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Worth it's weight in Camas!

In a previous post you heard me boldly proclaim that camas, not Oregon Grape, should be the Oregon state flower. I know the grape, Berberis aquifolium, is found in all but 2 of the state’s counties, and has some good uses - dying of fabric, herbalist and medicinal uses (mainly the root), a decent jam - but somehow I could never really get excited about it. I don’t know why. Maybe my level of warmth is similar to those who finally acted in 1899 to get B.acquifolium recognized as the state flower – it took nearly a decade of wrangling and lobbying to get the proclamation passed. Is it sour grapes to dust off the ancient saying that goes, “hardly worth its salt”?[i]

The purple flower of the Camas

Camas (Camassia spp.) on the other hand I think is a bloody brilliant plant, giving itself to instant fascination. I came to it from a food perspective (classified in the agave family, multiple flavors depending on how prepared)[ii], stayed for the beauty (lakes of blue)[iii] and am now hooked as an amateur economist/historian. It’s because of these latter aspects that I want to share with you some of the many sweet ways camas is indeed worth its salt!

In the post “The Lands I Walk” I noted how an adventure to Big Summit Prairie prompted some searching, triggered by camas.[iv] And a good adventure should always leave you thirsting for more knowledge and knowhow, right? So what did I come away with on my camas adventure-in-learning? Let me start by sharing some of the non-latin, native American names: qém’es, quamash, pa-siko, xmas and xmaas. (These are just a few. Since camas is distributed from British Columbia to California and east to Montana/Wyoming, there are names in each language group).


Fields of purple camas flowers


Here are some more facts I turned up (key sources are listed at the end of this post) – but know that this entry can’t do justice to the importance of this marvelous plant - I’d encourage anyone in my Central Oregon neck of the woods to visit one of the finest small museums in the country, the Smithsonian-affiliate Museum at Warm Springs, just outside of Madras, Oregon, for an introduction to the trade and socio-cultural centrality of camas to the first nations:

Purple flower on top, bulb on bottom

  • Except for choice varieties of dried salmon, no other food item was more widely traded among native people in the Pacific Northwest. The bulbs were valued as sweeteners, and shared or traded as gifts at weddings and funerals. Bulbs and bulb products were highly valued. Ounce for ounce, camas contains more protein than salmon!

  • Camas was heavily traded in networks reaching from Canada to California and east to Montana and the plains. The value of camas was reflected in a form of property rights with plots physically demarcated and intergenerationally transferred. There were penalties for transgressions. This was particularly so for the Nez Perce.

  • As a valued resource, camas plots were actively managed, perhaps for thousands of years. Turf was lifted out systematically in small sections and then replaced after only larger bulbs had been removed. Annual controlled burning was used to maintain the open prairie- like habitat optimal for camas production. Areas were harvested only every few years. Death camas bulbs (Zigadenus venenosus) were removed, so they wouldn’t accidentally be mistaken for the edible camas bulbs.

  • In productive camas prairies, any one gatherer could harvest 50-60 pounds of camas

Indigenious woman harvesting Camas in Oregon

bulbs per day, in a season that could last from weeks to months. Drying and baking typically took place on site - dried camas was the most expensive form of camas, with baked and then raw camas being less expensive.

  • Baked camas is presented in a formats ranging from finger sized, to multi-pound loaves.

  • Roasted and dried camas bulbs can be stored for decades.

  • For the plateau peoples, before open season of harvesting important roots, the Root Feast, a thanksgiving, is held (in the mid-Columbia known as Xnit Sapálwit). It renews a sacred compact and also marks an important rite of passage for young girls.

So, is this sugary bulb, an essential economic and cultural part of Pacific Northwest Native American life, worth its salt? I’ll go a step further and say that camas was in fact a salt or gold-equivalent for the Pacific Northwest. (and just as happened for salt on 3 other continents, places here took their name from sites of productive camas labor).

I’ll leave the final words to historian Jack Nisbet – “Various Plateau creation stories teach the same lesson in different ways: “Back in the earliest times, the roots promised to take care of the people, as long as the people promised to take care of the roots.” It will make me wonder next time I’m up on the Big Summit Prairie…

[i] Our word salary derives from salt, which for more than 3,000 years was perhaps the world’s most valuable and extensively traded commodity, and in places, used as a currency. At one time said to be worth its weight in gold… [ii] Various flavors develop depending on which cooking wood and seasonings are layered into the pit or oven, and the length of time the bulb is cooked. Various authors liken the consistency of cooked camas to roasted onions, the color to molasses, the flavor to fig or baked pear, the odor to vanilla, and the taste to maple sugar or sweet chestnut. [iii] When camas was in bloom in wet meadows, the flowers grow so thickly that they look like a blue lake.” (https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_caqub2.pdf [iv] “Big Summit Prairie was an important area for Native peoples, including those who are now members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The meadows provided abundant camas root and other traditional foods that are still gathered by members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Burns Paiute Tribe. Many cultural sites can still be found on the Prairie, including camas ovens. (https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/big_summit_prairie/#.XxsrOC2z1ao) Resources and reading (all accessed July 2020): All round excellence: Visit the Museum at Warm Springs. https://www.museumatwarmsprings.org Oregon Grape: https://www.npsoregon.org/kalmiopsis/kalmiopsis13/fillhart.pdf If you’ve only got time for one camas overview including ethnobotany: https://www.npsoregon.org/kalmiopsis/kalmiopsis14/sultanykepharteilers.pdf First feast: https://www.spokesman.com/stories/2018/jun/21/root-dig-about-much-more-than-searching-for-food/ Other references: https://www.opb.org/news/article/oregon-warm-springs-root-feast-continues-coronavirus/ https://www.opb.org/news/article/umatilla-women-keep-traditions-root-digging-alive/ https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/camas/#.Xx4z8y2z1ao https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/cs_caqub2.pdf https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salt_in_Chinese_history https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_salt

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