The Cultivated Camas, Part 1

In the scientific world of the day [1816], there was still a strict division between “botany” (the study of plants by men) and “polite botany” (the study of plants by women). Now, “polite botany” was often indistinguishable from “botany”—except that one field was regarded with respect and the other was not.

–Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

It was snowing lightly yesterday and although it is sunny today, the temperature is holding steady at slightly below freezing. Obviously, I’m not doing much gardening these days. I am doing a lot of reading and I’ve been taking a course at the Vancouver Island School of Art: a drypoint printmaking course taught by Jenn Robins. Jenn is an accomplished printmaker, with an encyclopedic knowledge of printmaking materials and techniques. She gives generously of herself to her students, in terms of time, energy and suggestions, both practical and creative. It was a pleasure working with her and with the other members of the class. It was a treat to experience such a cooperative spirit within the classroom, one day a week for six weeks.

Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit low, I think that spending my time gardening and making art is of very little value to society as a whole. I don’t even grow many vegetables, but concentrate on flowers. In my art and in this blog, I seldom comment on social issues or take a stand or urge my readers to do so.

Alma, the central character of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, has some of the same misgivings about her own life and work. This novel could not be more different from Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s enormously popular memoir, which was labeled “New Age narcissism” by one critic. Before I go any farther, let me say that I have not finished The Signature of All Things, so perhaps Alma will have an epiphany and then turn her life over to a worthy cause.

Whereas Alma’s adopted sister gives all her time, energy and money to the effort to abolish slavery in the American South, Alma studies plants. In particular, she devotes 27 years to the study of moss. She looks at different sorts of moss under the microscope, does careful drawings of what she sees (“accuracy is more important than beauty”), and publishes her findings. Alma learns that:

Moss eats stone; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries…Under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will itself turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray—the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements. St. Peter’s Basilica itself was built from the stuff, both created by and stained with the bodies of ancient moss colonies.

At the same time, I have been reading a work of non-fiction: Linda Foubister’s The Key to Mythic Victoria, where I came across the following passage:

The Europeans believed that the meadowlike appearance of the Victoria area was a natural condition. However, the meadows were created by the Coast Salish people as they cultivated the landscape to support root crops such as red clover and camas.

Camas and Bee, watercolour, pen & ink, 4" x 6"

Camas and Bee, watercolour, pen & ink, 4″ x 6″

This paragraph became the inspiration for the drawings and prints I completed during the printmaking course. In an earlier post, Scarcity or Abundance?, I wrote about camas and included a painting of camas and salal. At that time, I was not aware of the effort that went into the cultivation of camas by the Coast Salish people.

The name “camas” is taken from Chinook Jargon qamaš, qawaš, from Nootka qawaš, from Chinook Jargon kamass, from Nootka chamas sweet. This fall I planted two varieties of Camassia quamash: “Blue Melody” and Esculenta (Latin for “edible”). Camassia is a genus of six species native to western Canada, and the western United States, from southern British Columbia to northern California, and east to Utah, Wyoming and Montana. Common names include Camas, Quamash, Indian hyacinth, and Wild hyacinth. Camas used to be included in the lily family, but DNA and biochemical studies have led to the reassignment of camas to Asparagaceae, subfamily Agavoideae. Other members of Agavoideae include Hosta and Polianthes.

To be continued

"The Cultivated Camas #1", drypoint on paper, 14" x 15-3/4"

“The Cultivated Camas #1″, drypoint on paper, 14″ x 15-3/4”


21 thoughts on “The Cultivated Camas, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Six on Saturday – June 2 | the painting gardener

  2. Very interesting – I’ll have to buy this book. I think that writing about it and showing the magic of the plant world (plus in your case painting it), is a worthy cause too. It shows other people that in the end, little things sometimes considered unimportant (that is plants), could bring so much joy into their life! I like the drypoint look.


  3. Every life has value, especially those lived in humble wonder, and a quiet life has dignity. I never knew about moss and marble! Thank you, that’s fascinating.


    • Yes, I agree that every life has value, and I am seeing more and more value in having a garden as time goes by. “Do what you love” is what I’m doing. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.


  4. What an interesting post. You are obviously a book lover as well as a gardener and artist. I am an avid reader too and I haven’t come across the book ‘The Signature of all Things’ so I have ordered it. It sounds fascinating so thank you for the recommendation. I had no idea that moss and mineral make marble. Fascinating!


  5. I enjoyed this well written and informational article. It was such a nice touch to include your illustrations – prints and drawings. I recently purchased, ‘The Signature of All Things’ for my kindle and look forward to reading the book during the Christmas Season. You may also enjoy reading Inga Simpson’s new publication, My Wigg. It is filled with botanic information regarding fruit trees and cultivates a deep sense of place.


  6. Thanks for the fascinating information about moss and its connection with travertine marble. I’m a big fan of both and didn’t know this! And by the way, I believe that anything one does to capture and preserve the essences of nature and to raise public awareness about nature’s beauty, value and importance is very worthwhile work indeed! Jeanie


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