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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 4.16.2009

 

Earth Day 2009

Carpets of Wildflowers, Canopy of Oaks Restoring native plants across the city

At Home with Native Plants Garden tour on Mother’s Day

Just Say No to the Butterfly Bush

Students, Volunteers and the Land Seven years of restoration efforts with Walama

Livin’ Green, Even in Winter Nature, raw and processed

 

The Camas Among Us

A common spring flower invokes Kalapuya heritage

by Jessica Hirst

If you’ve ever pushed a rattling shopping cart through a megastore parking lot on West 11th Avenue, you’ve set foot on land that used to be inhabited by the Kalapuya Indians. 

Go past the strip malls — where now the descendants of Latino cowboys, African American farmers, Japanese orchard owners, white settlers and the Kalapuya mix — you can encounter a reminder of pre-settler life: the camas lily. The patchwork fields of the 3,000-acre West Eugene Wetlands host this delicate native flower that spreads its blue-purple bloom in the middle of May.

Photo Todd Cooper

The bulb of the camas lily was a staple food of the Kalapuya, who lived in the Willamette Valley as semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers for thousands of years. The Kalapuyans harvested the bulb after it had flowered in order to distinguish it from the death camas (Zigadenus venenosus), a poisonous white lily that grew nearby. Cooked bulbs were usually made into cakes to be eaten and traded with neighboring tribes. Around modern-day Eugene, the camas can also be found at Mt. Pisgah Arboretum, Amazon Park, Hendricks Park and in many open meadows.

Although the camas is not listed as an endangered, it’s threatened because its wetland habitat is diminishing, says Brian Basor, president of the Emerald chapter of the Native Plant Society of Oregon. Currently, less than one percent of all original Willamette Valley wetlands still exist. The rest has been converted for urban development and agriculture. 

“The camas lily was a way of life, not just a food,” says Holly McRae, environmental education coordinator for the Willamette Resources and Education Network (WREN). “It was also about the harvest and the community around the harvest,” she says. 

The Kalapuya would usually perform a ceremony before the first harvest of the year, as part of a belief that all living things were connected, says ethnobotanist Nan MacDonald. “They believed that plants, animals, birds and bugs all had their place and use in harmony with people,” she says.

After harvest, bulbs were roasted for several days in pits dug into the earth. The bulbs were placed on top of hot stones and layered with leaves, ashes and embers. As the starchy bulbs cooked, they became sweeter. 

“The taste is smoky and tart, but there’s a sweetness to it, like barbecued sweet potato,” says McRae, who, with MacDonald, helps to coordinate a project at the West Eugene Wetlands called the Ethnobotany Resource Area Project (ERAP). The mission of the project, a joint partnership between WREN, the BLM and the Institute for Culture and Ecology, is to help restore Native American traditions in the West Eugene Wetlands. Last fall, traditional camas ovens were built at the wetlands, and McRae had her first taste of a camas bulb.

Up until now, “the ecological significance of the West Eugene Wetlands has been known, but there hasn’t been as much understanding of the cultural significance,” says McRae. ERAP leaders, along with local Native Americans, have identified a number of culturally important native species growing in the wetlands, including the camas, hazelnut, ash and tarweed. Through the project, Native Americans in the area provide workshops on how to use these traditional plants and participate in efforts to restore them. The project aims to build support for the long-term preservation of the area by connecting people to the land through hands-on activities. 

While the West Eugene Wetlands can’t be restored to its original state, restoration efforts have improved biodiversity, says MacDonald. Now, endangered species such as Fender’s blue butterfly and Kincaid’s lupine are reemerging, she says. 

If you have a hankering to taste camas for yourself, Basor recommends getting permission from a private landowner to dig some. Camas often grows in open fields and meadows, he says, but it’s important not to harvest the white death camas. Edible camas produces blue flowers. 

“Digging them is difficult because they’re often really deep in the ground,” Basor says. But once they’re unearthed, he says to peel off the green parts to get down to the bulbs. After that, the bulbs can be baked in the oven the same way one might roast a head of garlic. Basor cooked his bulbs for an hour and said they tasted like “a gooey potato.” The longer the bulbs are cooked, the sweeter they’ll get, as inulin in the plant turns to fructose.

Although local native peoples probably won’t return to eating camas as a staple food, the bulb has symbolic importance. “Some people still harvest it and eat it at special occasions,” says David Lewis, Cultural Resources Department manager for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “It’s a cultural icon for people of the Willamette Valley, and it provides a unique connection to our tribal past,” he says. 

“It’s really tasty,” says Basor.