Article and Images by Ray G. Foster
Native Americans called the flower Quamash. Some people called the flower Indian Hyacinth or Indigo Squill; but most people have adopted the name Camas, which was derived from the genus and species name Camassia Quamash. I just called it—that cool looking purple flower.
Camas flowers are of the Lily family and are typically found in moist meadows, lowlands, and along the edge of grassy prairies. The twelve to eighteen inch tall plants burst their buds into star-shaped flowers with six slender petals of blue-purple from May through June.
I found some camas flowers blooming along the roads, the hiking trails, and through the woods near my home at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge and I also learned of a small hidden meadow located on the refuge where camas flowers grew in abundance.
I noticed that when it rained the night before or there was heavy dew that the flower seemed to glow with unusual brilliance. Early morning seemed to be the best time of day to photograph the flower when they were bathed in a pleasing soft light and a time when the wind was at its calmest; the delicate flower stalks stood still. Another advantage when photographing during the calm morning time was that slower shutter speeds and a greater depth of field could be obtained when a polarizer was used with Provia 100F film.
I used a Nikon F4, a Sigma 105 mm macro lens, a Sigma 70–200 mm zoom lens, a Sigma 17–35 mm lens, a sturdy tripod, and a cable release to help reduce camera shake when I photographed the camas. I also find that homemade reflectors made from various sizes of cardboard and tinfoil work well to reflect light onto subjects such as flowers when photographing.
The camas flowers were at the peak of their glory when I visited the small meadow on the refuge where they grow. I watched the morning light unfold across the field of purple splendor as I began to compose the scene in the camera’s viewfinder, and I wondered if some ancient tribe had harvested camas bulbs from that very meadow.
I learned that the Native Americans had used a variety of indigenous plants in their daily lives and that camas bulbs were actually used as a food source by tribes throughout Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Western Canada.
As I photographed the meadows I imagined how tribal women dug and pried camas bulbs from the ground. I imagined other members of a tribe as they dug large pits, which they lined with rocks and heated with fire. I imagined tribes’ people as they placed camas bulbs in the pits, covered them with earth and then baked the bulbs for two or three days before they ate them and—I wondered if any ancient pit-ovens lay buried beneath the ground where I stood.
History reveals the destiny and culture shock of many tribes who were forced to live on reservations or face genocide when the white man infiltrated the territories where the ancient inhabitants lived. Vast camas prairies, which were once abundant throughout the Northwest and Western Canada, were converted into farms and ranches where more lucrative crops such as wheat were grown and the land was transformed into today’s interpretation of civilization.
There are still areas of the Northwest which are reminiscent of the once widespread camas fields such as the small meadow at Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge, but today we are mostly reminded of Quamash by the names of places and towns like Camas Washington, Camas Idaho, and Camas Valley Oregon.
The Weippe Camas Festival
The Festival takes place every Memorial Day weekend, where visitors can view camas fields in bloom and taste the roasted bulbs. You can find more information about this festival at the Weippe Idaho Events Calendar.
There is also the Nez Perce National Historical Park in Spalding Idaho where a cultural interpretive center unveils Native American historical artifacts, information about the camas plant and an array of fascinating artifacts.
Nez Perce National Historical Park Information
Park Ranger/Cultural Interpreter
Rt. 1 Box 100
Spalding, Idaho 83540
Ankeny National Wildlife Refuge
For more detailed information about this and other refuges in the Willamette Valley of Northwest Oregon visit the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s website at http://www.fws.gov/willamettevalley/.