Camassias are unaccountably uncommon in gardens in the UK and Ireland. You don’t often see the bulbs for sale in garden centres and they are not common in gardens either. Yet they are easy and beautiful and, should you feel so inclined, they are good cut flowers too.
I think the reason why they don’t get picked up in garden centres is that the the colourful picture on the packs shows blue starry flowers, just like scillas, and potential customers do not realise that they are bigger – much bigger – than scillas. They also bloom about three months later.
But when you can get 20 scillas for a couple of quid but only five camassias for the same price you need to know what they are or have a lot of faith to buy camasias.
It’s a shame because camassias are lovely plants and the few species are all rather similar, varying mostly in size and flower colour which can be a shade of blue or cream.
My most memorable views of them was in the wild in the mountains of New Mexico where they grew in wet meadows by the thousand and coloured the grass azure. It was an amazing sight but more than that, it showed me how they grow in the wild. Seeing plants growing in their natural habitats is always useful to understand them and the sort of conditions they prefer. So two autumns ago I planted a hundred bulbs in grass, in areas that are moist in winter and spring. Camassias like wet soil when they are growing but prefer it to be drier in summer.
I find camassias a bit confusing but I think mine are C. leichtlinii though the more I look at them the more I think they are C. quamash. All are native to the west coast of the USA and there is a Camas city in both Montana and Washington states in the USA. The bulbs were eaten by native Americans and one species is C. esculenta (meaning edible).
It is one of the last spring bulbs to bloom and usually blooms in May. The height of this species is about 75cm and the leaves are strappy. The individual flowers do not last but there are twenty or more on each stem so the display can last at least a month.
The flowers are popular with bees and also early hoverflies so they not only look good in long grass and in wildflower meadows but are good for wildlife too. They are also good and perennial in borders and they would look good with pink or white aquilegias – an idea for next year.