Learning to Love the Camas Root

I grew up in the Palouse area of Idaho, close to the Camas Prairie, and when I was in the third grade, while we were studying the Nez Perce Indians, I ate a cookie made with camas root flour. I can taste it to this day–and not in a good way.  It might have been the cook, it might have been the camas root flour. I don’t know, but that cookie did not agree with me. Interestingly, Lewis and Clark had a similar experience.

Before I tell you about Lewis and Clark, let me give you some background on the camas root. The camas is a blue flowering plant. It’s really quite beautiful and although there are several Camas Prairies, my Camas Prairie is an area in north central Idaho where the Nez Perce gathered camas roots for thousands of years.

The camas root is really a bulb, and it’s higher in protein that some fish. The native peoples would dig the root with sticks or parts of antlers in the early summer months. The time varied depending on the altitude. After the harvest, the camas roots were cooked in earthen ovens. The roots that were not eaten were dried for later consumption. Dried camas root lasted for years. There are stories of travelers eating camas roots that were more than thirty years old.

It was very important to only harvest the blue camas bulbs, because the white camas bulbs, which are also nutritious, closely resembled another species of camas known as White Death. The White Death could be lethal if enough was consumed, so white camas plants were generally avoided.

 So what happened to Lewis and Clark?

When the explorers reached the Weippe Prairie in Idaho in September of 1805, they were essentially starving. The Nez Perce fed the men camas roots, which were described as “sweet and good to the taste”. They were also very high in fiber and very hard on the starving men’s digestive systems.  The men fell ill with vomiting, diarrhea and gas. Captain Clark wrote, “Capt Lewis Scercely able to ride on a jentle horse which was furnishd by the Chief. Several men So unwell that they were Compelled to lie on the Side of the road for Some time others obliged to be put on horses.” The sickness lasted over five days, during which time the less weak men took care of the sicker men while making five canoes to travel the Clearwater River. Those guys were tough.

Later it was discovered that fermented camas made a decent beer and the men felt friendlier toward the root. Eventually, their bodies adapted. The men came to like the camas root and took a large supply with them when then traveled down the Clearwater in October 1805.

In researching the camas, I’ve learned that the roasted bulbs taste similar to pumpkin and sweet potato, both of which I hated as a kid, and that, I believe, was the source of my issues with the root. I would try a camas flour cookie again, given the chance. And hopefully, like Lewis and Clark, I would come to appreciate this historically valuable food source.

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

14 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Camas Root”

  1. Very interesting post. I learned something. I would love to try a cookie but would be hesitant s I have problems with food sometimes.

  2. Very interesting. There were camas lilies all along the roadside in one of the places I lived. I loved them. Never thought of eating them.

  3. Thank you for sharing your very interesting post. I had no idea about the camas root and especially how nutritious it is.

  4. Hi Jeannie,

    Wonderfully informative post! I find it fascinating what food can be found in the wild. My father always gathered and fried mushrooms–but he grew up on a farm and has “horse-sense.” I would be too nervous to enjoy a mushroom I picked in the wild–knowing that some are quite poisonous.

    The information about the White Death Camas just brings up all kinds of interesting plot ideas…

  5. The picture of blue camas flowers as far as you can see is beautiful. It would be interesting to try something made from camas flour. It shouldn’t be too difficult to try drying it yourself and making flour from it. Would have to find a patch that wasn’t on protected property. Thanks for an interesting post. This is one part of the Lewis and Clark expedition I hadn’t heard about. I take it Sacajawea didn’t have any problems with the camas. Now that I think of it, where were she and her son at this time? She was likely nursing and would have needed to keep up her supply of milk for the toddler. I am surprised the men of the expedition weren’t able to get enough game to keep everyone fed, especially that time of the year.

    • Excellent points, Patricia. I don’t know why they had so much trouble with game at that time of the year, but they were definitely malnourished when they got to Weippe. Now I’ll have to crack out my Lewis and Clark diaries.

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