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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.