How to grow camassias

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Architectural camassias make glorious planting partners for many situations, says Sue Fisher

CT8MJJ Camassia leichtlinii 'Caerulea', adderwort (Bistorta officinalis syn. Polygonum bistorta) and marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris). Image shot 2012. Exact date unknown.

Elegant and architectural camassia or quamash is one of the few bulbs that thrives in damp soil, making a glorious display of blue or white flowers in late spring and early summer. Upright flower stems vary from around knee to waist height, are densely topped with many small star-shaped blooms and rise from a basal tuft of long slender leaves. While often planted to naturalise in grass and sometimes referred to as ‘aristocratic bluebells’, their statuesque sophistication has so much more potential around the garden. Not least because camassias are also hardy, easy to grow in the right soil, and – a big bonus with moisture-loving plants – they are untouched by slugs and snails, as well as deer.

This small genus of six species comes from North America, mostly from the west with one species, Camassia scilloides, found in eastern and central regions. The name comes from the Native American word kamas or quamash for whom the bulbs were an essential food source, roasted and ground into flour, which was reputed to have saved early settlers and the explorers Lewis and Clark from starvation. Consumption was not without side effects, though, as the plant hunter David Douglas attested: “…assuredly they produce flatulence: when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by strength of the wind”. Rather more poetic was Lewis’s description: “The colour of the blooms resembles lakes of clear water”.

Camassias go dormant in summer so site accordingly: in the middle of a border where gaps are soon hidden, or if in containers, topped with summer plants such as hardy geraniums. The flowering time is from around late April to mid-June and growing two or three different ones can span the whole period.

Choose from a range of blues from pale to violet; creamy white; and new (though uncommon) pale pink. Blue camassias look magnificent growing with yellow or orange flowers including euphorbias, azaleas, Welsh poppies and the fresh young croziers of hardy ferns, or in a pastel mix, while whites make a gorgeous contrast to dark foliage and flowers. But whether camassias grow in grass or among other plants, their shapes and colours amid the fresh greens of early summer never fail to delight.

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