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Range Diversity Among Native Food Crops

It is hard to ignore the beauty and diversity of the landscape as I travel throughout the state of Oregon. Each area is unique and having grown up in Portland, I can tell you that the open range of some of these landscapes is a site to behold. You can either view it through a microcosm lens from one plant community to the other, or you can zoom outwards and see the layered macrocosm of plant diversity, creating layered habitats for those to thrive. I am fortunate that my work forces me to cover a large area of ground during the height of the wildflower season. Up until this point, I have created defined habitat boundaries in my mind that are distinguished by plant communities and their range. This still stands true for most species, but this year I have found myself in awe of the range for both Camassia quamash (common camas) and Lomatium nudicaule (barestem lomatium) throughout Oregon.

On my most recent adventure to the Siskiyou's, I found myself asking a basic question: How could these species cover so much ground between mountain ranges, when neither of them rely heavily on airborne seed to propagate? The answer was simple and quickly realized. I recalled that both species were a staple food crop for first nations people and were largely cultivated as they moved throughout the landscape. I have been fortunate enough to grow both of these species and know them well. Anyone who knows me closely, knows my obsession with lomatiums and I can safely say that Lomatium nudicaule played a key role in solidifying my feelings. Camas and I have a long history, but I can't say that we are as romantically involved. After experiencing its extensive range however, I am quickly growing very fond of it.

Lets take this opportunity to get to know these two species a little more.

Camassia quamash

Standing at about 70 cm (1-3 ft) tall, it can be distinguished from its close relative (Camassia leichtlinii) by its pale blue flowers that are slightly irregular. When in seed the tepals can curve upwards or downwards, where as the tepals curve together and upwards for the Camassia leichtlinii. Camas was an important food crop and were harvested all over the west. They typically were harvested during or right after flowering. The bulb was slow cooked over a long period of time to break down the inulin, making it more digestible. The pit roasted or boiled bulbs have been characterized to taste sweet and nutty. The bulbs would also be dried and pounded into a flour, which was used for baking or as a thickener.

Camas has been characterized as the most important historical native food plant in the northwest. The people who tended to these plants and their habitat, would return every year to harvest, till the ground, and maintain the grassland to ensure a harvest able crop for years to come.

Lomatium nudicaule

These flowering stems can vary from 20-90 cm tall and can be found in a variety of habitats including dry, open, or sparsely treed areas. An important feature in distinguishing some lomatiums is the involucral bract, which is a reduced leaf or leaflike structure found at the base of the flower. In this case, the involucral bract is absent. Another key feature of this species is the leaf shape.

The common name for this genus (Lomatium) usually includes "parsley"which is in reference to the parsley like leaf shape. Lomatium nudicaule or bare-stem desert parsley has oblong to egg-shaped leaves.

The young leaves were consumed and have been characterized to taste like celery. High in vitamin C, they can either be eaten raw or can be cooked. The seeds are very aromatic and have been used to flavor foods such as stews, soups, and teas. Lomatium nudicaule is also very medicinal and there are records of it being used to treat tuberculosis, the common cold, and sore throats.

Plants are incredible teachers and there is always more to learn. When I read about these plants and their uses it solidifies the need for human engagement. We all have a role to play whether it be through education, seed collection, removal of invasive species, or enjoying their beauty from afar . Giving space to these plants, through whatever lens, heightens awareness and fosters a more holistic approach in the way that we preserve these habitats.

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Jun 09, 2023

Thanks for the thoughtful post, Emily! I had always considered cultivation as part of why certain areas, to this day, remain so rich in camas. However, I hadn't considered the possibility that cultivation might be strongly tied to its amazing distribution.

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