Common Camas (Camassia quamash)
Camas is a 6-petaled purple lily with grass-like leaves that blooms in early May to June and is found in open prairies throughout the Pacific Northwest. Camas has been carefully managed for thousands of years through controlled burns, weeding and selective harvest.
Camas is high in a complex carbohydrate called inulin, which can help stabilize blood sugar. Inulin is also a prebiotic that helps our body absorb nutrients and ward off disease.
A traditional method for cooking camas bulbs is to slow roast them in a pit oven for about 24-48 hours. After gathering camas bulbs for several weeks, our family would dig a large pit and a very hot fire near the pit. Rocks that were able to withstand high temperatures were then placed in the fire to create the heating element.
Once hot, the rocks were placed in the bottom of the pit and topped with vegetation like skunk cabbage, moss and ferns and then the camas was placed on top and covered with another layer of vegetation and a small amount of water. The pit was then covered again with the earth and left to smolder for up to two days. Modern Indians now use burlap sacks to keep the dirt from seeping through the vegetation and into the camas layer. When that sweet scent of baked pear dances through the air, our elders check the camas to determine if it is ready. Everyone partakes in the feast and then divide the year’s supply of camas among the families. This cooking process changes the inulin into a more digestible sugar that tastes sweet, but does not raise blood sugar. Harvesting and eating these foods that fed our ancestors not only nourishes our bodies, but feeds our spirits as well.
Although the pit oven method is probably the most delicious way to prepare camas, not everyone has 2 days to dedicate to cooking, let alone the amount of bulbs needed to justify digging the pit. Luckily, there are other methods of preparation. Camas can be eaten fresh, boiled, baked, dehydrated or even slow roasted in a Crockpot. I often clean the bulbs by peeling off the outer layer and freeze them on a cookie sheet. Once frozen, they can be stored in a freezer bag and added to soups and stews throughout the year. As I gather these tiny bulbs each spring, I often wonder if I will ever be able to gather as much in my lifetime as my Grandmother did annually.
*CAUTION: Be very sure of your identification before eating camas. The bulbs of Death Camas are deadly poisonous and look very similar to the edible varieties (Camassia quamash and Camassia leichtlinii). Death Camas has white flowers with tighter flower clusters. They bloom a couple of weeks later than camas.