Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Wednesday's Wildflower: Wild Hyacinth

I look forward to the bloom of this flower more than any other.

Once they make their appearance, somehow it seems that Spring's arrival is finally complete.

When you see those ethereal blooms waving like fairy wands in the breeze, dappled with filtered sunlight, you may agree that Heaven can indeed be on Earth, if only for a couple of weeks.

Wild Hyacinths are just that - the wild version of those big, waxy and deeply fragrant bulbs we plant in our flower beds or give as gifts on Mothers Day.

They only come in one color, however: a pale, pale lavender blue.

In the forests that they call home, they reign supreme during their bloom. Sometimes they have spread in massive colonies, with grassy foliage and tall blooms as far as the eye can see.

There is one colony here stretching for at least a mile, that can be found on the lake shore beside one of our park's trails. It is worth the long hike.

Wild Hyacinths are members of the lily family that prefer calcareous or basic soils, like those found in the Caney Fork river valley. They aren't terribly common, but usually occur in large colonies, especially on moist wooded slopes.

Their blooms can reach up to 36 inches high, and are referred to as terminal - blooming from bottom to top.

Around here, their bloom usually coincides with the emergence of another special creature: the Eastern Zebra Swallowtail.

Our Tennessee state butterfly seems to really enjoy nectaring on the fragrant blooms, and can sometimes be seen competing for space with one another. Their graceful presence undulating through the blossoms adds an even more heavenly quality to the scene.

The Latin name for Wild Hyacinth is Camassia scilloides. Camassia comes from the Chinook word quamash or camas. The eastern variety isn't the only species to be found in North America; up to five others exist, and those that grow out West were especially treasured by their local tribes because of their significant food value.

Among these was the Blue Camas, and Native Americans would tend their patches of quamash by weeding and burning. These sites became very sacred to them.

The bulbs are high in sugar, and have been such a prized staple throughout history that wars were fought over them. One Native American war, the Bannock War of 1878, was waged in Idaho because the settlers' pigs were uprooting the Indians' precious quamash plants. The Nez Perce War flared when European settlers began plowing camas lands.

The quamash bulb crop was vital for winter survival.

Another species of Hyacinth (C. quamash) native to the Pacific Northwest, is reported to have saved Lewis and Clark from starvation on their expedition. Although they learned the hard way that camas must be fully cooked, otherwise it produces a substantial amount of intestinal gas. Or to quote Captain Lewis:  “...when in the Indian hut I was almost blown out by the strength of the wind.”

Quamash was cooked in just about every possible way: baked, dried, powdered and used as flour and thickener. 

It took a substantial amount of labor to gather camas, and a woman's value as a wife was often measured by her ability to dig the bulbs. If she was really good, she could harvest up to two tons per year.

While our eastern variety is also considered edible, it should only be harvested in areas where it is abundant (and of course, where you have permission to do so). It is considered rare in some states, so harvest responsibly. 

If you choose to dig some quamash bulbs to accompany your dinner, be aware that there is a VERY toxic look alike, known as Death Camas (Zigadenus spp.).

They are sometimes confused with edible wild onions too, because of their similar looking bulb. Death Camas is so toxic, one plant can kill a full-sized cow, and even bees have reportedly died from visiting the flowers. Their blooms are usually white to yellow, and they aren't too common in Tennessee. Just make sure you never eat any wild plant unless you have an expert identify it for you. Many people tend to underestimate the dangers of poisonous plants.

When Native Americans were tending their quamash patches, they would make sure and weed while both quamash and Death Camas were flowering so they could remove the toxic plants. Once the flowers died back (the ideal time to harvest the quamash), the bulbs were almost impossible to distinguish.

While the hyacinth has been used extensively and in a variety of ways as a food source, there is no mention of medicinal uses in historical texts. Its value has always been purely nutritional.

The Eastern tribes didn't seem to value camas as much as the Western ones, but some local patches are so massive, it makes you wonder if there wasn't somebody tending them a few centuries ago.

Wild Hyacinths can also make a nice landscaping plant just like their cousins, and can be ordered from select nurseries. Here is one that carries them: Prairie Moon Nursery.

The sacred camas is in full bloom right now, and even if you never taste it, you can feast your eyes on its ethereal beauty while it lasts.

Be sure to join us for next Wednesday's wildflower!

Click here to read about last week's wildflower: Jack-in-the-pulpit

Medicinal information herein is shared strictly for anecdotal purposes. Do not attempt to self-medicate with wild herbs. Please consult a doctor first.

Next flower->


Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley and the Southern Appalachians - Dennis Horn & Tavia Cathcart

All About Tennessee Wildflowers - Jan W. Midgley


  1. Beautiful! And you are right, you should never underestimate wild edibles! That is why I don't eat or harvest anything except for morels. I just don't know enough about what is good and what isn't safe. I'd love to harvest poke and stinging nettle, and all the other wild edibles, but I don't know for SURE what they are and how to do it, so I don't!

  2. Thanks for the info about this lovely wildflower (and for the lol with the "wind" comment, haha). I actually don't even know what a hyacinth smell like off the top of my head, so now I am very curious. I know a lot of bath and perfume stuff say they have a fragrance like this flower.

  3. Very informative article on Wild Hyacinth, something to look for on walks. Thank you for sharing with the Clever Chicks Blog Hop! I hope you’ll join us again next week!

    Kathy Shea Mormino
    The Chicken Chick

  4. Beautiful flowers. That's so scary that some plants can be that toxic. I'm a chicken...I never eat anything I don't grow. I'm terrified of grabbing the wrong thing! Thanks for the info!

    Thanks for linking up with Green Thumb Thursday! I hope you'll join us again this week!