Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
Most records of narrowleaved death camas are from the western third of North Dakota, but plants have also been collected in Dickey and Eddy Counties. Elsewhere, the plant can be found from Saskatchewan to British Columbia south to Nebraska, Colorado, and California at elevations up to 8,200 feet.
Narrowleaved death camas is perennial from a deeply buried bulb. In North Dakota, plants are usually about eighteen inches tall, but get taller in states to the South. There are 5-10, narrow, onion-like leaves that arise mostly from the base. Lower leaves are about a foot long, whereas those on the upper stem are only about half that length. Each flowering spike is six to eight inches long and bears 30-40 quarter inch wide, creamy-white flowers. Flowers are borne on pedicels about a half inch long. Fruits are three quarters of an inch long, three-lobed capsules containing a few seeds.
Look for narrowleaved death camas from late May to July in dry, moderately grazed pastures. Alkaloids found in Zigadenus are notorious for poisoning of sheep and occasionally cattle and horses. However, plants are usually distasteful to well-fed livestock and must be consumed in quantity before trouble begins. Conditions where poisoning occurred usually are the result of poor livestock or range management. Cases of human poisoning from ingestion of bulbs have been reported.
This plant is a member of the lily family (Liliaceae). There are about 3,800 species and 310 genera in this family, which includes the edible onion, garlic, and asparagus, as well as the poisonous hellebore and autumn crocus. Camas, also spelled quamash, is the Amerindian name for similar, blue-flowered western plants that bear bulbs relished for food.
There are about 18 species of Zigadenus in North America and Asia. The name stems from the Greek zygos, "yoke," and aden, "a gland," in reference to a pair of glands attached to the flowers. The specific epithet venenosus means "very poisonous" in botanical Latin.
Narrowleaved death camas was first described for science in 1903 by the distinguished Swedish-American botanist Per Axel Rydberg (1860-1931). He was curator of the New York Botanical Garden and authored several important floras including Flora of the Prairies and Plains of Central North America (1932).