This month we’re shining the spotlight on a very popular plant called great camas. You may have heard of this sun loving native perennial bulb or seen its showy purple flower. If you haven’t seen it before, soon it will be a perfect time to head down and check it out at the native plant demonstration garden in front of the Root Seller (near Happy Tides and Give Pizza Chance). Unfortunately, like many once common wildflowers, great camas have been heavily impacted by deer overpopulation and are now hard to find on Mayne Island. Though many bulbs persist, the flowers and most of the leaves are eaten every year.

Great camas growing in their natural habitat on a small islet near Mayne Island (with low deer browse).

I first learned about this wonderful plant while working with Parks Canada at Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site from 2009 to 2011. As part of the habitat restoration and indigenous reconciliation work Parks Canada was undertaking at the site, a few others and I were tasked with converting a large, mowed lawn into a meadow of native plants in which great camas would play a starring role. The first step in that process happened while I was there, which was to collect and start from seed as many camas as we could. We collected 198,000 camas seeds and constructed a nursery to grow them.

198,000 camas seeds were sown by Parks Canada at Fort Rodd Hill in 2010. Photo taken April 14th, 2012.

I moved to Mayne Island shortly after that, but the work at that site has since been brought to fruition by other staff and volunteers with Parks Canada. If you’re looking for an off-island day trip this spring, consider heading to Colwood to check out the stunning wildflower display at Fort Rodd Hill, where you will see camas and many other wildflowers in bloom.

Mature camas in bloom at Fort Rodd Hill. Photo taken by N. Fisk/Parks Canada in 2021.

Over the following years I learned a lot about camas, how they grow, where they grow, and that they are an important food for indigenous peoples. Camas have adapted growth habits for thriving in sites that experience seasonal drought and seasonal freezing. Like many spring wildflowers, they take advantage of the golden period between March and June when growing conditions are best. By mid-July camas have gone dormant, storing energy and moisture in an underground bulb for the following year. Plants take five to six years to reach maturity, and once they do, they produce a stunning purple flower, with seeds maturing and dispersing in July. The seeds overwinter and germinate in January. Camas can live for decades, with bulbs reaching the size of a human fist.

Propagation

Anytime we talk about growing wildflowers from seed it’s worth mentioning responsible seed collection guidelines. A general rule is to never collect more than 10% of the seed from a population in any given year. Also, to make sure populations are not being mistakenly over-harvested by multiple individuals without each other’s knowledge, seed collection in public lands is not allowed. If you are interested in growing camas yourself from seed, you can buy seed from Satin Flower Nursery in Saanich. If you want to save the wait and get your hands on some mature bulbs, the Mayne Conservancy has a few dozen pots still available for sale this year, with more available each spring.

The seeds should be sown in the fall and left to overwinter naturally outside. The seeds can be sown at a high density of approximately 600 seeds per 10’x20’ flat (about one big handful). I was told to sow the seeds on the surface, but in 2011 a cat taught me they grow better if you sow them ½-¾” deep. One morning I discovered one of my seed trays had been used as a litter box, and I cursed the cat for mixing up the soil and burying the seeds, but that tray actually performed better than the others and now I sow the seeds more deeply. The seeds require a period of moist cold conditions to initiate germination. We recommend leaving them in shallow containers (2-3” of soil) outside to experience natural winter conditions, though you can also replicate those conditions at any time of year by putting them in the refrigerator. Our experiments using refrigeration have had mixed results, as sometimes the seeds can get moldy. Also, by subjecting the seeds to natural cold moist conditions, the timing of germination will match the right time of year to experience spring and summer growing conditions.

Camas seeds recently germinated. Photo taken March 9th, 2014.

The seeds will typically germinate in January and by April in the first year the plants look like a single blade of grass. We keep them in the shallow trays for two years. In August of the second growing season, we separate out the dormant, pea-sized bulbs, and put them into a deeper, larger propagation box of my own design.

Conservancy staff sort camas bulbs in early August, potting up the largest and replanting the rest to continue growing in the larger boxes.

The boxes are about 12-14” deep and bulbs are planted 2-3” deep, slightly deeper for larger bulbs. A critical function of the propagation box design is a non-permeable bottom. Camas bulbs will migrate downwards in the soil as an adaptation to survive drought. Even larger bulbs will squeeze themselves through tiny holes and end up in the ground beneath your containers. We use scraps of old metal roofing for the bottom of our boxes, which prevents the bulbs from escaping while allowing drainage on each end.

Larger, deeper boxes allow larger camas bulbs more room to reach maturity. Photo taken March 22nd, 2023 at the Mayne Conservancy’s native plant nursery.

We grow the bulbs in the larger boxes for three or four years before they are ready for out-planting. Early to mid August is the best time to pot-up or outplant the dormant bulbs. One of the best things about growing camas is they do not require any watering. In fact, watering them only slightly extends the period of time in the season in which they will grow and providing too much water late in the growing season can actually rot the bulbs. In general, though they take a long time, great camas are a very hearty and easy plant to grow, and certainly worth the wait!

After 5-6 years, camas will flower. By then the bulbs are slightly bigger than a large marble.

I must admit, even having grown camas for the past 14 years, I have yet to try eating them. I just can’t bring myself to cook and eat something that took so long to grow, but maybe this will be the year I try them. Similar to potatoes, camas bulbs must be cooked before eating, unless you want some serious digestion issues. Cooking the bulbs breaks the starches down into sugars.


5 Comments

Patricia lee · May 11, 2023 at 9:34 am

Such an interesting article We would like to get some bulbs if still available We shall be on Mayne next Wednesday for a week so could get bulbs wherever available We have 2 acres of fenced garden and another 8 not fenced above Campbell Bay Road Malcolm and Tina know where we are
Thank u
Patricia

Emma · May 19, 2023 at 4:53 pm

I’m wondering why you don’t Include any indigenous names for the plant or place names for Mayne. It’s called Kwet’lal in lekwungen. You should try to include that as it is an important cultural plant.

    Rob Underhill · May 24, 2023 at 9:12 am

    Thanks Emma, yes it is an important cultural plant. This article was focused more about my personal experience with propagation of camas, but you’re right there is so much more to tell! I’m told great camas are also know as ҞŁO,EL and SPÁNW in the SENĆOŦEN dialect. I love using scientific names too since they are used all over the world, the scientific name for great camas is Camassia leichtlinii.

Gus · August 7, 2023 at 5:57 am

Camasia quamash is much more tolerable in the garden than lechtini. Lechtini becomes more of a weed in cultivation. The secret is to grow these in soil condition the mimic there natural habitat and not over compost them, to much nitrogen creates to much foliage growth.

Leave a Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *