Camassias swaying in the grass

camassia lei

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.

camassia lei2

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).

camassia lei3

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.

camassia lei4

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.

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8 Comments on “Camassias swaying in the grass”

  1. digwithdorris
    May 21, 2015 at 8:12 am #

    Interesting article. I have purchased a bargain £1.99 camissia from waitrose in the last few days. Original price £7.99 which might be why we don’t see many in gardens?! It is a white variety. My soil is heavy and inclined to stay wet so I am hoping my bargain will perform well.

    • thebikinggardener
      May 23, 2015 at 12:22 pm #

      Thank you. I think your camassia is like most bulbs bought in growth – expensive! The dry bulbs in autumn are a bit cheaper. But at £1.99 you did well. I hope it settles down and grows well. I find that although they do not increase into clumps very fast they do make more spikes after a year or two.

  2. winpen
    May 21, 2015 at 1:07 pm #

    So interesting that you have posted this on Camassia because two days ago I started trying to find out more about Camassia. My husband spotted one in the fields around his tree nursery here in Ithaca, NY. It was the first time I had seen a Camassia. A most heavenly shade of blue. As you point out, it is a tall, graceful plant and looks stunning, that blue against the green of meadow grasses. I went to see it. The wind prevented me from getting a sharp photo, but I will go back again. I have now ordered a half ounce of seed from a native plant restoration nursery here in the U.S. (Prairie Moon Nursery). Seeding Camassia will be slow I know, but I have missed the bulb planting season and wanted to get started. Your description of the Camassias in New Mexico is splendid, and you make such a good point about what one learns from seeing a plant growing in its native habitat. We think our specimen is Camassia scilloides. In over 30 years of owning his nursery, my husband has never seen a Camassia there. Interesting the way things pop up! And sad when they disappear! So that’s why I am investing in more Camassia. Thank you for your post. Lovely photos.

    • thebikinggardener
      May 23, 2015 at 12:20 pm #

      That is interesting that you have had a camassia appear. They are all from the west coast apart from C. scilloides which is native to your area. Nice that it has popped up! What seed did you get? Good luck with your seed and I hope they don’t take too long to reach flowering size. I would guess they would take three years or so and you should have thousands! Will look amazing 🙂

  3. growhort
    May 24, 2015 at 8:10 am #

    Your article is well timed I have an orchard full of Camassia at the moment on the prestigious Estate I manage on the outskirts of London. The team and I planted three thousand bulbs in the Autumn in our managed wild flower and apple orchard. Interestingly they follow on nicely from the bluebells, extending the season and closely followed by the cheery, sunny, wild flowers of the Yellow Rattle that we sow to keep the grass under control. I’d like to reblog your post and share your love of Camassia’s on my blog. Great post will def be following your future articles.

    • thebikinggardener
      May 24, 2015 at 9:32 am #

      Thank you. That sounds as though it will look amazing and makes my 100 seem piffling! Oddly the bluebells are late this year and the two are almost flowering at the same time. every year is different. Feel free to reblog and thanks for following. 🙂

  4. growhort
    May 24, 2015 at 8:31 am #

    Reblogged this on GrowHort – Grow your Horticultural Knowledege and commented:
    Camassias really are under stated and deserve a place in any managed wild flower meadow, following on nicely from the bluebells. Camassias begin to follow just as other wild flowers emerge complimenting the likes of the wild hawkweed and yellow rattle in shades of yellow and blues, buttercups quickly follow suit with daisies at the foot and cow parsley wavering over head. Setting aside an area for wild flowers is much more than just letting the weeds grow, it is is fact an intensely managed area of any garden that requires fore thought and careful planning. Let the grass grow to long and the effect is lost, allow invasive species to overtake and you loose the precious wild flowers.

    Planting a succession of Spring flowering bulbs and corms will help keep your wild flower meadow interesting and under control. Enjoy (winter aconites) Eranthis that emerge in late winter through to the swaying starry blue, Camassia in mid May and all those that flower in between.

  5. Annette
    May 26, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    I grow them in the long grass of the orchard – so easy and beautiful, the bees are mad about them too.

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