Camassias are not just blue

I feel slightly odd about extolling the virtues of a plant that is usually seen in blue but, in this case is white. After all, I always criticise white plumbago and agapanthus on the grounds that we need more blue flowers and there are enough white blooms we can grow. This is not to say that I don’t like white flowers – I love them. But blue flowers are so rare and desirable that deliberately searching for a white form of a blue flower seems unnecessary. But here we go with Camassia leichtlinii ‘Sacajawea’.

Camassias are happy in Irish gardens, coming from the relatively cool and moist Pacific Northwest of the USA. Camassia leichtlinii is a tall plant that prefers moist soil and full sun and, in the wild, has two subspecies; the blue ssp. sukdorfii from around Seattle and the creamy white ssp. leichtlinii from Oregon. Perhaps the most common form in gardens is the double-flowered, creamy ‘Semiplena’ which has the advantage of not setting seed. The species has a reputation for seeding freely which makes it a good choice for naturalising in damp grassland. All the camassias I have planted so far, even in areas which are wet in winter, have grown well so there is lots of potential for naturalising with the caveat that they flower late so mowing will have to be delayed till July – the foliage tends to die down quite quickly after flowering although the leaves are not as tatty at flowering time as most alliums.

But last autumn I planted some ‘Sacajawea’. This is a variegated form with narrow, ivory edges to the leaves. Variegated bulbs, apart from tulips; are not that common but there are two camassias, the other being ‘Blue Melody’ which is smaller in stature, with yellow/cream edges to the leaf and blue flowers. ‘Sacajawea’ was named after the native American who assisted Lewis and Clark in their journey across America from North Dakota to the Pacific. She was just 16 when she joined them.

She was born in 1788 into the Lemhi Shoshone people of the Salmon River, Idaho, but was kidnapped by Hidatsa peoplewhen twelve. A year later she was ‘sold’ and married to Toussant Charbonneau, a trapper and later member of the Lewis and Clark expedition although details are sketchy and she may have been won when he was gambling. Largely because of her language skills she and her (probably unwanted) husband were hired to join their trip and she certainly earned her place. In May 1805 she rescued the expedition papers and records from a capsized boat and the river was named after her in her honour. It is said that her knowledge of various tribes and of plants helped the expedition enormously, particularly the preparation of camassia bulbs to stave off starvation. She and her infant son helped to give the impression that the expedition was a peaceful one. Although she was certainly not treated well by modern standards she does seem to have been really appreciated and her son was adopted by William Clark. After the expedition she settled in St Louis and died in 1812. Or did she? There is a theory that she left St Louis and travelled to join the Commanche tribe and lived to a ripe old age, living until 1884.

The plant that shares her name is a rather demure thing; the leaves are pretty and the flowers showy but not vulgar. It is curious how some days, in the morning at least, there are no flowers open at all but then, a few hours later every plant has several open. The individual flowers only last about two days but there are lots on the stem and the old flowers ‘screw up’ quite neatly. Overall it is a lovely plant, worthy of a place in the border and from the moment the shoots appear the leaves are neat and attractive.

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6 Comments on “Camassias are not just blue”

  1. Chris Mousseau
    May 30, 2022 at 11:46 am #

    I bet these would look great mixed in with C. Cusickii…

    • thebikinggardener
      May 30, 2022 at 12:07 pm #

      Thank you – I think they would. I am very fond of camassias since seeing them wild in bloom in a wet meadow and they are useful as well as quite easy. They seem to tolerate the wet Irish winters better than many bulbs and I am experimenting with them in many places since they flower at a useful time, straddling spring and summer.

  2. Paddy Tobin
    May 30, 2022 at 9:23 pm #

    I have found they (C. leichtlinii) grow very well here but absolutely must have an open sunny position or they fall about and make a big mess of foliage. C. esculenta ‘Blue Melody’ is a shorter variety and is excellent in tall grass (meadow conditions) – around 50cm.

    • thebikinggardener
      May 31, 2022 at 7:41 am #

      I agree about the need for sun. I have some ‘Blue Danube’ planted which are now in shade (the arbutus has done better than I expected or hoped) and are now in shade and are a mess (or mass) of foliage with few flowers. I will move them as soon as they die down. But at least they should have increased so I will be able to plant a generous drift.

      • Paddy Tobin
        May 31, 2022 at 9:44 pm #

        It is a very good one to multiply and appreciates being lifed and spread out regularly.

  3. tonytomeo
    May 31, 2022 at 4:30 am #

    Ah, white! My favorite color. However, as I mentioned in regard to rhododendrons, some flowers excel at colors other than white. This Camassia is exquisite in white, but common blue is excellent also. I mean, that blue is so perfect too!

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