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If you happen to be driving near the Fairgrounds in Salem, be sure to look at the camas growing on the Southeast corner of 17th NE and Sunnyview Road. Later this summer, this area will be used for State Fair parking, but this time of year it is awash in the beautiful blue blooms of Camassia quamash or common camas.

Camas plants were so dense in the wet meadows that early explorers mistook the masses of blue flowers for water. In 1806 Meriwether Lewis wrote in his journal that the camas resembled “a lake of fine clear water, so complete is this deception that on first Sight I could have sworn it was water” (De Voto 1953:402).

Camas was used as a food crop by  the Kalapuya Indians, eaten fresh, boiled or carefully dried and stored for winter use. Although the bulb resembles an onion, it is very mild. Dried camas can be ground into a powder, moistened with a little water and baked on a flat rock to make something much like a pancake.
To see a field of growing plants, check out this very short (1:33min) You Tube clip.If you would like to grow them yourself, you can purchase seed from from Oregon Flower Seed. Camas has a large amount of the carbohydrate inulin. Inulin is mostly indigestible in its raw state, but with careful cooking the inulin converts to fructose (fruit sugar) which is sweet and nutritious.

Camas was essential to the native peoples, occupying as much as 40% of their winter diet, and facilitating trade and cultural exchange as the tribes moved around to harvest the bulbs in early autumn. You can see camas growing in Bonesteele Park, which is located on Aumsville Highway between Salem and Aumsville. This site, formerly part of a commercial grass field, is being restored to an upland prairie ecosystem. Upland prairie ecosystems, once common in the Willamette Valley, have become increasingly rare as have the plants and animals that rely on them. The restoration of Bonesteele Park is intended to bring back a landscape that will increase biodiversity, enhance wildlife habitat, and provide an educational and recreational resource for area residents.




 


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