Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
The blooming of white camas signals the beginning of shorter days on the North Dakota prairie. This plant occurs from Alaska to Arizona eastward to Manitoba and Missouri, at elevations up to 12,000 ft.
White camas is a perennial that grows up to three feet tall from white, onion-like bulbs. Leaves are long and grass-like. Several dozen creamy-white flowers about a half-inch wide are grouped in narrow branched spikes at the tips of the stems.
White camas prefers coulees, meadows, and low-lying grasslands near prairie wetlands. The plant seemingly is distasteful to cattle, but nevertheless shows little tendency to increase as competition by more palatable plants is reduced by grazing. Hence, the plant is about equally abundant regardless of grazing regime. Unlike the western death-camas that are notoriously toxic, especially to sheep, white camas has only occasionally caused problems.
This plant is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae) which also includes the edible onion, garlic, and asparagus as well as the poisonous hellebore and autumn crocus. Camas (also spelled quamash) is the native American name for similar, blue-flowered western plants that bear bulbs relished for food.
The generic name Zigadenus stems from the Greek zygos, "yoke," and aden, "a gland," in reference to a pair of glands attached to the flowers. Elegans means "elegant." White camas was first described for science in 1814 by the German botanist Frederick Pursh. Pursh was the first to publish upon the many new plants collected by the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806.