Note: Common camas is easily confused death camas (Toxicoscordion venenosum). Death camas grows in the same habitat as common camas. All parts of death camas are highly poisonous. It is dangerous for humans as well as livestock. We do not recommend harvesting or eating common camas.
Common camas, Camassia quamash, is a native perennial herb in the lily family. The beautiful blue flowers grow in moist meadows and prairies in southern British Columbia and the northwestern United States. In the Columbia Basin of BC, camas is a rare find, restricted to low-elevation sites in the West Kootenay. The West Kootenay Native Plant Study Group held a well attended ‘Camas Count in Castlegar’s Twin Rivers Park and Millennium Walkway in the spring of 2009, where we were astonished to find what appears to be the largest non-coastal concentration of camas in British Columbia. There are smaller camas populations reported in South Slocan, on the Brilliant Bluffs and at isolated locations along the Columbia River.
Camas was a dietary staple for many indigenous peoples wherever it grew, and has been called a ‘cultural keystone species’. The explorer David Thompson traded for camas during his travels down the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers, recording it simply as ‘Roots’ (with a capital R) in his journals. There is much evidence to suggest that it was spread beyond its range by transplanting, and the Castlegar Twin Rivers Park camas are probably evidence of long occupation and use of the site by First Nations.
References to camas as ‘Roots’ in David Thompson’s Narrative of his Explorations in Western North America 1784-1812:
Camas is an important natural and cultural resource in the West Kootenay. Camas was an important part of First Nations’ cultures who gathered, ate and traded it extensively. In addition, camas is a low-elevation species associated with moist and seasonally wet ecosystems. The extent of these ecosystems has been dramatically reduced due to agricultural conversion, urban encroachment, and flood control from the dams along the Columbia River. A comprehensive inventory will provide baseline information vital to understanding the origin, persistence and threats to camas. We will be continuing the habitat assessment we started in 2012 of known and reported camas populations and collecting herbarium specimens so that Kootenay Camas can be adequately represented in the flora of BC.
The Kootenay Camas Project seeks to engage the public in making observations and collecting and recording data about camas populations in the Kootenays. We hope to understand the health and status of camas meadows, to identify opportunities for stewardship, and to promote awareness of this important natural and heritage resource.
Citizen science is the involvement of the public in scientific discovery, where volunteers partner with scientists to answer real-world questions. Christmas Bird Counts, done annually by naturalists across Canada and the United states, are one of the longest running citizen science projects. Bird observations provide critical data on the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. Scientists use data collected by citizens to document how bird populations have changed in time and space and to identify threats to birds and their habitat.
In 2012, the Kootenay Camas Project worked with local citizens to find the largest Canadian populations of common camas (Camassia quamash) east of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. The confluence of the Kootenay and Columbia Rivers is the area with the highest population density as well as the area with the most individual finds. Millennium Park in Castlegar is a camas “hot spot”, as can be seen in the map below.
In 2014, the Kootenay Camas Project would like local residents to identify peak blooming time for this important spring flower. Learn more about this at Camas Watch.
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