Now that I finally have everything I need, the last step is to transfer my camas bulbs and buttercup to the larger planter that will stay on my balcony through the winter.
Following the advice of the staff at Saanich Native Plants, I planted the bulbs about 10 cm. down from the surface, giving lots of space underneath. Apparently, the camas roots love to grow deeply in the soil, so hopefully they have enough room. I planted the buttercup alongside. I was also worried about frost, but the staff in Saanich assured me that camas plants are tough and will survive the winter no problem.
Lastly, as an addition to our family, my wife had to give the plants names. I suggested ‘Rocky Bulb-boa’ for the camas and my wife mistakenly (and hilariously) called the buttercup a “butternut”, and so here we are…welcome to the family ‘Butternuts’!
Well, that’s pretty much all I can do for now. The next steps of my project will take a few months to reach so I’ll periodically check in and document any changes that I notice. In the meantime, we’ll let nature do its thing and hopefully we’ll have some beautifully blooming camas come spring!
After a quick Google search for camas bulbs for sale in Victoria, one of the first hits I came across was GardenWorks on Oak Bay Ave. I wasn’t sure if they had what I was looking for, but I decided to pay them a visit anyway and see what they could tell me about growing camas. After a look around the store, I found camassia quamash (common camas) bulbs for sale, but decided to ask the staff in any case. Good thing I did. It turns out that common camas is more ornamental than edible. Also, I found out that growing camas from seeds takes upwards of 7 years! Bulbs it is. This might have been a dead end, but luckily the staff recommended an alternative, Saanich Native Plants located at the Haliburton Community Organic Farm in Saanich.
I started by emailing Saanich Native Plants, telling them about my inquiry project and my hope of getting ahold of edible camas bulbs. I immediately got a reply from Kristen, informing me that they indeed had what I needed on site, nice! We exchanged a few emails and she let me know that I would have to grow the plant outside, but in a planter on the balcony would be fine. All set.
I drove out to Haliburton Organic Farm on Tuesday morning and talked to Andrea who took me to the camas bulbs, helpfully already in small planters. There were two sizes, small and large, two bulbs to a pot. Naturally the bulbs had not started to flower yet, but she broke one pot open and showed my how the bulbs had already begun to grow shoots beneath the soil, cool. I chose the larger of the two bulbs, and on Andreas advice, also bought a small buttercup which she said was a natural compliment to camas. First Nations traditionally planted the two plants together, the buttercups also helping mark the camas fields with their bright yellow colour. Saanich Native Plants is a wonderful business and the staff knowledgable and helpful.
My final stop on the way home was Canadian Tire, where I bought a tall flower planter, regular planting soil, and cheap garden tools. Next step: wait until the weekend and plant those bulbs!
Well, now that the ball is rolling, I did some digging online to find out what I could about camas. Firstly though, I want to expand on what I already learned about camas through both the Canadian Geography and Canadian History classes I took last year. Secondly, I will share what I uncovered about growing the plant in an urban setting.
Camas and Vancouver Island History
What really set my interest on camas was reading UVIC History professor John Lutz’s book Makuk (2008) and seeing him lecture on the inadvertent role camas played in the choosing of Victoria as the Hudson Bay Company’s headquarters. In his book, Lutz argues that while the Coast Salish peoples were though of as “salmon people”, they were actually “camas people” as the plant was the primary source of starch in their diet. Actually, the plant was cultivated in fields (by Indigenous women) and the land terraformed in many areas, including what is now downtown Victoria. According to common lore, these fields were what impressed James Douglas most about the site (reminded him of the fields of home) and so led to him choosing Victoria as the new HBC headquarters site. The irony of Douglas not realizing these fields were essentially well maintained gardens is one of those historical facts that makes you appreciate how random chance can have huge historical impacts.
How Hard Is it to Grow?
I began by looking up information on planting and growing. The BC Living website provided some useful information on both planting as well as harvesting and consuming the bulbs. Here’s what the site had to say:
- there are two main types of edible camassia: common camas and great camas
- camas bulbs are planted in the fall and bulbs are harvested in summer (seeds can be collected for replanting)
- bulbs should be planted fairly deep (~10 cm.) in rich, fertilized soil, ideally in lots of sun or bordering shade
- camas is exceptionally easy to grow! (this is great news as I’m no green thumb!)
Alright, now my next step is to go out and find some bulbs.
Well, now that I have my topic and inquiry question squared away, it’s time to start planning the steps I’ll need to take in order to see it to the end. I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but I think that really is the point of an inquiry project. This is really about my own curiosity and whatever the outcome, all I can hope is that I’ve learned something of value along the way.
Here are the steps I plan to follow in my inquiry:
- Research the History of Camas on Vancouver Island: before diving into the project, I think it’s important to have a clear rationale on why this project is meaningful to me and why it’s important to explore it from the perspective of a Vancouver Island resident.
- Find Out How to Grow the Plant in an Urban Setting: living in a condo with a balcony, will I be able to successfully plant, grow and harvest the plant? Is the plant only suited for natural cultivation? If so, I’ll need to find an alternate space to proceed.
- Where Can I Find Seeds? What Kind of Soil Do I Need? Do I Need any Special Tools or Equipment?: I need to visit my local gardening businesses, hopefully knowledgeable about Indigenous plants, and inquire about how I might go about growing camas indoors.
- Document the Growth: from what I’ve read so far, camas is typically harvested in the spring or early summer (I may be wrong on this). But in any case, I’m hoping that I can document through video the progress (or failure) that I encounter during the process.
- Harvest: if the crop is sufficient, I want to harvest it and find a traditional First Nations cooking method to prepare it.
Next post will be on my research on the history of camas and where to find the necessary resources to get things going. Honestly getting kind of excited about this now.
It took me some time to find an inquiry project that stimulated me on a personal level. However, thinking back to the classes I took last year in order to qualify for the program, it suddenly hit me. One of the most interesting things I learned in a Canadian Geography course about the history of Victoria was the importance of camas cultivation to the local Lekwungen First Peoples. We learned that it was an important crop that was widely cultivated, harvested and consumed. So why hadn’t I heard about it earlier?
My inquiry question is thus:
What is camas and why was it so important to the Lekwungen people?
How hard is it to grow? Is it possible to grow it at home?
Can camas be consumed? What does it taste like? What recipes can it be used in?
This is only the beginning of my inquiry. My next move is to create a step-by-step plan to follow over the course of my inquiry. Excited to see how this turns out!