth, the Camassia (ka-ma-see-a) or quamash, comes from the Northwestern states of the United States. The flowers bloom in late May and early June in my area, emerge on long spikes rising eighteen inches or more above the grass-like foliage.

There are three species sold as garden plants, Camassia cusickii, C. leichtlinii, and C. quamash which puts together two of the plant’s common names, so really means quamash quamash.

Meriwether Clark of Lewis and Clark fame mentions Camassia in his journal. He describes a marsh thick with blooming Camassia as “a lake of fine clear water, so complete is this deception that on first sight I could have sworn it was water.”

The bulb of the Quamash plant was an important food source for the Cree, Nez Pierce and Blackfoot tribes. Indian women partially cultivated Camassia, clearing the growing sites of Death Camas, the look-alike white-blossomed Zigadenus species that grew with their Quamash. They slowly roasted the Quamash bulbs in fire pits over a period of two days, until the bulbs turned black and sweet. Those not eaten were dried and pulverized for later use. Boiling the bulbs produced a molasses like syrup. (Information from Wikipedia.)

Camassia bulbs contain inulin, a hard to digest starch. Cooking slowly breaks the inulin down into fructose sugar. The Europeans found the bulbs very hard to digest since they didn’t know the native’s cooking secrets. Because of this, they disliked the Indian treat considered a food gift from their great spirit.

Like the onion and lily, Camassia is a member of the Liliaceae family. The blossom’s one to two inch diameter star-shaped flowers bloom in groups on stems up to four feet in height. Blooms vary by species and cultivar from light blue through dark purple, with a few white cultivars available. They grow well in almost any soil, but the soil must be damp during their spring growth period. Their natural habitat is a meadow damp in spring but dry in summer. They prefer full sun, but grow in dappled shade. Like daffodils, Camassia foliage dies back and the bulbs go dormant in mid summer. They thrive in ordinary garden soils and are very hardy, slowly colonizing an area. Some sources report Camassi leichtlinii hardy only to zone 5, but probably due to our winter’s continuous snow cover, mine grow fine in zone 4. The other two species are hardy to zone 4.

Camassia grow easily from seed, which can be collected by tying a bag over the maturing seed heads so the released seed falls into the bag when ripe. The resulting plants take three to four years to bloom.

Most nurseries have Camassia available with their fall bulb selections. Plant the bulbs about three times deeper than the bulb’s diameter. My initial three bulbs turned into twelve plants in three years. During that time I learned they are best massed together, so for the most effective display, get ten or more bulbs.

They are good garden plants, excellent cut flowers, and look stunning when naturalized in a wild area.