Monday, September 7, 2009

Native Camassia For The Extraordinary Garden

Camassia is a small genus of six species of perennials that are native to North America. Apart from their floral beauty, they were appreciated as food by natives and new settlers. The name is from American Indian words meaning "sweet". They grew in large numbers in moist meadows exposed to full sun. They are sometimes called Wild Hyacinth or Quamash.

The six species are:
  • Camassia angusta - Praire Camas. Ranges from Iowa to Texas, and eastward to Indiana and Mississippi. Flowers are nearly white. Height is 24" to 36".
  • Camassia cusickii - Cusick's Camas. Native to Oregon and Idaho. Flowers are blue. Height is 18" to 24".
  • Camassia howellii - Howell's Camas. Native to Oregon. Flowers are blue or white, depending upon the variety. Height is 36" to 48".
  • Camassia leichtlinii - Large Camas. Ranges in the U.S. from Washington to southern California and eastward to Nevada. Flowers are blue or white, depending upon the variety. Height is 36" to 48".
  • Camassia quamash - Small Camas. Ranges in the U.S. from Washington to southern California and eastward to Wyoming. Flowers are blue. Height is 18" to 24".
  • Camassia scilloides - Bear Grass. Ranges in the U.S. from Michigan to Georgia and from Pennsylvania to Texas. Flowers are blue. Height is 18" to 24".

Of those species, three are commonly available from commercial suppliers: Camassia cusickii, C. leichtlinii, and C. quamash. Flowering season ranges from spring into summer.

Camassia is a nice, low-maintenance plant that thrives in USDA climate zones 4 or 5 through 8 or 9. Plant in full sun to partial shade. Average garden soil with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8 is fine. Though found in moist places, Camassia is also drought tolerant when established.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office. They often provide collection bags. With each soil sample, indicate the type of bulb you intend to grow in it. For the most basic recommendations, you may be charged a nominal fee. For more information such as micro-nutrient and organic content you may be charged more. Follow the recommendations.

Bulb planting begins in September or October, depending upon your area. Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 12" deep. Poorly drained sites can be improved by raising the height of the planting beds. Common soil amendments include sulphur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil. Bone meal is especially good for bulbs. Which you should use depends upon your particular circumstance. Your local Cooperative Extension Service should be helpful.

Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test. Following its instruction should be a good bet. A fine all-around practice for Spring-flowering bulbs is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden. Repeat the application when shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue. Apply 2 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer per ten square feet of garden area every two weeks until flower buds appear.

Camassia bulbs should be planted three times as deep as the bulbs are wide. For example, if the bulb is 2" wide, plant it 6" deep. Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole. Plant spacing depends upon the species, but ranges from 6" to 18". Cover the bulbs with soil and add a top-dressing of mulch about 2" deep to suppress weeds. Unless snow or rain fall is inadequate, irrigation should not be necessary.

Because Camassia are edible, curious persons may be tempted to eat them. But care should be taken to verify the plant's correct identity. Camassia bulbs are similar in appearance and name to the toxic Death Camas, Zigadenus nuttallii. Similarly, the name, Wild Hyacinth, may be confused with the popular but toxic Hyacinthus orientalis or Dutch Hyacinth. Do not munch if you are not absolutely sure.

Sometimes native plants are considered to be common and ordinary. Perhaps, as the saying goes, "Familiarity breeds contempt." But there is nothing common or ordinary about Camassia when you take a closer look. It is a wonderful native plant for your extraordinary garden.

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