In September, we gardeners tend to think about planting spring-blooming bulbs. But before you plant another daffodil, there’s a native bulb that you should consider: camassia.
Haven’t heard of it? Well, it’s a stunner. From its tuft of grass-like foliage, it sends up a single tall raceme whose multiple blooms open from the bottom to the top of the raceme. And it blooms during the quiet time after the narcissus are fading, but before the summer flowers begin their show. Despite its dreamy colors — most are azure blue like mine — you rarely see it in local gardens.
It is said that when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first saw meadows of common camas (Camassia quamash) in the West, Lewis wrote, “The color of its bloom resembles lakes of clear water.” Meriwether Lewis was certainly not the last to remark on the glories of this spring bloomer. Here’s what a member of the Virginia Native Plant Society had to say about her first encounter with the Virginia native, Camassia scilloides:
Wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) is absolutely breathtaking, yet very few of us will ever see it growing naturally in Virginia due to its rarity. It is categorized by the Natural Heritage Program as an S1 (critically imperiled)—which is defined as a species at very high risk of extirpation from the state due to extreme rarity (often 5 or fewer populations), very steep declines, or other factors. Luckily for us, at least one population grows on protected property! Some VNPS members who attended the Cedars Appreciation Week were lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time to see wild hyacinth in flower.
https://www.facebook.com/VirginiaNativePlantSociety/posts/wild-hyacinth-camassia- scilloides-is-absolutely-breathtaking-yet-very-few-of-us-/1887510421280090/ . If you’d like to see this native camassia at the Cedars Natural Preserve in southwestern Virginia, check out https://www.dcr.virginia.gov/natural-heritage/natural-area-preserves/thecedars.
The Camassia genus is a native of North America, but as noted above, only one species — Camassia scilloides — is native to Virginia. As indicated above, most of the camassia species are found in the western part of North America, especially the Northwest. Only one species — Camassia scilloides — is native to the eastern part of North America. Sadly, this species is found in only a few counties in the western part of Virginia and is considered to be “critically imperiled” in our state. http://explorer.natureserve.org/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Camassia+scilloides. The name camassia comes from the Native American term for the plant: kamas or quamash. The genus Camassia was traditionally classified in the Liliaceae family, but has been moved to the asparagus family.
There are six recognized species of the Camassia genus in North America:
- Camassia quamash (common camas, quamash, Indian camas, small camas) – western Canada, western USA (CA OR WA NV ID MT WY UT); blooms are sky blue to deep blue
- Camassia leichtlinii (large camas, great camas), found in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, northern California, and Nevada; blooms are white, cream, blue or purple with yellow anthers
- Camassia angusta (prairie camas), found in the southern Great Plains and mid-Mississippi Valley (TX OK LA AR MO KS IA IL IN); blooms are lavender to pale purple.
- Camassia scilloides (Atlantic camas, wild hyacinth, bear grass), found in eastern and central North America from Maryland to Georgia, westward to Texas and north into Ontario. Blooms are pale blue to white.
- Camassia cusickii (Cusick’s camas), found in Oregon and Idaho.
- Camassia howellii (Howell’s camas), found in southwestern Oregon.
It’s worth noting that there seems to be some confusion about species and names in the nursery trade. For example, a number of bulb producers refer to Camassia quamash as Camassia esculenta. The flower bulb industry has developed and marketed a number of hybrids and selections, mostly in shades of blue, pink and white. For example, Camassia quamash `Orion’ has deep blue flowers. In the UK, the Avon Company has developed a mixed strain called the “Avon Stellar hybrids.” Gardeners’ World Magazine. Speaking of confusion, I must confess that I still haven’t figured out which species is growing happily in my beds!
The bulbs of several species of Camassia were a major element of the diet of the indigenous people of North America, even engendering trading among tribes. To learn more about this fascinating history, see “Common Camas,” USDA/Natural Resources Conservation Service, Plant Guide. But I’m not suggesting you add it to your diet! First of all, the plant is easily confused with a plant called death camas (Zigadenus venenosus), which is toxic enough to kill. Not only that, but the camassia bulbs can cause flatulence, as the explorers with Lewis and Clark discovered. In 1825, plant explorer David Douglas reported that:
Captain Lewis observes that when eaten in a large quantity they occasion bowel complaints. This I am not aware of, but assuredly they produce flatulence: when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by strength of the wind.
So I’m not recommending camassias for edible landscaping!
I’ve found camassia to be remarkably easy to grow. It likes either full sun or partial shade. It prefers slightly acid humus-y soil, but will adapt to clay. And though it needs water while it’s actively growing in spring, nature generally supplies it at that time of year. My camassias bloom in late April. Subsequent periods of drought in summer — after it goes dormant — don’t seem to affect it at all. Camassia is generally not bothered by any pests or diseases. And I’m happy to say that deer and rodents leave it alone in my garden.
That all sounds good, but camassias have a couple features that you need to have in mind before you start digging holes. First, its grass-like leaves go dormant in the summer, so you’ll want other plants nearby that will fill in the gaps it leaves behind. The middle of the bed or border may be best, since plants in front and behind can fill in the empty spaces. Second, it is reportedly not fond of disturbance, though I’ve transplanted it successfully in my garden. And sadly, it blooms for a very short period of time. But its ephemeral nature seems to make me treasure it all the more.
Plant bulbs 4-6” deep and 6” apart in fall. Camassia can also be grown from seed, though the first blooms will not appear for 3 or 4 years after sowing.
Camassia bulbs multiply slowly, so you won’t find yourself needing to divide it often. Eventually, however, you may have such a big clump that you will want to divide it, which should be done in summer or fall when the bulbs are dormant. You can plant the little offset bulbs elsewhere in your garden; they’ll reach blooming size within 2 to 3 years.
I’m still working on companion plants for my camassias. They definitely should have a background so their blues can really sing. Since golden or chartreuse foliage provides a wonderful contrast to the blues of camassias, I’ve been trying to get them to nestle close to my Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ but they don’t seem to like the same level of sun, so I’m going to try placing multiple bulbs in front of Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania has combined two species of Camassias with a number of plants in their beds, and I highly recommend their article — which contains inspiring photos, Longwood Gardens/blog/Fresh Spring Mix.
You’re probably wondering about the availability of camassia bulbs in the nursery trade. While it may be rare in garden centers, you’ll find it’s readily available among online purveyors of bulbs. So don’t hesitate to give this native bulb a try!
“Camassia quamash,” Plant Database, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=CAQU2
“Camassia scilloides,” Missouri Botanical Garden, Plant Finder
“Camassia leichtlinii,” Missouri Botanical Garden, Plant Finder
“Camassia cusickii,” Missouri Botanical Garden, Plant Finder
“Camassia angusta,” Missouri Botanical Garden, Plant Finder