Camassia leichtlinii (great camas)
Great camas is a bulbous plant native to North America, with broader leaves than other species of this genus, that bears many star-shaped blue or whitish flowers.
Camassia leichtlinii (Photo: James Morley)
Camassia leichtlinii (Baker) S.Watson
great camas, large camas, quamash
Not known to be threatened.
Ornamental, edible bulbs.
None known, but poisonings have occurred when the similar-looking bulbs of the death camus Toxicoscordion venenosum (formerly Zigadenus venenosus; Melanthiaceae) have been eaten by mistake.
About this species
Camassia leichtlinii was named in honour of Maximilian Leichtlin (1831-1910) of Baden Baden. He was a keen grower and hybridiser of bulbous plants, and corresponded regularly with Kew botanist J.G. Baker, often exchanging plants with the Gardens. It is the tallest of the six species within the genus Camassia, and one of the best bulbs for naturalising in long grass. It has star-shaped flowers, which open in the afternoon and are creamy-white, pale green, blue or purplish, and can be double. There are two subspecies: C. leichtlinii subsp. leichtlinii which usually has white flowers, and C. leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii, which has blue or purplish flowers. The cultivar C. leichtlinii ‘Lady Eva Price’ is named after the wife of Sir Henry Price, who was the owner of Wakehurst in the 1960s. It is a particularly attractive form of C. leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii.
Camassia esculenta var. leichtlinii, Quamasia leichtlinii, Camassia leichtlinii subsp. typica
Geography and distribution
Native to North America, where it occurs from southern British Columbia to Washington, Oregon and California, where it is found in the Coast Range south to Napa County, and in the Sierra Nevada mountain range south to Mono and Tulare Counties.
A bulbous plant with leaves up to 60 cm long and 2.5 cm wide. The flowering stems are up to 120 cm long and are leafless and unbranched, with numerous flowers. There are six more or less equal perianth segments (petals and sepals), each up to 5 cm long. The dead perianth segments remain twisted around the young capsule (fruit). Mature capsules are up to 2.5 cm long. The seeds are black, ovoid and about 2 mm long.
Threats and conservation
The once extensive populations of Camassia species have been reduced by agricultural improvement of the meadows in which they grow.
Great camas is grown today as an ornamental, particularly in grass. However, for some native North Americans, bulbs of several Camassia species (including Camassia leichtlinii) were an important food source.
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who led the United States’ first expedition to the Pacific coast of North America (1804-1806), first tasted Camassia bulbs after a difficult journey over the Bitterroot Mountains (part of the Rocky Mountains named after bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva), during which the expedition members almost starved and were reduced to eating some of their horses. After descending from the mountains in September 1805, Lewis and Clark were met by members of the Nez Perce tribe, who provided them with food, including bread made from Camassia bulbs.
The bulbs were usually cooked by steaming them for a day or more in circular pits in the ground and used rather like potatoes to accompany meat or fish dishes, or to sweeten other foods. Some tribes, such as the Sooke and Songish, traded large quantities of Camassia bulbs with the Nootka in exchange for other foods.
Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage
The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life worldwide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in Kew's seed bank vault at Wakehurst.
Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 8.05 g
Collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One
This species at Kew
Camassia leichtlinii can be seen growing in the Rock Garden at Kew and the Bog Garden at Wakehurst. It usually flowers in late March and April.
A related species, Camassia cusickii, can be seen naturalised in grass along the Riverside Walk close to Rhododendron Dell at Kew.
Pressed and dried specimens of Camassia species are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers, by appointment. The details, including an image, of one of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.
Great camas bulbs are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers, by appointment.
Curtis's Botanical Magazine
Curtis's Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.
Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.
Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Blackwell Publishing.
Baker, J.G. (1877). Camassia esculenta var. leichtlinii. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 103: tab. 6287.
Fischer, U. (2006). Wer war Max Leichtlin (1831-1910)? Grüner Anz. 5.
Mathew, B. (2004). Camassia leichtlinii ‘Lady Eva Price’. Curtis’s Bot. Mag. 205: 34-38.
Munz, P.A. (1959). A California Flora. University of California Press.
Phillips, R. & Rix, M. (1989). Bulbs. Pan/ Macmillan.
Turner, N.C. & Bell, M.A.M. (1971). The ethnobotany of the Coast Salish Indians of Vancouver Island. Econ. Bot. 25(1): 63-104.
World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 4 April 2010).
Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group)
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell
While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.