Camas Plant Plays Tribal Food and Cultural Role
The native Pacific Northwest camas plant has long been associated with Indian tribes from Northern California to British Columbia, with its most diverse and abundant concentration in Southern Oregon.
Known by its scientific name as camassia quamash, the plant was a mainstay of Indian food and culture. Indians have harvested the plant for hundreds of years, using a variety of digging tools to unearth its sweet tasting bulbs, which are pit roasted, boiled, or dried and ground into flour.
Camas’ cultural role included serving as a sweet gift to other tribes and at Indian weddings.
European settlers had difficulty digesting the plant and never undertook its widespread cultivation and use. By turning their cattle and hogs onto camas prairies, the settlers reduced food available to the tribes and increased regional tensions.
Despite further reduction of prairies by modern developments and agriculture, camas still grows in the region’s wetlands and oak meadows.
The plant has left its name on the land, including two cities in Washington State, a county and railroad in Idaho, and, closer to home, Big Camas Ranger Station east of Roseburg, Ore., in the Umpqua National Forest.