Camassia is a genus of six species native to western North America, from southern British Columbia to northern California, and east to Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Historically, the genus was thought to belong to the lily family (Liliaceae), sometimes narrowed down to the families Scillaceae or Hyacinthaceae, but DNA and biochemical studies have led the APG II-group to reassign Camassia to the family Agavaceae. Common names include Camas, Quamash, Indian hyacinth, and Wild hyacinth.
Camassia species were an important food staple for Native Americans and settlers in parts of the American Old West. Many areas in the Northwest are named for the plant, including the city of Camas, Washington, the Camas Prairie in northern Idaho (and its Camas Prairie Railroad), and Camas County in southern Idaho.
Camas grow in the wild in great numbers in moist meadows; they are perennial plants with basal linear leaves measuring 8 to 32 inches (20–80 cm) in length, which emerge early in the spring. They grow to a height of 12 to 50 inches (30–130 cm), with a multi-flowered stem rising above the main plant in summer. The six-petaled flowers vary in color from pale lilac or white to deep purple or blue-violet. They sometimes color whole meadows.
The Quamash was a food source for many native peoples in the western United States and Canada. After being harvested in the autumn, once the flowers have withered, the bulbs were pit-roasted or boiled. A pit-cooked camas bulb looks and tastes something like baked sweet potato, but sweeter, and with more crystalline fibers due to the presence of inulin in the bulbs. When dried, the bulbs could be pounded into flour. Native American tribes who ate camas include the Nez Perce, Cree, Coast Salish, Lummi, and Blackfoot tribes, among many others. Camas bulbs contributed to the survival of members of the expedition of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806).
Though the once-immense spreads of camas lands have diminished because of modern developments and agriculture, numerous Camas prairies and marshes may still be seen today. In the Great Basin, expanded settlement by whites accompanied by turning cattle and hogs onto camas prairies greatly diminished food available to native tribes and increased tension between Native Americans and settlers and travelers.
Warning: While Camassia species are edible and nutritious, the white-flowered Deathcamas species (which are not the genus Camassia, but part of the genus Zigadenus) that grow in the same areas are toxic, and the bulbs are quite similar. It is easiest to tell the plants apart when they are in flower.