Relic gardens: camas in the San Juan Islands

A botanist believes Coast Salish tribes once favored small islands in the San Juan archipelago for growing camas, an important food staple. Her studies may also show the vulnerability of these relic gardens to climate change as sea levels rise.

Camas flower in full bloom
Camas flower in full bloom. Photo by Madrona Murphy.
“There is more romance and adventure clustered about the camas root and flower than about almost any other American plant.”  --Botanist Leslie Haskin in his 1934 treatise, Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast.

For perhaps 2,000 years, the camas plant—a somewhat obscure member of the lily family—was a dietary staple in the Pacific Northwest. Preparing the plant was an involved task; typically, its bulbs were roasted in a pit with heated rocks for two days, after which they could be eaten immediately or dried into cakes.

The plant was so important that tribes actively managed their lands for it. They cleared brush and carried out controlled burns to cultivate sweeping fields of lush, blue or white flowers. The tribes in the Puget Sound region were no exception, and may have added their own novel twist to the camas story.

Relic gardens

Map of San Juan Islands courtesy of Bureau of Land Management Madrona Murphy, a botanist with the Kwiáht Center for Historical Ecology of the Salish Sea, says Coast Salish peoples grew camas in a variety of habitats—on wetlands, on bluffs—but that “ethnographic evidence suggests that the Coast Salish preferred small islands for camas gardening.” Murphy suspects that these islands were suited to cultivation because it was easier to control pests—namely deer—and also to weed out death camas, a species that appears to be edible but very decidedly is not. “The Coast Salish may have farmed [in the San Juan Islands] for more than 2,000 years,” she says.

Murphy has conducted two large-scale surveys in the San Juans—one in 2007, and the second in 2009. The 2007 survey focused on state or privately-held land; the 2009 looked at BLM-owned islands. (There are 172 mostly tiny islands in the San Juan archipelago.)

On the islands, Murphy looked for evidence of so-called relic gardens—deep, charcoal-rich, unstratified soils, which would indicate historical weeding, tilling, and burning. Reluctant to disturb the sensitive earth, Murphy limited her search to areas of natural erosion. She also noted the presence of what she called “ethnobotanically significant plants,” such as chocolate lilies, Indian consumption plants, wild onions, and others. “We actually found those other plants on a lot more islands than camas,” she says, “probably because they’re more salt-tolerant.”

Examining the evidence

In all, Murphy found 33 populations of camas; more than 50% of vegetated islands had camas somewhere on them. Most of these were small wild patches in relatively inaccessible spots—on rocky cliffs, for instance, where farming or housing would have been difficult. In part, this is because much evidence of relic gardens was lost in the mid-19th Century when settlers planted grass for pasturing, and more recently by development. But three patches, she believes, were evidence of relic gardens. She collected plants from each population to preserve in a seed bank, and this spring (2012), she and her colleagues return to the islands to continue their work.

Climate change and coastal meadows

One question that Murphy's group hopes to answer is how camas might handle the effects of climate change. Using the seeds collected from previous expeditions, they will examine how camas bulbs grow under a variety of conditions that mimic shifts expected under climate change, when rising sea levels may lead to greater salinity of soils. Murphy says camas growing on the islands in coastal meadows are especially at risk from climate change due to flooding from rising water, and increased wave height from stronger storms and a greater "splash zone." Other factors like increased drought and a rise in non-migratory Canada geese may also play a role. Murphy says a wide variety of other plants, many of them traditional tribal foods, are also vulnerable, ranging from Silverweed to Coast Black Currant, the Chocolate Lilly and Hooker's Onion.

Sustainable food source

Camas populations have declined across Western Washington, partly due to shifting land use and development and partly because of changing cultural tastes. The potato began gaining greater popularity among the tribes in the 18th century, but Murphy is interested in reintrioducing camas as a sustainable food source. It remains a popular garden plant, and Murphy would like to see it return to some of its old haunts. “Camas could become part of sustainable food cultivation on the San Juans,” she says, “although it would probably be more of an acquired taste."


About the Author: 
Eric Wagner recently completed his PhD in Biology at UW-Seattle. His essays and journalism have appeared in Smithsonian, Orion, and High Country News, among other places. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.