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What Is Quamash?

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  • Written By: Caitlynn Lowe
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Quamash, technically referred to as camassia quamash and sometimes called "small camas" or "camas lily," is a perennial herb native to the western United States and Canada. Native Americans used the bulb of this plant for food. Early explorers also relied on this edible plant for survival. The quamash is still consumed, however infrequently, in the present day as part of traditional Native American cuisine.

Blue star-shaped flowers, each with six petals, blossom along the stem of the plant during the late spring. The plant reaches approximately 18 inches (45.72 cm) in height. Within the United States, quamash is native to California, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. In Canada, the flower naturally grows in British Columbia and Alberta. The bulbs are harvested in autumn, well after the petals completely fall off and the stalks dry up.

Several early Native American tribes, including the Nez Perce, Blackfoot, Cree, and Shoshone, valued this crop and had specific methods of farming quamash fields. Those in charge of the fields would clear away rocks and weeds and cultivate the soil. They also needed to remove any nearby "death camas," or zigadenus venenosus, a poisonous flower with a similar appearance. Families passed the ownership and responsibility for these fields down to their children. Lewis and Clark, the famous American explorers, also partially relied on the bulbs as a food source during their expedition.

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Native American women ground the bulb down into flour used for bread. They also combined the bulbs with various grasses and roasted the mixture in a pit for a full day or longer. Early settlers followed this example and stewed the quamash until it softened. The settlers could then eat it whole or mash the cooked, blackened bulb and use it in place of pumpkin or squash in pies and similar dishes. When slow cooked, the complex inulin sugar found in the bulbs breaks down into fructose, making the final product both soft and sweet.

Nowadays, large fields of quamash rarely grow in the wild. Gardeners tend to grow it more for the plant's beauty, rather than its edibility, but a knowledgeable gardener with an interest in Native American culinary traditions can still consume the bulb of the flower by slow roasting it or grinding it down into flour. Cooked, sweetened bulbs can also be combined with other ingredients, including water and butter, to make a traditional gravy. Full sun and moist, acidic soil often produce the strongest crop of quamash flowers. The plant is relatively adaptable, however, and small bunches still grow in the wild in meadows, grassy prairies, and moist lowlands.

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