The Cultivated Camas, Part 2

In the late nineteenth century, millions of butterflies filled the air over Victoria. Naturalist George Taylor commented in 1884 on Victoria’s extreme abundance of butterflies, noting nearly 40 species. Butterflies were once so numerous that, according to Dr. James Fletcher writing in 1901, “Towards the end of the season, in August, the dead butterflies may be seen in vast numbers floating on the sea around Vancouver Island or thrown up along the beach in windrows sometimes an inch or two in depth.”

Garry oak meadows provided excellent  habitat for butterflies, but as the host plants disappeared, so did the butterflies. Now there are fewer butterflies and at least ten species are in jeopardy or extinct.

–Linda Foubister, The Key to Mythic Victoria

It is impossible to know exactly how the Coast Salish cultivated camas and other plants, since the traditional patterns of agriculture were already disrupted by European settlement before any documentation of these patterns was done. It is possible that camas had been cultivated for as long as 2,500 years. Ethnobotanists speculate that the Coast Salish tended camas fields in locations near sources of salmon and other seafood, and that they moved from one location to another to allow time for the growth and regeneration of these food sources. The small islands of the “Salish Sea” ( the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the Strait of Georgia, Puget Sound, and all their connecting channels and adjoining waters) show evidence of the cultivation of camas, chocolate lilies and wild onions, and the Coast Salish most likely traveled over water as well as land to tend these gardens.

"Camas, Fields and City", watercolour, pen & ink, 4" x 6"

“Camas, Fields and City”, watercolour, pen & ink, 4″ x 6″

Periodic burns were done to keep back the forest and revitalize the soil. The women cultivated the camas beds with digging sticks. This was done in April and May, when the plants were flowering. At this time, it was possible to separate the white-flowered “death camas” (Toxicoscordion venenosum) from the blue-flowered edible camas. Mature bulbs were harvested and small bulbs were left to grow larger. The camas bulbs were cooked soon after harvesting, in a rock fire pit. The bulbs were cooked in layers of salal, dried grass and fern. After cooking, they were eaten or dried into cakes and used later. The taste of cooked camas bulbs has been described as sweet and somewhat like the taste of figs.

Today, after camas use has almost completely disappeared from their lives, some First Nations and other individuals are working to restore camas habitats and cultivation practices on southern Vancouver Island and neighbouring areas.

I am grateful to have been born into a place and time of peace and prosperity, where I’ve been able to live comfortably, to pursue an education and a career, to travel and to use computers. I have not experienced hunger or unrelieved cold or uncorrected myopia, or so many other unpleasant things. But the Coast Salish way of life was sustainable and perhaps, without the arrival of Europeans, with their camas-eating pigs and their fences and their prohibitions against the burning off of land, that way of life could still exist today, very little changed over thousands of years. Perhaps, I find myself looking backward to a time when the place where I live was described as a paradise of flowers and butterflies because I am afraid to look forward to what this place, and all the lovely places of the world, might become in the future.

NoteChine-collé from French chine = tissue, and collé, meaning glue or paste.

To be continued

"The Cultivated Camas #2", drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 14" x 15-3/4"

“The Cultivated Camas #2″, drypoint and chine-collé on paper, 14″ x 15-3/4”

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13 thoughts on “The Cultivated Camas, Part 2

  1. I’ve heard accounts of how passenger pigeons, which was driven to extinction in the early 20th century, used to fly across central and eastern North America in flocks of millions.

    The genus name Toxicoscordion threw me, so I did a little looking and found that it’s a synonym for Zigadenus, the name I’m familiar with for death camas. Not only that, but I read that some botanists have moved the genus out of Liliaceae and into Melanthiaceae, a family I’d never heard of. Zigadenus nuttallii grows in Austin, and it’s as poisonous as the death camas in your area:

    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/death-camas/

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    • Thanks for your comment and for your concern over disappearing plants and creatures. I cannot finish this series of posts until I get the last print in the series back from the art school, where it has been on display at an open house. I never got the chance to photograph it. I will be glad to get on to another subject in the new year, as this one is so sad.

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  2. Beautiful drawings! I love the thought of butterflies flourishing in our food plants. I wish it was still that way between us and the little insects most people don’t even know we depend on.

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  3. Love the paintings! True and educational; there is no way of going back at what it was but working towards increased awareness for a sustainable way of living, gardening, eating….That’s exactly what you just did!

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