Everyone’s asking about the showy, purple-flowered plants in pots near our back porch. It’s no wonder they’re creating such a buzz. The Giant Camas is one of the loveliest of the California native spring bulbs! And luckily for us, it’s easier to grow than it is to pronounce (by the way, the scientific name is pronounced ‘kah-MASS-ee-ah lekt-LIN-ee-eye subspecies sooks-DORF-ee-eye’).
Large Camas is native to meadows from central and northern California to British Columbia, Canada. It belongs to the genus Camassia (the Camas Lillies) and the family Lilliaceae (the Lily family). Like all lilies, Large Camas is a true bulb. It grows new leaves in late winter/early spring, flowers and then dies back to the bulb. This is just one of many ways that California native plants cope with the long dry summers of our Mediterranean climate.
Large Camas has bright green, strap-like leaves that emerge from the bulb in December or January. They grow quickly until March/April, when the flowering stalks begin to emerge. In our area, Large Camas blooms anytime from March to May, depending on the weather with flower stalks growing taller than the foliage. The foliage is about 1 foot tall; mature plants will form a clump 1-3 feet across.
The delicate-looking blue-purple flowers grow on a rather sturdy stalk that’s 2-4 feet tall. The flowers open sequentially from the bottom to the top of the stalk, providing blooms over 2-4 weeks. The blooms attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other insect pollinators, making them doubly attractive.
If flowers are pollinated, you will note seed capsules developing along the stalk as the flowers wither. The seeds will take several months to mature – they are ready when the capsules open, releasing the seeds. The seeds will produce new little plants next winter if conditions are right.
Large Camas like full sun to part-shade (under tall trees is fine). It is a true meadow plant – it likes to be moist in winter and spring (until the flowering is complete) and then needs to slowly dry out in summer/fall. This pattern is true for most California native bulbs: they need a dry dormant period in summer & fall. So you need to carefully consider where to plant native bulbs in your garden – you can’t grow them just anywhere. In Mother Nature’s Backyard, we keep our bulbs in pots or in a special ‘bulb garden’ that gets no summer water.
Bulbs of Large Camas can be purchased from specialty bulb sources like Telos Rare Bulbs (http://www.telosrarebulbs.com/index.html) or more traditional bulb growers like Brent & Becky’s Bulbs (https://store.brentandbeckysbulbs.com/spring/?us) , Whiteflower Farms (http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/100409-product.html) , ADR Bulb Growers (http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/100409-product.html) and van Engelen Bulbs (http://vanengelen.com/catview.cgi?_fn=Product&_category=Best:Camassia) .
The bulbs look like the picture below. They are large for native bulbs.
Plant your bulbs in the fall, at a depth of 3 times the height of the bulb. California native bulbs do well in most local soils, from sandy to clay, as long as they are summer dry. If you are planting in a pot, choose one that’s at least 1 ft tall by 1 ft. wide and has a drainage hole. Once the winter rains come, be sure that the soil doesn’t dry out until the flowering has ceased. That’s really all there is to growing Large Camas.
California native bulbs like Large Camas make wonderful additions to the home garden. You can use them in pots, in dry beds and borders or other dry spots in the garden. Native Californians bake the bulbs and eat them like a sweet-potato. The flower stalks make nice cut flowers. And they also make your garden a welcome sight for hummingbirds and butterflies.