Ancient Agriculture on Patos Island

On last year’s Earth/Arbor/May Day trip toPatosIsland, we were amazed at the fields of blue Camas flowers near the Lighthouse. Seems that after years of blackberry removal by the Boy Scouts, Keepers, Orcas Fire Department volunteers and our other great supporters, the original native Camas fields have returned to our island! As Ranger Nick Teague says, the spring Patos Camas flowering is now “reportedly, the best display of Camas bloom in the San Juans.”

Camas flower on Patos Island, Washington

Here is an article on the history and traditional uses of the Camas plant by the early Coast Salish native peoples by local experts, Madrona Murphy and Russel Barsh.

Ancient Agriculture

Farming has been a way of life in the San Juan Islandsfor a long time: perhaps as long as 2,500 years! Like peasant communities in Europe, native Coast Salish peoples of the islands not only fished, but also raised crops and livestock. Early European explorers observed cultivated fields and flocks of “woolly dogs,” but by the late 19th century, when serious study of Coast Salish languages and cultures began, native peoples had lost most of their land, and exchanged their traditional crops and dogs for potatoes and sheep.
            Camas  (Camassia leichtlinii and Camassia quamash), a member of the Liliaceae or Lily family, was the staple of Coast Salish agriculture. Spring hoeing encourages this plant to reproduce asexually: its bulbs split and form clusters like shallots. Camas fields were weeded aggressively to remove competing grasses and poisonous bulbs of “death camas” (Zigadenus venenosus) and were burned every few years to suppress shrubs and recycle nutrients – light burns do not damage the deeply buried camas bulbs.
             Like Jerusalem artichokes, camas bulbs store energy as inulin, a polysaccharide that breaks down into fructose (“fruit sugar”) when sufficiently cooked, traditionally for a couple of days in a pit with heated rocks and wet packing. Mildly sweet, cooked camas can be enjoyed at once, or dried into cakes and used later.
            Coast Salish peoples grew camas in wetlands, on small islets, and on soft bluffs overlooking the sea. Settlers also targeted wetlands, and the rich soils formed by years of camas cultivation, for farming here, so most of the evidence of camas in our wetlands has been lost. Camas gardens were located near good summer salmon fishing sites, so that fishing and farming activities could be carried out simultaneously. Deer were probably also hunted when they tried to browse in camas fields: venison for a camas-sweetened stew!

  You can still see camas growing wild throughout theSan Juan Islandson rocky outcrops and unplowed meadows from which sheep and deer have been excluded. Don’t look for an easy feast, however. Most uncultivated camas produces bulbs the size of lima beans!
This information provided by Russel Barsh and Madrona Murphy of the Lopez-based nonprofit conservation biology laboratory KWIÁHT. If you’re interested in growing and/or protecting native camas varieties here in the islands, join Kwiáht’s camas growers network! Contact KWIAT at


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