The Camas Are Blooming
Captain Willian Clark of the Lewis and Clark expedition said it best when he first described a prairie of flowering camas on June 10th 1806 as, “a perfect resemblance of lakes of clear water.” Unfortunately, when the Corps of Discovery first tried eating this popular local dish when it was offered by their Nez Perce friends, it took some getting used to. Captain Lewis was very grateful until after supper when he was, “filled so full of wind, that we were scarcely able to breath all night.” The debilitating effects of a new diet of dried fish and camas stopped the expedition in its tracks with a perfect storm of vomiting, diarrhea and flatulence.
This small member of the lily family with a blue hyacinth shaped flower and an edible bulb about the size of a small onion, used to be the most important carbohydrate throughout the Pacific Northwest. Camas was one of an estimated 80 species of plants used for food, fiber and medicines that grew on prairies maintained by the Native American practice of burning the land every three to five years. The fires spurred the growth of useful plants, killed the weeds and kept the trees from taking over the land.
Native American legends say the camas was a gift of “The Great Changer.” This was a mythical hero to many tribes of the Northwest who believed the Changer brought balance to the world by using his power to transform people, animals and landscapes into what we see today. These transformers or changers were called Docuebatl, Kumsnootl and Kwati, (Q’waati) by various tribes. They turned wolves into the Quileute people. Caused the trees to spring up out of the ground and spread camas throughout the region where it has been growing ever since.
Camas was mostly dug in September and October when the bulbs could be preserved the longest. A hundred pounds of camas might be steamed in a stone oven resulting in a gelatinous mass that was pressed into cakes that could be sliced like bread and said to taste not unlike the sweet potato.
In 1999 a highway construction project near Sequim unearthed the remains of a stone camas oven that was used to cook the bulbs 6,000 years ago, indicating camas has been here almost as long as the people.
In May of 1792 Captain George Vancouver sailed his ship Discovery into the Strait of Juan de Fuca where he was so impressed with the beauty of the Sequim Prairie, he named the area “Dungeness” after his home in England.
In 1841 the American explorer Charles Wilkes described the camas prairies as, “All seeming in the utmost order as if man had been ever watchful of its beauty and cultivation.” That is because these gardens had been cultivated for thousands of years.
These indigenous gardens occurred all over the Pacific Northwest. The level, well drained fertile lands were also free of trees which made them very attractive to the invading hordes of European farmers.
The 1500-acre Sequim Prairie was first homesteaded in 1866. The land was considered “unimproved.” The Indian crops were considered weeds and brush. Farmers raised wheat and hogs. The hogs made short work of the camas bulbs.
This pattern of settlement moved to the west end of the Olympic Peninsula where ethnologist Jay Powell documented 9 camas prairies in the Quileute country. Of these only one retains the camas. Located south of Forks along Highway 101. Our one remaining camas prairie can be found in the spring blooming a blue carpet of flowers, “a perfect resemblance of lakes of clear water.”