Wednesday, April 22, 2009

NWPodcast #107 - Camas Consumption like a Native

We've been looking for wild Blue Camas here in Oregon for years... we had it all around us up in Washington, but until last week had not seen any here in Oregon!

We sure found a bunch of it - Boy Howdy!

They are a beautiful flower - usually first appearing in April. Very pretty, and a good one to paint. It is sad to dig them up too early, so we only sampled a few this time. In May, when the flower is about withered away, is the best time to dig up their bulbs for eating.

As you can see, the bulbs this early in the year are small - about the size of a dime before cleaning. These were about 4" deep.

After cleaning them off, they are even smaller. I found some interesting quotes from here:

When eaten raw or only partially cooked, the plants can produce substantial amounts of intestinal gas, as Captain Lewis eloquently noted: “…when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by the strength of the wind.”

They taste great when roasted - like a very good baked potatoe. The kids really like them. BE CAREFUL, though, because there is a similar flower - the Death Camas, with white flowers that can kill!

Some more interesting info from the i-verse - David Douglas, a famous early botanical explorer in the Pacific Northwest, reported on this roasting process. First, a large fire was built in the pit, heating the stones thoroughly. Then the fire was removed, and up to a hundred pounds (45 kilograms) or more of bulbs were piled in its place. Sometimes other plants, including red alder (Alnus rubra) or madrone (Arbutus menziesii) bark, were added to give the cooked product a reddish colour, and black lichens (Bryoria spp.) could be added to raise its value for trade. The bulbs were then covered and a fire was built again on top. Baking may have extended for up to two days. Cooked and dried bulbs were second in importance only to smoked salmon as a trade item.

Though the bulbs were traditionally gathered after the flowers had withered, weeding was done during flowering. The primary objective was to remove death camas (Zygadenus venenosus), which often grows mixed with blue camas. With much smaller, white flowers, death camas is easy to distinguish from blue camas when the plants are flowering, but at the time of harvest the two species appear identical. Death camas is well-named: fatalities were not rare. Full-grown cattle have died from eating it, and even mortality of bees visiting the plants has been reported. The poison involved is an alkaloid neurotoxin called zygacine. This provided strong motivation to weed camas beds in preparation for the time of harvest, and anyone eating these plants was well-advised to pay attention to taxonomy.

So, get out and look for blue flowers! Here's out podcast when we went out digging some and then cooked em.

The filesize is 8Mbytes, and the podcast runs about 15 minutes.