Camassias are perhaps my favourite spring bulbs because they are always such a wonderful surprise. The plants bloom with beautiful star-shaped flowers in white, china blue, sky blue, lavender or violet from April/May to June. They flower on a stem, starting at the bottom, and some varieties seem to go on for ever until you realise that it’s no longer spring but actually summer. They are good in flower beds and borders, and look fabulous naturalised in grass or wildflower meadows. They are loved by bumblebees and are not bothered by slugs and snails. Plant some now!
Camassias come from North America, most from the north-west where they grow in damp meadows or along streams. As with all plants, if you can provide growing conditions similar to their native habitat they will reward you. Choose a place with a damp but well drained fertile soil, in sun or light shade.
Varieties of camassia to look for
Camassia quamash (common camassia or wild hyacinth) can grow to 60cm/24in but often only reaches 30cm/12in. Bulbs form clumps and gradually spread, increasing rapidly in short meadow grass.
‘Camassia’ comes from the native American Nez Percé name for this plant, and means ‘sweet’. The bulbs or qém’es were gathered and eaten boiled or roasted by the Nez Percé, Cree and Blackfoot native Americans. They were important in keeping the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804–1806) going, the first American expedition to cross what is now the western portion of the United States.
Camassia leichtlinii subsp. suksdorfii flowers from April to May and grows to 90cm (36in). There is a white single variety called ‘Alba’ and a semi-double creamy white cultivar called 'Semiplena'. The ‘Caerulea’ group has deep violet-blue flowers.
Camassia cusickii is sky blue and looks best in large drifts.
How to plant camassias
Plant the bulbs in early autumn, at least 10cm/4in deep. Watch this video of Monty Don using a bulb planter to get them to a good depth.
Plant Camassia cusickii about 10cm/4in apart and the others about 20cm/8in apart.
In very cold areas, mulch the soil to protect the bulbs from frost in late autumn. Water them freely in dry summers.
Hare Spring Plants are great enthusiasts and hold the national collection. If I had more room I'd definitely plant more camassias myself.
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