Hakai Magazine

Camas blossoms, Washington, San Juan Islands, Sucia Island
These periwinkle-colored flowers are a familiar sight on Washington State’s San Juan Islands. Below the surface lie edible bulbs that were once widely consumed by Indigenous peoples. Photo by Don Paulson/Alamy Stock Photo

The Local-Carb Diet

Dedicated Pacific Northwest plant lovers nurture an indigenous food with ancient roots.

Authored by

by Madeline Ostrander

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What does it mean to harvest and eat a so-called local food? I thought I’d done it the time I picked and ate several tubs of blueberries from a farm about 15 kilometers from my house in Seattle, Washington, and again when I dug potatoes from my backyard and roasted them in my oven—a simple and somehow comforting act of nourishment.

But Madrona Murphy has other ideas about what I could be eating. She has invited me to her mother’s house on the south side of Lopez Island, Washington, for an unusual cooking lesson: how to prepare the plant that once fed much of western North America—the camas lily. With a head of dainty blue or white flowers and a fleshy, edible bulb, camas grows profusely and wildly across this region, in rocky and damp meadows, in gardens, and along roadsides. But few people know how to cook and eat it. Until I met Murphy, I wouldn’t have recognized this plant as food. But in other moments and cultures, this vegetable was as familiar as the potato is now.

When she places a paper bag full of bulbs on her mother’s old laminate countertop, the pile of vegetable matter within seems inscrutable to me, much more like a wild weed than dinner. “They don’t smell like food at all,” she announces as she picks up a bulb—which vaguely resembles an onion—and waves it in front of my face. It emits an earthy and pungent odor.

You could describe Murphy as a botanist, an independent scholar, or perhaps an artist of plants, and her husband, Russel Barsh, as an expert on the rights and histories of North America’s Indigenous peoples, a Harvard-educated lawyer, or an ecologist. Together, the pair have a near-encyclopedic knowledge of the history and ecology of this little corner of the Pacific coast: the San Juan Islands, part of the archipelago that crosses the Juan de Fuca Strait and becomes the Gulf Islands on the other side of the Canadian maritime border. The two also have a radical view of how islanders could become more self-reliant by transforming how they farm and manage the land here. The couple’s vision includes the cultivation and consumption of plants now mostly unfamiliar to modern diets, such as camas. And in the past couple of years, Murphy has been both experimenting with and teaching the arts of camas growing and camas cooking.

She pads around the kitchen in mismatched five-finger shoes (the equivalent of gloves for feet), one red, one blue. Her caramel-colored hair is twisted into a spiral braid on top of her head. Round gold vintage glasses encircle her eyes, and tiny safety pins dangle like ornaments next to the lenses, holding the frames together. (She hasn’t found screws the right size to repair them.) Barsh leans over the sink in stained denim overalls, his broad face freckled by sunlight and his gray hair slightly matted, and empties the bag of camas bulbs into a colander. Murphy runs water over them and rubs off the dirt. In the honeyed light of a late-summer evening, the skins of the chestnut-colored bulbs glint with gold flecks.

close up of camas flower

The camas lily has long been a fixture on the landscape of western North America, from British Columbia to California. Today it’s sold as an ornamental flower bulb in both Europe and North America. Photo by Shanna Baker

She peels and cuts the camas one by one, slicing off the roots, pulling back the skins. Then she removes the flower stalks that stab into the center of each bulb. It’s a cumbersome process.

“And they’re sti-cky,” she says, the word clicking in her mouth as if it, too, got stuck. Every few minutes, a layer of goo collects on Murphy’s knife blade, and she has to rinse it again. The bulbs contain saponins, a class of chemicals that feel viscous and soapy to the touch, and inulin, a type of plant fiber that must be cooked—traditionally for more than 24 hours —and converted into fructose before it can be digested. (To be safe, Murphy typically stews her bulbs for 48 hours.) Camas seems as far from the modern idea of convenience food as you could possibly get—the slowest of slow foods.

Eventually Murphy hands me the knife, and I take a slippery bulb into my palm. For a moment, it feels like an initiation. I plunge the knife into its skin, and the flesh gives way. I remove the roots and slide the skins off with some difficulty until I have revealed the naked white vegetable beneath.

About two decades ago, the authors Seth Zuckerman and Ted Wolf coined the term Salmon Nation to describe the vast region that stretches from Northern California through British Columbia to coastal Alaska. The phrase captured the idea that western North America was united by a common food whose importance crossed ecological, cultural, and economic borders, past and present.

But you could just as easily call most of this place Camas Nation. For thousands of years, the camas lily provided to parts of the West what the potato gave to 17th-century Ireland: carbohydrates for the masses. But when European Americans migrated to the Pacific region, camas, unlike salmon, found few champions in the new colonial economy—or its cuisine.

For starters, camas didn’t look like any kind of food the settlers knew how to eat. Though the plant is a cousin of asparagus (not a true lily), it looks more like a showy flower—with a spike of six-petalled blooms and grassy leaves. About a half-dozen species of camas grow in western and southeastern North America. Only two were staples of the western Indigenous diet: tall or great camas (Camassia leichtlinii) and common or small camas (Camassia quamash, also known as quamash), which is found across the Cascade Range and northern Rocky Mountains and down the coast as far as the southern Sierra Nevada. When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explored the Northwest between 1804 and 1806, the Nez Perce in northwestern Idaho offered the hungry explorers a bit of bread made from camas, along with berries, dried buffalo, and salmon. The meal infamously made the men ill (perhaps they overindulged or, Murphy speculates, the camas was undercooked). Plant collectors imported tall camas to England by the 19th century, and it ultimately made its way to the Netherlands. Europeans noticed the plant’s aesthetics, not its nutritional value. Today, it’s easy to find tall camas in commercial nurseries in Europe and North America, marketed as an ornamental bulb alongside tulips and daffodils.

Annie Yellowbear, a Nez Perce woman, processes camas bulbs in Idaho, circa 1890. For the Nez Perce, camas is a sacred food seen as a gift from the Creator. Photo courtesy of Nez Perce National Historical Park

Annie Yellowbear, a Nez Perce woman, processes camas bulbs in Idaho, circa 1890. For the Nez Perce, camas is a sacred food seen as a gift from the Creator. Image courtesy of National Park Service, Nez Perce National Historical Park, NEPE-HI-0773

Camas growing was also mostly women’s work, and until recently, historians and scholars in male-dominated academic departments tended to overlook women’s contribution to the procurement of food. “The camass-digging [sic] is a great season of ‘reunion’ for the women of the various tribes, and answers with them to our hay-making or harvest home,” wrote British bibliographer William Carew Hazlitt, who published a book on Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia in 1858. Settlers watched them gather many kilograms of the bulbs into potato sacks and then roast them in firepits or ovens.

In parts of the West, camas cultivation had some of the hallmarks of agriculture: Indigenous people promoted the spread of camas by setting tree- and brush-killing fires to keep meadows open, and also by weeding, hoeing, digging, maintaining bulb stocks, and planting. In the past few decades, new research on these practices has upended scholars’ assumptions that the West’s Indigenous societies were solely hunter-gatherers. “I like the term complex cultivators,” says ethnobotanist Nancy Turner, who’s based in Victoria, British Columbia. Scholars don’t consider camas a domesticated plant; unlike, say, corn or wheat, its genetics and seed dispersal habits have not been altered by humans in obvious and established ways. But Brenda Beckwith, who now studies camas in interior British Columbia, questions whether even that’s a hard distinction. In 1998, she transplanted tall camas bulbs, each about the size of her thumbnail, from the wild into research plots. Five years later, they had swelled to the size of plums. “I dug them up, and I was like, holy crow!” she remembers. “These plants knew how to do this, and they behave like cultivated root vegetables when you treat them like a cultivated root vegetable.” Beckwith has a hypothesis: “That’s got to be genetic.”

When Indigenous peoples lost their lands through formal treaties with US and Canadian governments and forceful coercion, the art and knowledge of camas cultivation began to wane. White settlers sometimes bought potatoes from native people; for example, the Makah Ozette potato, which was passed from Spanish explorers to the Makah Tribe in the late 18th century. But they had little taste for or interest in camas.

By the late 1960s, when Turner began researching camas, far fewer people harvested or cooked it than in generations past. Krista Davis, the now 36-year-old daughter of one of Barsh’s longtime colleagues, spent most of her childhood in the Victoria area with her mother’s family, members of the Snuneymuxw First Nation, and remembers eating wild root vegetables that may have included camas. But among younger generations, few people still had much knowledge of and interest in this food, she says.

A decade into her research, perhaps at the nadir of camas knowledge, Turner collaborated with a pair of elders from the Ditidaht First Nation on southern Vancouver Island to document how the bulbs were steamed traditionally in a firepit. Then she and a group of scholars and members of First Nations in the region started organizing camas feasts. By the 1990s, camas was heading for a revival. Every year, First Nations on Vancouver Island hosted camas pit cooks with Turner and her students from the University of Victoria. Nearly 20 years ago, across the border in Washington State, members of the Skokomish Indian Tribe launched the annual First Food Feast, which involves a camas dig. And in 2005, the Northwest Indian College began leading field trips to dig wild camas bulbs in the spring (when the plant is in bloom and a casual observer can easily differentiate it from death-camas, a poisonous look-alike).

Each fall, Camosun College in Victoria hosts a camas bulb pit roast led by Cheryl Bryce of the Lekwungen Nation. Camosun grounds were once an important camas bed for the Lekwungen people. Pit roasting is a multistep process and the bulbs take hours to cook. Bryce can tell when the bulbs are ready to eat by their earthy aroma. Photos by Camosun College AV Services, video footage by Shanna Baker

Since then, interest in camas harvesting and cooking has surged among Indigenous communities all around the Salish Sea, and there are wide-ranging efforts to restore and protect the remnants of camas fields and gardens scattered across the region.

But it’s not enough, Madrona Murphy thinks. A food like camas shouldn’t lurk at the margins of the landscape or the periphery of people’s diets, as a kind of memorial to the culinary traditions of the past. It should grow abundantly in the places society cultivates the rest of its food.

Lopez Island, like many parts of North America, has a romance with the idea of local food and farming. The tourism bureau encourages visitors to seek out the island’s artisan cheesemakers, pastures grazed by sheep and beef cattle, and wineries. But these represent agricultural traditions developed on other continents, under different climate conditions, and by people of distant cultural origins. For many of their calories, island residents turn to food shipped in from elsewhere, and Murphy worries that this is unsustainable, especially in the middle of the long emergency known as climate change. “We need to be able to feed ourselves, and we probably shouldn’t be looking to European agriculture,” she says.

madrona murphy

Madrona Murphy has lived on Lopez Island, Washington, for most of her life. At a young age, she became fascinated with the native plants in the region and is dedicated to educating others about their cultural and culinary value. Photo by Madeline Ostrander

Based on his own research and the work of anthropologist Wayne Suttles, Barsh believes that before European settlement, the San Juan Islands may have supported roughly the same number of people as they do today. But their earlier residents were, of course, far more self-reliant.

“A big part of why historical ecology is important to stewardship is figuring out, how did people do it so well here,” Murphy says. “Now we have to import most of our food, and we export our garbage.” If camas could sustain so many people in the past, couldn’t it have a regular place at the dinner table now?

Murphy describes her own roots in the San Juans as “really, really shallow.” But, apart from the years she spent as a student of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, she has lived her entire life on Lopez. Her parents, a pair of back-to-the-land hippies, moved to the Pacific Northwest from California and Missouri in the mid-1970s, and Murphy was born in 1980 in a cottage above a beach on the north side of the island, in the county park where her father got a job as a caretaker. A few years later, her parents bought a house in an intentional community carved out of an old farmstead: “a hippie house, no hot running water, 12-volt electricity, outhouse, all that, lovely place but very funky,” Murphy explains. She was a shy, curious, nerdy child, and she navigated the world by acquainting herself with the habits of plants. “Plants are the only things I was interested in as a kid,” she says. As a child, she began learning to identify edible and medicinal plants. “Then I was like, heck, I might as well just learn everything.” She knew camas from where it flowered on a rock outcrop above her childhood house and on a set of beach bluffs at a place called Iceberg Point, down the road from the house her mother moved into once her parents divorced. But she never understood what its presence meant until she met Russel Barsh on a ferry between islands in 2004.

In the mid-1990s, Barsh worked as a legal counsel for the Samish Indian Nation. The nation is a sister community of many of Vancouver Island’s First Nations, separated by the US-Canada border but part of the collective group of coastal Indigenous peoples known as the Salish. In the 19th century, the Samish refused to relocate to reservations set up by the US government. They lost nearly all of their land. Some continued to live on the islands, but many moved across the water to the mainland. Those who remained sometimes kept quiet about their heritage. In 1969, the Samish were deprived of their federal legal status as a tribe. By the time Murphy attended public school, the Samish cultural presence was so thoroughly obscured and ignored that her teachers claimed native people had never lived on the San Juans; they only stopped there on occasional fishing trips. In 1996, Barsh helped the Samish people successfully compel the US government to acknowledge the tribe’s existence by proving that it had established villages all over the San Juan and Gulf Islands. In the process of assembling documents for the court, he grew intimately familiar with the ecology and archaeology of the islands. He told Murphy that many of the plants she loved—including camas—hadn’t blown onto Lopez by accident. Generations of Indigenous people had planted and tended them, and Iceberg Point, where she fell in love with plants as a girl, had one of the best-preserved Indigenous landscapes in all of the San Juans. To Murphy, it was as if someone had decoded a riddle. “Suddenly, having my eyes opened to the landscapes here being the product of human activity was really exciting,” she remembers.

map of san juan islands

Illustration by Mark Garrison

In 2006, Barsh and former Samish tribal chairman Ken Hansen, Krista Davis’s father, founded a nonprofit on Lopez called the Kwiáht Center, focused on conservation. Murphy began collaborating with them and devoting more and more of her time to researching native plants. The organization’s goal was to figure out how best to take care of the San Juans, especially the islands’ Indigenous and ecological heritage. After Hansen died of lung disease at the age of 54, Davis’s younger sister accepted a post on the organization’s board, and Davis eventually took a staff job with Kwiáht. Though neither Barsh nor Murphy have any Indigenous heritage, over time they earned the respect of a number of Samish tribal members. (Davis says Barsh was like a brother to Hansen.) But Samish people now have such a scattered presence on the islands that Barsh and Murphy felt they’d also need to involve the white community in their conservation efforts. Murphy believed one means of bridging the divide between the two cultures was to reintroduce traditional foods to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous eaters.

It was a tricky undertaking. In recent years, foodies in the United States and Canada have taken a voyeuristic interest in native foods—as delicacies, fads, and superfoods. Some Native American chefs call it the “Columbusing” of native foods, the pretense that Indigenous cooking and flavors have little consequence until white culinary experts “discover” them. Last year, an expensive farm-to-table restaurant outside Seattle stirred controversy when it served a “Land of the Totems” thematic dinner, which included camas and other Indigenous foods from the region. Commenters on Facebook accused them of disrespect: “You should listen to actual native people before coopting [sic] and billing ‘resurrection’ of alive and thriving culture,” wrote one person.

Murphy didn’t want to create a fad. She wanted something bigger: to change the culture of Pacific Northwest eating and convert camas from a rarity or novelty back into a more widely accepted food. So she had long conversations with a tribal elder and rooted through the anthropological and archaeological literature for clues about how best to adapt camas to modern circumstances. Rosie Cayou-James, an elder and the Samish Tribe’s cultural outreach manager, has become a close friend of Murphy’s and believes Kwiáht’s work on camas simply continues the tradition of caring for ancestral land, even when the Samish Tribe isn’t officially involved. “She makes a lot of sense,” Cayou-James says fondly of Murphy. “She has a way of nurturing and encouraging plants to prosper.”

Richard Hebda, curator emeritus of botany and earth history at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, has been growing camas on his property since the 1980s. Video footage by Jude Isabella

In 2007, Murphy began growing camas experimentally in a few small garden plots. She started cooking it about two years ago and served her first batch to the attendees of a San Juan Islands farming conference and her second to the Swinomish Indian Senate, the governing body of a nearby Pacific Northwest tribe. Late that summer, she organized a camas festival on Lopez, where she served camas samples to the attendees, most of whom were local to the island and not Indigenous. To make the vegetable appealing to an unfamiliar palate, she experimented with unconventional combinations. She tried adding camas to a Middle Eastern dish called sahlab, made with thickened, sweetened milk. The result bore an unfortunate resemblance to mushroom gravy, and she threw it away. But when she added camas into meatballs, mixed it into a chocolate sauce, powdered it and put it in ice cream, and chopped it up with sweet onions to make a salsa, the results were far more enticing. Cayou-James turned up for the festival and cooked fry bread. Then a Samish couple topped it with camas sauce and the ice cream. They called their invention “the Coast Salish sundae.” No one seemed perturbed that camas was making appearances in nontraditional recipes, though Davis admits this has a slight potential to offend. “There would definitely be some frowns, I think, in the Indian community, like, ‘Hey, those are our traditional foods. We don’t mess with them,’” she says. But, Davis notes, Murphy’s culinary experimentation is a means of educating people about camas, not exploiting or profiting from traditions.

A year after the festival, Murphy served up several kilograms of camas, piled on plates, to a handful of Lopez locals and hundreds of Indigenous people who had arrived on the island either in canoes or by ferry as part of the Tribal Canoe Journeys, annual celebrations of Indigenous culture. Most of the young paddlers had never tasted camas before. Two people compared it to chocolate. A Lopez woman said it was like molasses. An elder of the Vancouver Island W̱SÁNEĆ community had heard that camas, which is purported to have medicinal properties, might help ease her fibromyalgia. She wore a cedar-bark hat and leaned back under the shade of a tent, savoring a mouthful of it. Several people remarked they had never seen camas look so big, or taste so sweet.

I went to witness the scene, the day before my cooking lesson, and Murphy cautioned me not to take more than a small morsel of camas, until she was sure there would be enough for everyone. When I placed a piece in my mouth, it was a surprise, separating into firm, fleshy layers like beets and reminding me alternately of parsnips and brown sugar.

To transform camas into something tasty is not easy. Traditional methods involved wrapping the bulbs in leaves or other plant matter, laying them on hot rocks heated in a firepit, then cooking them for many hours. But the average kitchen or backyard barbecue can’t accommodate a firepit that needs long-term tending. Murphy studied a 1972 academic paper describing how Indigenous people in Montana historically roasted and steamed camas, then tried a substitute method: the less-hazardous slow cooker.

Standing beside me near the window of her childhood house, she places this appliance on the counter and lines it with parchment paper and a layer of fan-shaped leaves pulled from the thimbleberry plant, another Pacific Northwest native that produces fuzzy, raspberry-like fruits. I process two bulbs with the paring knife, then lay them on the nest of leaves and paper. She peels and prepares the rest, piles them into the cooker, places the lid, and starts the cooking process. The result, after 48 hours, will be a total metamorphosis, transmuting the orbs from gluey things to sweet purplish-brown balls.

cooked camas bulbs

The bulb of the camas lily resembles an onion and was traditionally steamed for hours in a firepit and often eaten alongside salmon. Photo by Camilla Loyd

It is not a cooking process I could imagine repeating after a long workday. But Barsh and Murphy have a plan for making this food more accessible. Once you cook camas, you can dry it—and then it becomes a more versatile ingredient, possible to store, reconstitute, and mix into other dishes. “I think that really the direction that we’re going to go as a practical matter is trying to get the dried camas into the food co-ops and let people experiment with it,” says Barsh. The pair also hopes to eventually supply camas to tribal food distribution programs.

Camas is just the first step in Murphy and Barsh’s long-term plan to recover long-neglected foods. Murphy has also tried serving salad with peeled salmonberry shoots to her Lopezian neighbors in the spring (based on the eating habits of some Canadian First Nations). She’s also discovered that the shoots make good pickles. In one of their gardens, Murphy and Barsh transplanted a few petite stems of yampa, a native root that can grow to about the size of a baby carrot. The island is full of salt-tolerant native crab apples, onto which they might try grafting European apples. They also want to grow brodea, a purple flower that produces mass quantities of edible underground corms the size of peanuts—though neither of them yet knows what this vegetable tastes like.

In the 13 years that I have lived in the Pacific Northwest, I thought I had learned the cuisine of this place. Now I feel like I have been missing something in plain sight. I leave Murphy’s childhood house still hungry. In the morning, I fill my stomach with instant oatmeal and take the ferry back through the puzzle of islands and bays, cliffs and forests. On the mainland, I drive along a narrow highway through a flat expanse of orchards, vegetables, and tulip farms, each plotted neatly into gridded beds, fields, and fences—an effort to draw hard boundaries between civilized and feral, food and weed. But now my attention is drawn to the messy edges, the roadsides full of wildflowers and mysteries.