Camassia – the blue spires of May

Camassia

May is a time for blue and white in the garden. The tall bluebell coloured spikes of Camassia leichtlinii can be relied upon to make a stunning show every year and have established themselves throughout the old rose garden.

A native of North America, these hardy perennials stand majestically some 3 feet high on strong sturdy stems. They grow well in damp, heavy, fertile ground in full sun or partial shade (damp ground seems to be a reoccurring theme in our garden (see Snake’s Head Fritillary) but this is not a challenge if you choose your plants wisely).

Companion planting

Camassia are able to establish themselves well in rough grassland as long as the moisture levels are right. In the last couple of years we have started to plant bulbs amongst an area of long grass and white cow parsley (Anthriscus syvestris) and I am delighted to see that they are establishing well. The blue and white should look wonderful together when they bulk up.

Camassia establishing well amongst the Cow Parsley
Camassia establishing well amongst the Cow Parsley

It is important to remember that the leaves should not be cut or strimmed until the bulbs die back naturally (about July) or the bulbs will not be able to build up effectively to over winter and multiply. The large bulbs (daffodil sized) do seem to move quite easily if you can plant them immediately.. Do not let them dry out.

In the herbaceous borders we have found Camassia works well when planted with tulips in contrasting colours surrounded and anchored to the ground with low growing forget-me-nots. Strictly speaking you could argue that Camassia and tulips need different growing conditions but they seem perfectly happy together.

Tulips Merlot, Marilyn and Pretty Woman amongst a sea of camassia
Tulips ‘Merlot’, ‘Marilyn’ and ‘Pretty Woman’ amongst a sea of Camassia

Cutting and conditioning

We have seen a trend towards a blue theme for wedding flowers this year ( Blues – this years’ wedding flower trend? ) and these flowers are certainly invaluable at this time of year. The complementary white ‘alba’ variety is also available.

The flower heads of Camassia open steadily from the bottom so you need to cut them early to get a long high quality flower stem. However, it is possible to pinch off the bottom-most flowers as they go over and use the remaining stem.

Conditioning is straight forward, simply cut and immediately place in cool water to condition for at least a couple of hours or overnight. Camassia are strongly geotropic so keep them upright and tied or they will soon bend upwards at the tips and look rather odd. Not a flower to be used horizontally in wide table arrangements.

One word of warning as we have found that the flowers do seem to stain other materials. We have an interesting blue pattern on a painted wall now!

Pest and diseases

From our experience they are not really attacked by slugs or other pests and remain relatively disease free. Good quality blooms are therefore easy to achieve if picked at the right time.

Hardiness: Fully hardy bulbous perennial

Origin: North America (Camassia quamash is reported by Anna Pavord to have been an important food plant for native Americans of the north west who dried the bulbs over their fires and stored them to eat in the winter ¹)

Family: Asparagaceae ²

Flowering time: May

Further reading

¹ “Bulb” by Anna Pavord (ISBN 978-1-84533-415-4)

² Royal Horticultural Society

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