Camassia – secret star of the spring garden?

When we think of spring bulbs, we think daffodils, tulips, crocuses … maybe snowdrops or anemones. Camassias are less well known – you might not find them at your local garden centre.

I was inspired to try out Camassias when I watched Stella Exley on the BBC’s Chelsea Flower Show. Stella is a Camassia superfan, multi-Chelsea-medal-winner and proud owner of the National Camassia collection.

Camassia leichtlinii spp. suksdorfii
Camassia leichtlinii spp. suksdorfii

So, what are Camassias and why should we grow them?

Camassias grow from bulbs, like daffodils or tulips, and flower between April and June, depending on where you live, and what variety or cultivar you grow. They produce spires of flowers in white, blue, purple and shades in between, and can reach heights of between 40cm and 150cm (again, depending on what kind you grow).

Camassias come originally from North America, and the roots were a food source for indigenous people (they taste a bit like a sweet potato).

Spring bulbs are cheap, easy to grow and a cheerful start to the spring – just when winter is getting you down. But most spring bulbs need sunlight early in the season. They evolved to grow under deciduous trees, and to get their growth done before the trees’ leaves emerge to block out the sunlight. That’s fine if you’re planting your bulbs either in a sunny, open spot … or in a woodland!

But for most of us, with our small, suburban gardens, shade isn’t cast by trees, but by fences or walls which block sunlight all year round. Many spring bulbs, such as daffodils, will struggle in these conditions. You might find, for example, that the shoots emerge ‘blind’, and don’t flower.

However, the Camassia is happy in a bit of shade and doesn’t mind heavy clay. Even better, it’s unattractive to slugs and snails.

Too good to be true? I scoured the internet, and asked the knowledgeable folk on Facebook gardening forums, but struggled to find anyone with a bad word for the Camassia. There might be a problem with self seeding of some varieties, but that shouldn’t really be a problem as the flowerheads should be removed before they seed seed so that the plant puts its energy into developing the bulb for next year. Like all bulbous perennials, Camassias will increase year on year if they’re happy, and occasionally you’ll need to dig them up and thin out the new bulbs.

Camassias can also be naturalised in drifts – examples are at Great Dixter and at Prince Charles’ Highgrove Estate. Like all bulbs, it’s important to let the foliage die down naturally, so if you’re planning to plant your Camassias in grass, do so where it won’t need to be cut for around 6 weeks afterwards (or for all long as you can stand it!).

Camassia in drifts
Camassia in drifts

If planting Camassias in a border, put them where the fading leaves will be hidden as other plants emerge.

There are quite a few different varieties of Camassia to choose from, and a number of cultivars. Or, there would be, if you don’t, like me, leave it until mid November when many nurseries have sold out.

There are plenty of online suppliers, including Stella Exley’s own nursery, Hare Spring Cottage Plants.

I ordered my bulbs from Rose Cottage Garden Plants. I chose Camassia cusickii – one of the earlier varieties to flower, and Camassia quamash ‘Orion’ – a mid-season cultivar with striking violet-blue flowers. I also wanted some of the Camassia leichtlinii variety, and, because I couldn’t decide between them, I ordered both ‘Blue Heaven’ and ‘Maybelle’.

The bulbs came promptly, ethically wrapped in brown paper, and I’ve planted them in the front of my North-facing border.

After all, if I don’t like them, I can always dig them up and eat them!

Recommended varieties and cultivars:
Early flowering:
Camassia leichtlinii ‘Caerulea’, also listed as Camassia leichtlinii supbp. suksdorfii Caerulea Group. (Don’t try saying that when you’re drunk!)
Camassi cusickii (the cultivar ‘Zwanenburg’ has deeper blue flowers, but I couldn’t find it still available)
Mid season:
Camassia leichtlinii: ‘Blue Heaven’ is a recent introduction with sky-blue flowers; ‘Maybelle’ is a deeper, blue-purple with golden stamens and was shown at the Chelsea Flower Show. ‘Sacajawea’ has variegated foliage and white flowers.
Camassia quamash ‘Orion’ has violet-blue flowers.

How to plant:

  • Plant the bulbs in early autumn (do as I say, not as I do…)
  • Lay out your bulbs where you plan to plant them – generally, it’s better to plant in larger groups rather than odd bulbs here and there. The advice sometimes given is to toss them down, and plant where they land. I have never found this to be a very good method, partly because I lose some of them (perhaps my tossing method is over-enthusiastic?). But also, some bulbs will end up too close together and others too far away. Just lay them out in an irregular pattern, spaced roughly however far apart it says on the packet.
  • It’s easy to forget where you’ve planted your bulbs – so once you’ve laid them out, take a quick photo of your bulbs on the ground as a reminder. Even better, take another photo once they emerge.
  • The rule of thumb is to plant 3 times the height of the bulb. So if your bulb is 2cm tall, the bottom of your hole should be 6cm deep. However, if you can’t manage this (Camassia bulbs can be huge!) just put them in as deep as you can manage. Rather than excavating a hole, use a trowel or spade to make a slit trench, lifting up the soil and tucking the bulb into the bottom of the trench. Be careful not to damage the bulbs.

After flowering:

  • Once your Camassias have finished flowering, remove the faded flowers so that the plant puts its energy back into the bulb, rather than making seeds.
  • Ideally you shouldn’t remove the leaves until they have died down naturally, as this allows the plant to reabsorb the nutrients from the leaves back into the bulb for next year.

I’m trying out the Camassias in my own garden, and in the garden of one of my lovely customers. They are all in North-facing borders and I’ll report back in spring!

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