“The quawmash is now in blume … at a short distance it resembles lakes of fine clear water, so complete is this deseption that on first sight I could have swoarn it was water.” – Meriwether Lewis, June, 1806, Weippe Prairie, N.E. Idaho*
“The quawmash is now in sprowte in the Green House… compassed about with Puddles of raine water.” -Shirley Doolittle-Egerdahl, March 2012, Tadpole Haven Native Plants
Camas stands for balance, in my mind. The Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest relied on Camas bulbs (“quawmash”) as an important starchy component of their diet. Camas grows in moist parts of open grassy prairies. In Western Washington, the Native Americans used fire to keep the camas prairies free of Douglas Firs. In this way, they actively practiced agriculture, but in a way that was in balance with the ecology.
Oak trees would survive the periodic burning, and indeed, the burning stimulated oak seeds to germinate. Most of the Puget Sound region’s prairies are in Pierce and Thurston counties, where you can still see our native oak – Garry Oak or Oregon White Oak (Quercus garryana). But after Indian burning ceased in the mid-1800s, the Douglas Fir forest encroached. Then of course came settlers with their brand of agriculture. Now much of the camas prairie-cum-farmland is invaded by roads and driveways, lawns and houses planted by by suburban “settlers”. Untended remnants of prairie often become overrun by Spanish and Scot’s Broom. There are efforts to save large prairie areas and some controlled burning has been used. The Mima Mounds or the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area are good places to see prairies, a.k.a. oak savannahs. The Washington Native Plant Society has focused on Garry Oak Ecosystems (which include prairies) as a conservation priority.
West of the Cascades, we have two native blue-flowered Camas species, Common Camas (Camassia quamash) and Great Camas (Camassia leichtlinii). Both of them do well in soil that holds winter moisture – they can be completely inundated — but dries out in the summer. They readily re-seed themselves, but it is easy to unwittingly weed out their seedlings, which resemble blades of grass.
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