Friday, June 7, 2013

A Sea of Blue Flowers

Field of Camas on a private property in Oregon. © Beatriz Moisset
When Lewis and Clark parted in their expedition across the continent in 1804, many wonders awaited them. When crossing the Mississippi they left behind many familiar things and faced others totally unknown to European settlers.

Blooming flowers in June. © Beatriz Moisset
A marvelous, astonishing sight west of the Rocky Mountains was a valley that looked like a blue sea with gentle waves rippling across it. A dense carpet of blue flowers stretched for miles deceiving the eye to the point of looking like a vast lake.

The flowers, unknown to them, were the camas lilies (Camassia quamash) of the west. They look like small lilies, although they are more closely related to the agave than to other lilies. Their nutritious bulbs provided an important food to the local peoples. Despite the laborious preparation to eliminate toxic components the Nez Perce and other tribes resorted to this food through the winter pounding it into flour and baking it into bread-like cakes. Lewis and Clark were happy to supplement their dwindling supplies by purchasing camas lilies cakes from the Nez Perce.

Nature Conservancy Camassia Natural Area. © Beatriz Moisset
Most of the land of the camas lilies has been taken for cultivation of crops. We can only imagine the full glory of the blooming fields of two centuries ago when looking at the scattered small plots which represent their last remnants.

One of the familiar things the expedition members left behind was the honey bee or domesticated bee. There were no domestic bees west of the Mississippi in those days, only native ones. It would take another fifty years for some enterprising folks to carry beehives from the eastern United States to California. Only one hive survived the ordeal of such a trip. Many years passed before honey bees became established and significant beekeeping operations got underway.

Native bumble bee pollinating a camas. © Beatriz Moisset
 Camas lilies were not deprived of pollinators. They had no need for honey bees; abundant insects made their living from gathering their pollen and nectar. When the new crops and agricultural methods including monocultures took over much of the land, the honey bee became the workhorse of crop pollination.

Nature Conservancy Camassia Natural Area. © Beatriz Moisset
Where did the native pollinators go after the numbers of camas lilies shrank to insignificance? Probably we'll never know. We can guess that some found pollen and nectar elsewhere and survived, although their numbers, too, must have been reduced. We acknowledge the disappearance of a way of life and of the seas of blue flowers. The pollinators of centuries ago went about their job silently and unnoticed. Thus, we cannot appreciate their absence.

One Bite out of Three

© Beatriz Moisset. 2013

1 comment:

  1. This is great stuff, Beatriz. You have made science accessible to the layperson. I always enjoy reading your articles.