All posts by nomadseed

Solomon’s Seal — Polygonatum species

Giant Solomon's Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)
Giant Solomon’s Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)

Solomon’s Seal (genus Polygonatum) is a really cool native plant of eastern and central North America. It is in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae. The young shoots are edible raw or cooked just as garden asparagus — they are mucilaginous but flavorful and nutritive. The flower blossoms are a real delicacy — tender and sweet. Even the rhizome has been used as a human staple food rich in starch. It is from the rhizome that we get the common name “Solomon’s Seal.” Somewhere down the line, somebody thought that the indented “seals” left behind on the rootstock from last year’s shoots had the quality of a royal stamp to them, so they named the plant King Solomon’s Seal. Go figure! But the name has stuck.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.

Although Solomon’s Seal is usually found in mesic forests under a deciduous canopy, they grow quite happily in full sun as well. The shoots emerge in the early spring, reach stature and flower by the late spring, and grow into ripened fruits by the late summer. The shoots die back in the fall and remain dormant until the following spring.

The two main North American species of Solomon’s Seal are Polygonatum biflorum (Smooth Solomon’s Seal) and Polygonatum pubescens (Hairy Solomon’s Seal). Additionally there is Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum, sometimes simply called Polygonatum commutatum, which is known as Giant Solomon’s Seal. It is my favorite of the bunch.

P. pubescens has hairs on the underside of the leaves and this is one way in which it can be distinguished from P. biflorum. Polygonatum biflorum is also generally larger than P. pubescens, but not as large as P. commutatum. Polygonatum commutatum may be distinguished from P. biflorum by its stalk which is straight and leafless for almost two feet above the ground before it begins to curl and unfurl with leaves.

There are several east Asian Polygonatum species, as well. One of the most popular of these is the variegated Solomon’s Seal, commonly seen in gardens. It is a varietal of Polygonatum odoratum. There’s also dwarf Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum humile, among others. All have more or less the same culinary properties and are cultivated in the same ways.

The tender blossoms of Solomon's Seal are a delicacy.
The tender blossoms of Solomon’s Seal are a delicacy.
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon's Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon’s Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
Rhizome of Solomon's Seal showing the "seals." These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food.
Rhizome of Solomon’s Seal showing the “seals.” These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food. The rhizomes may also be  cut and up and divided and replanted for further propagation.

I love gathering seed of Solomon’s Seal and rewilding it into new woodland areas, or even intentionally sowing into dense patches. Solomon’s Seal is very valuable as a food crop. Whether or not the rhizomes are being consumed, the shoots and flowers alone are fantastic, and because they grow even under a closed deciduous canopy, they could be ideal for farmers who wish to provide more vegetables to their customers, and have some wooded areas to garden in. Imagine a whole hillside of Solomon’s Seal — that’s a huge amount of springtime food! And it’s a perennial requiring little management, no weeding, and no hoeing… A big improvement over conventional agriculture, in my opinion.

Giant Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon's Seal.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.

I gather the ripe berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) around mid-September. The seeds contained inside are double-dormant, requiring two winter cold periods before germination. It may take up to several years before maturity and flowering depending on the species and the conditions. While the seeds are probably tolerant of some drying, I always sow immediately or store in a soil mixture for later sowing.

Nashville breadroot — Pediomelum subacaule

The Nashville breadroot -- Pediomelum subacaule
The Nashville breadroot — Pediomelum subacaule

Not much is written about the Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). It’s listed in a few field guides as a plant with an edible root, but that’s about it so far as I can find. The plant seems to be very under-studied. There is no ethnobotanical literature specifically related to this species. My personal experiences with it suggest this to be a highly important plant, with further investigations warranted.

Pediomelum subacaule blooming in early April.
Pediomelum subacaule blooming in early April.

Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) begins blooming in early April in the cedar glades with a center of distribution around middle Tennessee. The plant can also be found in cedar glades in nearby Georgia and Alabama. It takes the common name from its more well-known, larger sibling, the Indian breadroot or prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum). The Indian breadroot was an important first foods root to indigenous groups of the Great Plains. Known as timpsula to the Lakota, it was so important that they named the month of June after it: tinpsila itkahca wi, meaning the moon when breadroot is ripe. I have used the information on the Indian breadroot, Pediomelum esculentum, as a guide to understanding the Nashville breadroot from an ethnobotanical perspective, compensating for the dearth of literature regarding this specific plant.

The genus Pediomelum, in the bean family (Fabaceae), is a large group containing many geophytic plants with edible starchy roots. Additional examples include Pediomelum cuspidatum, P. hypogaeum, P. megalanthum, P. californicum, P. castoreum, P. argophyllum, and more.

Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) in bloom.
Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) in bloom.

The Nashville Breadroot, also known commonly as white-rim scurf-pea, blooms for a month from about the beginning of April until the beginning of May. It is quite abundant in its native habitat in limestone cedar glades, where it can flower as thickly as clover blossoms in a meadow. It even grows thickly along the roadsides and in people’s yards. This is encouraging to witness! The flowers wither away around the beginning of May and the seeds ripen around the middle of the month.

Pediomelum subacaule growing abundantly in shortgrass prairie.
Pediomelum subacaule growing abundantly in shortgrass prairie.
Pediomelum subacaule growing in rocky, limestone soils.
Pediomelum subacaule growing in rocky, limestone soils.
Nashville breadroot seen bloomly thickly like clover blossoms.
Nashville breadroot seen bloomly thickly like clover blossoms.

The Nashville breadroot’s main virtue from a human standpoint lies in its tuberous root, which is edible raw or cooked. The Pediomelum subacaule plant is a classic geophyte, meaning that it stores away nutrients underground in the form of starches, as a supply for times of difficult climate and drought. The thin soils and exposed bedrock characteristic of the limestone cedar glades result in hot and dry summertime conditions, and the Nashville breadroot’s life-cycle has evolved in accordance.

The Nashville breadroot begins to wake up from its summer dormancy around October, when the tuberous underground root begins to bud, much like a spudding potato. At this time there is a relative abundance of moisture in the cedar glades, and the roots begin soaking it up. The bud grows slowly throughout the winter, and then begins to accelerate as the soil begins to warm in March and the late winter and early spring rains come. The tuber is located about 3-6 inches underground, and so it is by March that the plant’s shoots and lupine-like foliage first emerge above the ground, ready to flower in the coming month of April. After flowering and setting seed in May, the plant dies back again entirely around June, hibernating underground to wait out the hot and dry summer months.

A typical root of Pediomelum subacaule. The root forked because it was growing above a large subterranean limestone rock -- this is common in the cedar glades.
A typical root of Pediomelum subacaule. The root forked because it was growing above a large subterranean limestone rock — this is common in the cedar glades.
All of these roots were harvested from a roughly eight inch by eight inch square patch of earth.
All of these roots were harvested from a roughly eight inch by eight inch square patch of earth.

To consume the roots, first they must be peeled of their outer bark layers, revealing the white fleshy starch inside. The flavor, aroma, and texture is very much like coconut — delicious! Anecdotally, eating even just one raw root on an empty stomach left me feeling satiated, energized, and focused.

Peeled tuber of Nashville breadroot.
Peeled tuber of Nashville breadroot.

When dried, the roots may be stored indefinitely. The Lakota would braid the roots of their timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum) together into a chain. After drying, the roots could be ground into a flour for later use in baking bread and cakes or as a thickener for soups. Nashville breadroot may be treated and processed the same way.

Braided chain of timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum)
Braided chain of timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum)

As the flowers die back, they dessicate and ripen their small, bean-like seeds.

Dessicated flowers hold ripened seeds.
Dessicated flowers hold ripened seeds.

Seeds of Pediomelum acaule.
Seeds of Pediomelum acaule.
Seeds of Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule)
Seeds of Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule)

Once ripened, the seeds will store for many years dry. Germination seems to be fairly easy and straightforward, being dependent largely on temperature and amount of moisture in the soil. The seeds need no cold stratification.

Gathered and winnowed seeds
Gathered and winnowed seeds
Germination of Nashville Breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). 6/19/2017 in southeastern Pennsylvania. All I did was sow the seeds in a flat... nature did the rest!
Germination of Nashville Breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). Picture from 6/19/2017 in southeastern Pennsylvania, sowed around May 20th. The seeds were put in a flat with soil… the rain and sunshine did the rest!

The Nashville breadroot is hardy down to zone 5, according to the USDA. Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens in Renick, WV, reports the following:

“[I]t’s one of the easiest plants I’ve ever grown, takes full blistering sun, is perennial and long lived, has no insect pest or disease problems, is not invasive or aggressive and looks good all the growing season long, even when it’s not in flower. And……….it’s THAT blue blue blue.

[..]

Hardiness has never been an issue either. In the ground they’ve scoffed at below zero temps without a blanket of the white stuff or even a decent mulch. I’ve also left them in pots, unprotected all Winter and they’ve easily handled 9 degrees with no snow cover. Neither is heat tolerance a problem, as I have friends in Austin TX growing them now for several years and if you know anything about Austin besides the great music scene, believe me the heat is brutal.”

Nashville breadroot prefers to be dry in the summertime and moist in the winter, and with ample sunshine! Ideal environments outside of the native cedar glade environments could be the rocky scree on the sides of mountains, gravelly areas, serpentine barrens, other areas with exposed bedrock, sunny shortgrass prairie or meadow, and possibly even reclaimed parking lots or tennis courts (concrete mimics the landscape and climate of flatrock cedar glade barrens — how that’s for a post-industrial food system idea)!

The tubers of Nashville breadroot can grow to be quite large.
The tubers of Nashville breadroot can grow to be quite large.

These large roots pictured above were growing in areas of the glades where growth was not impeded or re-directed by rocks. Here they found ample soil to live in. It is difficult to estimate the age of these roots without more information about growth rates, but my guess is at least 8-10 years old. While that may seem like a long time, when you consider that ramps take at least 7 years to mature, the Nashville breadroot doesn’t seem so impractical. Pediomelum subacaule is undoubtedly a long-lived perennial, and generally slow-growing, but its hardiness, and potential abundance in suitable habitat mean this is one plant we should be looking into as a food source. Especially when we consider the increasing drought and desertification caused by climate change. This is a drought-hardy, cold-hardy, no-input, no-effort food. I will be rewilding this one into a wide-range of suitable habitats.

Bloodroot — Sanguinaria canadensis

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

Bloodroot is one of the most iconic spring wildflowers of eastern North America. Emerging in the early spring and blooming for only a few days, you could miss it if you blink! I love going on long walks in the early spring and finding the closed bloodroot flowers emerging pink along the wooded hillsides. When they first appear they are wrapped in a blanket made by the rolling, intricate-lobes of the leaf.

After the flowers have unfolded, they are pearly and beautiful and white. In less than just one week, the petals will have fallen to the ground, dropping off their buds one by one. While the flowering of bloodroot is brief, the foliage persists into the summer.

Bloodroot flower close-up
Bloodroot flower close-up

Sanguinaria canadensis, the eponymous bloodroot, is in the poppy family Papaveraceae. The poppies are known for being lactiferous, meaning they bleed a milky latex substance. Bloodroot bleeds a red sap.

The red sap of bloodroot has been used as a dye and as a body paint. Another common name for bloodroot is red puccoon. Puccoon is an Algonquian word denoting a plant used as dye. Among other well-known puccoon roots are yellow puccoon (goldenseal — Hydrastis canadensis) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum spp. — yields a red pigment).

Bloodroot is also an important medicinal plant. It is used mainly for its antiseptic properties, and also in small doses as a respiratory-system stimulant. I’ll defer to the herbalists for better information on bloodroot’s medicinal applications. A Google search reveals lots of information, such as this general overview.

Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.
Bloodroots emerging out of the ground in early spring.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, Sanguinaria canadensis usually emerges around late March, as soon as the threat of snow goes away and day-time temperatures begin to warm. Down south, bloodroot can be spotted in February, and up in southeastern Canada bloodroot might come up as late as May.

Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis
Anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis

In the picture above we can see the anatomy of Sanguinaria canadensis. It grows from a fleshy rhizome that is a deep red color giving it the name bloodroot. The rhizome may be divided as a propagation method, or as a gentle harvest technique (taking only a portion of the root and leaving the rest to grow in the following year). The flowers and leaves grow individually from separate shoots off the rhizome.

Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.
Bloodroot seed ripens in late spring.

The seed pods of Sanguinaria canadensis ripen in the late spring or early summer. I gather seed during the last days of May in Pennsylvania. When ripe, the pods should easily split open upon handling. Left alone, they will spill their contents to the ground below. You will know the seeds are ripe when they have matured to a rich mahogany color.

Each seed bears an elaiosome, which is a fleshy, lipid attachment made up of fats and sugars. These elaiosome attachments are attractive to ants, who gather the seeds off the ground and carry them into their underground colonies. There, they eat the elaiosome and then cast the seed bit into their rubbish pile… conveniently still located under the ground! Here the seeds await germination while enjoying safe shelter and ideal conditions. This process of ant-plant symbiosis is called myrmecochory.

Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed
Bloodroot seed

Bloodroot seeds are double-dormant and require two cold periods or two stratifications before germination. If sown in the late spring or early summer, the seedlings will not emerge in the following spring, but the spring after.

The seeds of bloodroot are intolerant of drying and must be stored cool and moist. Placing them outside with soil in a well-drained container such as a pot is an effective low-tech storage method. Otherwise, they will need to be kept moist-packed and refrigerated, or sown immediately.

Once germinated, bloodroot should be grown directly in the ground — it does not seem to do well growing in a container. It may take several years before a plant puts out its first flower. While I do not know exactly how many years, I treat it as a seven-year-plant much like camas, Trillium, or wild leeks.

Bloodroot is uncommon or threatened in many places, and so I like to spread its seed around in whatever woodlands it will take to well. Although it is tough and resilient once established, and plants can be very long-lived, it is sensitive to too much light and high-sun conditions, and thus has been exterminated from many second-growth forests recovering from a legacy of clearcutting or animal-grazing. This is one older forest species which really requires mesic or moist soil conditions to thrive.

Spotted Geranium — Geranium maculatum

Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum)
Spotted Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Spotted geranium is a woodland perennial wildflower in the Gerianaceae family. Its Latin nomenclature is Geranium maculatum — the etymology of Geranium comes from the Greek geranos meaning “crane,” in reference to the fruiting capsules of this genus which resemble the beak of a crane, and the species name maculatum means “spotted” and describes the mottling of the leaves.

Spotted Geranium is generally abundant where it is found. They are native all over eastern and central North America in temperate deciduous forests, and hardy from zones 3-8. It is clump-forming, and tolerates a wide variety of soil conditions. These spring ephemeral wildflowers thrive in the understory of a closed canopy deciduous woodland, where they bloom in the early spring before the leaves grow in and cast shade. They are also hardy to some areas with partial sun, such as woodland edges. They seem to like some lingering moisture and cooler soil temperatures however, and therefore they do not do well in areas with full-sun.

The flowers bloom in early March in warm southeastern zones, and they bloom in April in cooler zones. In Pennsylvania I usually see them starting around mid-April, and the seed ripening around the end of May and early June.

Spotted Geranium
Spotted Geranium
Spotted Geranium flower close-up
Spotted Geranium flower close-up

Geranium species are in the group of eudicots called Rosids, which often have flower parts in fours or fives. Their pink-to-purple flowers are quite lovely, and are considered perfect flowers, meaning they contain both male and female reproductive parts. Geranium maculatum is self-fertile and produces its elongated fruiting capsules in the late spring. The seeds ripen approximately 6 weeks after the flowers first bloom.

The fruiting capsules are made up of five chambers which each enclose a single seed at their base. At first, the fruiting capsules are green, but when the seed has ripened, the fruiting capsules turn black (seeds ripened to maturity are also black). After darkening, the capsules dehisce, or split open, from their bases curling upwards, releasing in the process each seed and flicking them a short distance away from the parent plant.

Geranium maculatum unripe seed
Geranium maculatum unripe seed
Geranium maculatum ripened seed
Geranium maculatum ripened seed
Geranium maculatum after seed dispersal
Geranium maculatum after seed dispersal

Geranium maculatum seeds
Geranium maculatum seeds

Geranium maculatum seeds may be stored dry in a cool area. They germinate naturally in the early spring following a period of 2-3 months of cold stratification (also known as winter 🙂 ). It can take two or three years from seed germination to mature flowering. The flowers of spotted geranium are loved by pollinators such as bees and butterflies. They are easy to grow and ideal for reintroduction and restoration to damaged and degraded woodlands. This is also a worthwhile candidate for rewilding into landscapes where this species is not already present in the seedbank — more diversity is healthy, and beautiful!

Camas — Camassia species

Camassia scilloides, our eastern woodland native camas
Camassia scilloides, the eastern woodland native camas, in all its spring glory.

I have a confession to make. I’m in love. The first time I saw her, my heart skipped a beat. There she was, stretching out in the spring-time sun, dressed in baby blues and be-jeweled in yellow. Her delicate scent was carried by the gentle spring breeze. She was so gorgeous and I fell for her right on the spot. Who is she? She’s a plant, Camassia, of course! What an elegant beauty!

The graceful flowers of the camas open up in the early spring, and unfurl like a wave from the bottom of the stalk to the top. The six tepals range from nearly white to the deepest of blues. The perfect flowers of Camassia are hermaphroditic, bearing both male and female reproductive parts (even though I refer to her as a she), and have ovaries that are pale-green, and yellow pollen-producing anthers. The flowering stalk is anywhere from one- to two-and-a-half-feet high (or nearly four feet in the case of C. leichtlinii!).

Aside from being so beautiful, camas also has a long history as an indigenous first food staple. The word camas (kæ-mus) or “quamash” comes to us from the word qém’es in the Niimíipu language of the Nez Perce, referring to the food bulbs of the Camassia plant, which they traded to the starved crew members of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery upon Idaho’s Weippe prairie in 1805. That was probably the first experience with this plant as a food that white-faced colonials ever had.

There are six species within the genus Camassia, endemic only to the North American continent. Although more famous in the Pacific Northwest, few realize that of our continent’s five edible species, two are endemic to east of the Rocky Mountains. There are six Camassia species total:

  • Camassia quamash — Common camas, or small camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Blooms April-June.
  • Camassia leichtlinii — Greater camas, or large camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Sierra Nevadas. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia howellii — Howell’s camas. Endemic to western Oregon where it is generally found around serpentine soils. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia cusickii — Cussick’s camas. Because of the high level of saponins in the bulb, this is the only Camassia species considered inedible, however, it may be useful to soap-makers. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the northern Rockies. Blooms May-June.
  • Camassia angusta — Southern wild hyacinth, or prairie camas. Most frequent in the black belt prairies of Texas and into the central mid-West. Bloom is later than C. scilloides, usually June.
  • Camassia scilloides — Atlantic camas, or eastern wild hyacinth. Native to rich woodlands and bottomlands from Georgia to Ontario, and from Kansas eastward to Maryland. Blooms April-May.

Camassia are in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae, and are in the agave subfamily, Agavoideae (formerly its own family, the Agavaceae). The most similar genus to Camassia would be Hastingsia (rushlilies), Chlorogalum (soaproots), and Schoenolirion (sunnybells).  While Chlorogalum, a southwestern native, has generally been harvested for soap rather than food, at least one species, Chlorogalum purpureum (purple amole) has been harvested for the edibility of its bulbs. Among these four genus, edibility seems to depend on the amount of saponins present (which are foaming, soapy molecules).

I’ll be featuring mostly the eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, as it is the species most available to me in my bioregion of the Appalachian Highlands and Piedmont.

Camassia scilloides may be known by several common names. Atlantic camas or eastern camas both describe its eastern habitat. Wild hyacinth or sometimes woodland hyacinth describes its resemblance to the common ornamental garden bulbs. Sometimes you’ll see Indian wild hyacinth used, which is of course referring to the traditional gathering and preparation of this plant by native peoples. Beargrass is another name for C. scilloides, though this one being a little older in its use and not so popular today. The Beargrass Creek outside Lexington, Kentucky, for example, was named for this plant (Camassia scilloides – Beargrass in the Bluegrass [.PDF]). I’m drawn towards calling this plant woodland camas, even though it does well in full-sun too. Lastly, there’s always simply “camas,” with no further distinctions.

Camassia scilloides emerging in the early spring.
Camassia scilloides grows in colonies and resembles grass before flowering. Hence the common name, “beargrass.”
Camassia flower raceme development
Camassia flower raceme development. Camas is in the asparagus family — can you see the resemblance?
Camassia flower development
Camassia flower development. Early spring.
Flowering Camassia
Flowering Camassia in the months of April or May. This photo was taken April 1st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
Look at that beauty!
Look at that beauty!

Look for the grass-like leaves of camas emerging in the late-winter in the south or early spring elsewhere. Often false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) and the woodland camas grow together in the same patch and habitat, and the early leaves can look very similar to each other sometimes. The camas leaves are broader than the false garlic, curl inwards slightly, have a central vein, and radiate around a central point where the flower’s stalk (or raceme) will later grow up. The bulbs of false garlic (also known as crow poison) are mildly toxic, and to distinguish them from the camas there are a couple of reliable indicators. The first is visual appearance. The bulbs of camas are covered in a dark brown skin, whereas the bulbs of false garlic are white like an onion. When it comes to taste, the raw bulbs of camas taste gummy and have a flavor and texture not unlike squash, but the bulbs of false garlic have a harsh, acrid, or bitter flavor which ought to turn you away. Even if it doesn’t, there’s probably not too much to worry about aside from some discomfort and upset!

From a distance, common grasses may also be mistaken for camas leaves. More time in the field and personal experience will quickly lead one to learn how to discriminate the woodland camas from its look-alikes. Once in flower though, the camas is unmistakable and unforgettable!

False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is mostly harmless.
False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is probably mostly harmless.

Under favorable conditions, mature plants of the woodland camas can grow good-sized bulbs. It takes at least five years for a newly germinated seedling to grow into a flowering adult, and the camas may go on to live for many more years after that. When the onion-like bulbs reach a certain size or maturity, they begin to divide and vegetatively clone themselves. Our eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, is probably slightly larger than the western small camas, Camassia quamash, although it is notably smaller than the west’s greater camas, Camassia leichtlinii.

Camassia scilloides is hardy and tolerates a wide range of soil pH and conditioning. It’s major requirements are moist soil in the spring and enough sunlight to do its thing. Interestingly, our eastern woodland camas can grow in the shade of a deciduous forest, having adapted to a spring ephemeral niche. By the time the flowers have finished and the seed is ripening, the forest canopy is just closing in. In the wild, I often see the Camassia scilloides growing in limestone-rich areas. I believe this is more coincidental than causal, but the camas bulbs probably do get a real benefit from the calcium-richness of limestone-derived soils. The species is usually found in rich Appalachian coves, moist bottomlands, floodplains along rivers and creeks, and in some prairie remnants.

Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve
Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve

I’ve found it under a diverse canopy of hardwoods and ecosystem types. In some bottomland coves with rich, moist soil, I’ve seen camas growing underneath a canopy of sweetgum, buckeye, ash, maple, basswood, and sycamore. But I’ve also seen it on drier, higher slopes underneath a canopy of poplar, oak, and hickory. The bulbs were smaller in the uplands, but they were growing, and the population was strong and in the thousands. Work with this species and play with it, it may hold even more surprises!

Camassia scilloides range and distribution
Camassia scilloides range and distribution

Our eastern woodland camas is generally found on the west side of the Appalachian mountains, although there are a few scattered populations in piedmont South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland, and the blue ridge mountains of western Virginia. I imagine this plant may have been far more abundant, especially in the far east, before the pig and the plow. Unfortunately, scant ethnobotanical records in the eastern woodlands leave us to wonder about what the landscape may have even looked like prior to Europeans.

Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides
Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides.
Bulb of Camassia scilloides
The onion-like bulb of Camassia scilloides

Camas bulbs are rich in inulin, a tough starchy fiber that is normally indigestible to humans. While safe and edible raw — the texture is gummy and the flavor is mild, like squash — they are not recommended. Not only does the indigestible inulin make raw consumption inefficient, but like the similar Jerusalem artichoke, it can result in lots of farting, and if eaten in excess, gastrointestinal upset.

To effectively eat camas, you have to cook the bulbs until they caramelize. With heat, the indigestible inulin is converted into delicious and digestible fructose sugars. However, it can taste a long time to do this. Camas is a true slow food, taking up to 48 hours in a slow-cooker until they turn brown like the wood of walnut.

Traditionally, camas was gathered in the late spring or early summer as the seeds were ripening. At this crucial time, people would dig huge amounts of camas bulbs, enough for a year’s supply. And as they dug each bulb, they would leave behind the smaller bulbs to regenerate the patch, and scatter the seed from the larger bulbs, ensuring future harvests and a healthy population.. After the bulbs were dug, they would be pit-roasted in earth ovens over a period of days until richly brown and caramelized. Once they were fully cooked, the roots would be dried out as an anytime snack, and also for grinding into a flour.

After caramelization, the camas becomes sweet from the sugars. It’s hard to describe the taste, but it’s very good — sweet, firm, and flavorful, almost like if molasses and a vegetable got together and had a baby.

Camas is a high-calorie complex carbohydrate food with some protein and a hint of fat. It is a good source of calcium and magnesium. (https://www.fs.fed.us/) When cooked properly and gathered in abundance, camas is a hearty staple food supplying the baseline of one’s nutritional needs.

The young flower scape is also edible, tasting much like asparagus. It is a succulent and flavorful raw vegetable — delicious — but I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you find yourself in a large population. While harvesting the stalk won’t kill the plant, it may set it back or prevent it from flowering in that year.

While our eastern woodland camas is still abundant in a few states, it is going to require several years of conscious tending, rewilding, and management to increase any given population to the point where it can be a regenerative food source for individuals, small-families, and groups, and no longer a novelty food.

Camassia scilloides bulbs before slow-cooking
Fresh camas bulbs before slow-cooking with steam.
Camassia scilloides bulbs after slow-cooking
Camas bulbs after slow-cooking for 48 hours with steam.

Camassia sets seed abundantly. Gather as the seed pods turn brown and the seeds turn black in the late spring or early summer. The seeds seem to be tolerant of some drying, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and store in cool, moist conditions if not sowing immediately. The seed is double-dormant by some accounts, meaning if sown in the fall it will not emerge the following spring, but the spring of the year after. The seed needs two cold periods, in other words.

Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash germinating
Camassia quamash germinating. The black skin is shed and a thin root radicle or two probe for good earth. The first-year seedlings appear like tiny strands of grass.

After germination, it may be another five years at least before the first flowers bloom and set seed of their own. Camas is thus a seven-year investment, and worth every moment.

The greater camas (Camassia leichtlinii) of the west has the largest bulbs of any camas species, and I was given some this year to grow out. I’m excited to see how they do, and also find myself wondering about potential breeding projects or improvements. Will C. leichtlinii and C. scilloides cross to make larger-bulbed, woodland-hardy plants? Will C. leichtlinii also take to a spring ephemeral niche, growing under a woodland canopy? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but that’s what makes plant rewilding so much fun. While I could always grow out these C. leichtlinii in a garden setting, I’m far more interested in their potential to grow wild.

Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii
Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii