Monday, June 9, 2014

Harvest Brodiaea

The last camas flowers have fallen, their green leaves withered, and the grass around them parched golden under the long day’s sun. All around the Salish Sea the plants of thin soiled sites are preparing for the dry summer by setting seed and retreating to subterranean perennial parts. Visiting one such “bald” on an island at the mouth of the Skagit River, I was surprised by a final flush of color. Amongst camas seed pods, dry moss, and crisp licorice fern fronds were the vital tones of orchid, orobanche, onion, and brodiaea.

California Broomrape (Orobanche californica)
Hooker's Onion (Allium acuminatum)

White Brodiaea (Triteleia hyacinthina)
Edible roots grace both onions and brodiaeas, but I was especially keen to have my first taste of brodiaea. Both Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria) and White Brodiaea (Triteleia hyacinthina were present but I failed to bring my digging stick, and the White Brodiaea were too deeply rooted to extricate with my fingernails, so this account is limited to the more shallow rooted and easy to, Harvest Brodiaea.

Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea coronaria)
Harvest Brodiaea is an herbaceous perennial that grows from a small spherical to ovate corm ¼ - ½ inch in diameter. Several linear basal leaves emerge early in the spring and a single leafless flowering stalk 2-12 inches tall arises as the soil begins to dry in late spring and the leaves wilt. One to ten flowers are clustered in an umbel that is subtended by the remnants of the papery sheath which protects the embryonic flowers (similar to onion flowers) but ruptures as the flowers mature. Each flower is 1-2 inches long with 6 blue to purple tepals and a greenish white striped tube. Seed capsules filled with black seeds form in the early summer and the seeds are shaken out of the capsules by heavy wind or animals. 

Northern range of Harvest Brodiaea (CPNWH map)
Harvest Brodiaea ranges from southern Vancouver Island to Southern California and has the largest range of the 19 species in its genus (all in Western North America). The Comox valley on Vancouver Island is the northern extent of its range and it is commonly found in prairies and thin soiled rocky balds throughout the islands and mainland region surrounding the Salish Sea. Further from the coast Harvest Brodiaea is less common, but a few populations are found in the Thompson and Fraser River valleys in British Columbia, the rocky slopes of the upper Skagit (Ross Lake) and Thurston County outwash prairies in Washington; the Lower Columbia and Willamette valleys in Oregon host sporadic populations as well. From the Siskiyous southward, Harvest Brodiaea once again becomes more common and can be found in both wet and dry sites including yellow pine forests, riparian wetlands, and grasslands.

At the time of first European contact, the Coast Salish collected Harvest Brodiaea. Captain George Vancouver’s naturalist Archibald Menzies wrote in his May 28, 1792 journal “On the Point near the Ship [Restoration Point, Puget Sound] where…a few families of Indians live in very Mean Huts or Sheds formed of slender Rafters & covered with Mats. Several of the women were digging on the Point which excited my curiosity to know what they were digging for & found it to be a little bulbous root of the liliaceous plant which on searching about for the flower of it I discovered to be a new Genus of the Triandia monogyna [i.e. Brodiaea]. This root with the young shoots of Raspberries & a species of Barnacles formed at this time the chief part of their wretched subsistence (in Pojar and Mackinnon 1994)." However, there is almost no mention of the traditional food value of Harvest Brodiaea among later ethnobotanical studies of the Coast Salish (Turner and Bell 1971) or  Indigenous peoples in British Columbia or Washington. Knowledge of other brodiaea species ranges from vague recollections of use among the Thompson (Turner et al. 1990) and Okanagan (Turner et al. 1980) to precise knowledge and active harvest among some Sahaptin people (Hunn 1990).

A lineup of Harvest Brodiaea corms
Further south, the ethnobotanical knowledge of Harvest Brodiaea is more vivid. In Oregon, several Athabaskan speaking peoples know the plant as 'small camas' due to the similarity in appearance and use (Ethnobotany of Western Oregon). In California, the corms are traditionally eaten by the Atsugewi, Miwok, Pomo, Kashaya, Yurok, Yana, and other Native American groups (Moerman). Research by ethnobotanist Kat Anderson (2005) has shown that traditional techniques of harvesting and tending patches of brodiaea and onions actually increases their abundance. By all accounts, the roots of Harvest Brodiaea are dug in the late spring while flowering and boiled or baked in earth ovens before being eaten.

I boiled a few corms for 10 minutes in unsalted water to give myself an unadulterated taste of the little morsels. They quickly softened and I found their texture and flavor very similar to a boiled potato. The skins were tough and I spit them out. All the remaining roots went into the garden to multiply for future meals.

The genus Brodiaea honors Scottish Botanist James Brodie (1744-1824) and the species epithet coronaria means “used for garlands” in Latin. I can't think of a nicer garnish for my next meal of brodiaea.


Anderson, M. Kat 2005. "Tending the Wild, Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources." University of California Press, Berkley CA.

Biota of North American Program (BONAP)- North American Plant Atlas- Brodiaea

Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria- Brodiaea coronaria

Ethnobotany of Western Oregon- Harvest Lily (Brodiaea coronaria)

Hoover, Robert F. 1939. “A Revision of the Genus Brodiaea.” American Midland Naturalist Vol. 22, No. 3.

Hunn, Eugene 1990. "Nch'i-Wana 'The Big River', Mid-Columbia Indians and Their Land." University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.

Native American Ethnobotany- Brodiaea coronaria

Oregon Flora Project- Brodiaea coronaria

Pojar and MacKinnon 1994. “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, & Alaska”. Lone Pine, Vancouver BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Marcus Bell 1971. "The Ethnobotany of the Coast Salish." Economic Botany.

Turner et al. 1990. "Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia." Royal British Columbia Museum Memoir No. 3.

Turner, Nancy J., Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy I. D. Kennedy. 1980. "Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington." British Columbia Provincial Museum Occasional Papers Series No. 21.

WTU Herbarium- Brodiaea coronaria

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