Camas is one of the most important indigenous root foods, covering many hundreds of thousands of acres throughout the west, from Montana to California, both in the Sierra, on the Modoc plateau, and even occasionally on the coast. Where it still flourishes, it is easily glimpsed in spring, when it turns the fields and prairies a glorious rich blue-purple color.
It likes areas that are seasonally wet, drying out by late spring. It grows in wet meadows, swales, annual floodplains, and along ephemeral creeks, in sun or part-shade, and is found from two to eight inches below the surface.
Like other edible members of the lily family, it was harvested in such a way as to allow for its enhanced and continued flourishing. The large bulbs, from 1” to 2.5” in diameter, were removed to be eaten, while the smaller bulbs clinging to its sides were replanted in the loosened soil to grow into next year’s harvest. Digging sticks used for the purpose were excellent at churning the soil and avoided the danger of destroying the bulbs while digging, which can happen with a shovel or trowel.
A dense bulb with layers like an onion, camas contains inulin, a starch that is difficult to digest. Indigenous peoples were masters at the art of converting this substance to the digestible fructose, through long, slow cooking in an earth oven, as long as 36 hours but at least for two days. At this stage, the bulb starts to caramelize and turn brown, becoming very sweet in the process. Eating it before it turns brown may cause indigestion.
In the absence of earth ovens, try a “slow-cooker.” Remove the thin dark outer skin and place them in a steamer in the cooker, or in the oven at 220 degrees, adding water to reach the bottom of the steamer. Cover and cook for 12 hours, then remove, salt, and fry in olive oil. Or let cook for the recommended 36 hours, adding water as necessary.
For a luxurious dessert that reminds me of the E. Indian dessert called ras malai, I found a way to shorten the cooking time by boiling the bulbs for 30 minutes in water and then cooking them with cream and a small amount of sugar for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Use a pan large enough that it won’t boil over. Add rosewater and sweetener to taste. The bulbs become soft
and almost disappear the longer you cook them, thickening the pudding and adding a delicious taste. None of those of us who ate it experienced indigestion.
Camas is well worth growing at home, where you can become good at identifying its flowers and seed stalk. Note that it occasionally grows with another bulb that is toxic, called “death camas,” Toxicoscordion venenosum, which fortunately has very different white flowers, so only harvest from the wild if the flower or seed stalk is still attached and you are practiced at identification. The seed stalk is quite distinct in appearance, but never take a chance.
A home harvest provides flowers, safe and delicious meals, and a chance to connect with a root-food rich in history and association with this continent’s humankind.