February 25 2021
When a gardener takes a day off, one of the finest things to do is go for a drive in the mountains and look for wildflowers. Even better, get out and walk around. On one hike to Our Lake, I found 56 different wildflowers. Obviously, I don’t get very far very fast. I carry my favorite plant identification book (Plants of the Rocky Mountains, Lone Pine Field Guide, Kershaw, MacKinnon, & Pojar) because I almost always find something new to me.
One particularly cool find-in a different place-was Lemhi Beardtongue (penstemon) a rare wildflower found only in southwestern Montana and adjacent parts of Idaho. Apparently there is also an equally rare Sapphire Rockcress which we were too late to see bloom. A great reason to go back, if I needed one.
But one of the most spectacular wildflower meadows was several hundred acres (a guess) covered with Blue Camas. It was high on the west slope of the mountains by Mullan Pass; the west slopes normally have more snow and moisture than the east slopes and you can find different flowers there. I live on the east side of the Rockies.
Camas root was roasted in pits for many hours by the native people, which changes the indigestible inulin to fructose, a source of sugar for many tribes. Apparently, eating the root will cause you (and whoever is near you) a lot of distress as the digestive process of breaking down inulin will produce a lot of gas. The book, “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose, about the Lewis and Clark expedition tells about how sick they got when the natives, who were trying to help the starving explorers, fed them camas root. Large quantities can cause vomiting and diarrhea to those who aren’t used to it. Also, DO NOT confuse common camas with death camas which had similar grass like leaves but different color flowers.
You can buy camas bulbs commercially, McClure and Zimmerman list quite a few varieties. They were in full bloom by the first of June on the pass so I would expect several weeks earlier flowers down in the valleys. Also, they like a fair amount of moisture.
I would love to plant a meadow of wildflowers, but will have to content myself with a miniature version. I did try a small, maybe quarter of an acre, meadow once and soon discovered that getting it established required an enormous amount of hand weeding. I couldn’t think of any other way to get those prolific weeds out of there except to pull them-one by one. No doubt, after two or three years of this the flowers and grasses will take over should you try it. I ended up mowing it, which of course removed the wildflower seed heads.
So for those wondrous displays of nature’s jewels, I will head to the mountains. Luckily, my husband enjoys these drives as much as I do, even though he has to slow down quite a bit and make frequent stops. Mother Nature is a pretty magnificent gardener.
Common Camas, Blue Camas, Camassia quamash.