When daylight rises I am often standing at the kitchen counter making coffee. One morning this spring I was struck by sun streaming in after days of clouds and rain. Beyond my front window a thick patch of camas was flowering beneath a blooming Spitzenburg apple tree. I was compelled to go outside for a closer look. This is saying a lot, because I am not compelled to do much of anything before my morning coffee.
Each six-inch camas inflorescence glinted with drops of leftover rain. The flowers rocked in the small breeze, casting their dancing shadows onto one another. I’m not sure I’ve ever looked closely at an individual camas blossom. Each one was a six-petaled lavender star, the petals forming exclamation marks with longitudinal ridges thrown wide open to the morning, radiating outward from a golden pistil. Six pollen-laden anthers were suspended from their filaments like tiny yellow planets orbiting the pistil, casting their own small shadows onto the petals.
This hybrid landscape of apple tree and camas was not planned. We like to eat Spitzenburgs, camas flowers are lovely in the spring, and our lot is small. I found some bulbs from a lot near ours and transplanted them under the tree. The metaphor is not lost on me; this native food plant is forced to coexist with a European interloper because of circumstances and limited usable space. The tree makes plenty of apples, and the camas blooms prolifically, producing many seeds. The two species seem to have worked it out.
On the other side of the house lies another patch of camas. These backyard plants came from stock growing on the Willamette Valley floor just north of Eugene. They are blue rather than lavender. Deep blue. True blue. Perhaps cobalt. The flowers tend toward the color of western larkspur. They are that last barely-lit band of sunset sky that chases the daylight over the western ridge.
When I seeded these camas, I wondered if their blue really was true. Would the blue breed true into the next generation? After fifteen years they have made more of themselves—a lot more of themselves—and all of the offspring flowered into true blue. So the color isn’t just the result of growing in deep black soils of the Willamette Valley floor. It has a genetic basis that is transmitted to the next generation of plants growing beneath an ornamental dogwood in suburban South Eugene.
The genetics of this heart-rending blue most likely lie in the accumulation of anthocyanins. Presumably these Willamette Valley camas have figured out a way to concentrate anthocyanins to a greater extent than the lavender plants in the front yard. Making anthocyanins is an energy intensive process, so there must be some positive evolutionary tradeoff for making or concentrating that extra pigment. Perhaps true blue more effectively attracts a group of pollinators unique to the valley floor. There are many to choose from; crickets, ladybugs, ants, and native bees all visit camas flowers.
My camas patches are a small study in beauty and genetics, and an opportunity to wedge some tiny fragments of native landscaping into a suburban world full of grass, azaleas, and Japanese maples. But in places where extensive swaths of camas still exist, the blooms have a collective splendor quite different from the exquisite individual flowers. Over two centuries ago (June 12, 1806), Meriwether Lewis was captivated by these vast expanses of blooming camas: “The quawmash is now in blume and from the colour … 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.” I suppose camas is like most other things in the universe to which we pay careful attention. Each scale of observation provides its own unique beauty.
The dietary importance of camas bulbs to subsistence humans is well known. In precolonial North America the bulbs were a premier source of carbohydrate. Vast tracts of oak-savanna were maintained by fires set by Kalapuya people to encourage the propagation of camas, tarweed, and other foods. I have not eaten camas bulbs, but when I do it will be in small quantities. When the half-starved Lewis and Clark expedition emerged from the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho onto the Weippe Plain, they gorged on camas and dried salmon generously provided by the Nez Perce. The entire crew became so ill with gastrointestinal upset that they barely functioned for a week. This spring I dug up some wayward camas in my garden beds and was impressed by how deep the bulbs were buried. I can scarcely imagine the amount of work necessary for using a digging stick to harvest those large piles of bulbs shown in old photographs.
Can there be any doubt that camas is the iconic flowering plant of the western valleys and foothills? You need only imagine a time before jobs or retirement accounts or supermarkets. You emerge from a winter of long nights into the stretching daylight of spring. From an open hillside above a flat valley, a blue-egg morning cracks open before you. The rising sun breaks between puffy clouds, sending light to earth at that sweet angle that draws long shadows from the oak trees. Vast swaths of camas flowers leap like lavender flames from meadows kept open and productive by your own burning. You stretch your arms wide to gather in the splendor, knowing that you will be fed. Imagine the gratitude engendered by all that beauty, all that food, gathered together into one species.
[Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared in the May 2016 edition of Nature Trails, the monthly publication of the Eugene Natural History Society.]