Death by Camas

Yes, a new form of torture has been developed, involving an unrelenting repetition of a single passage from the Myth of Sisyphus – what? C-A-M-A-S? So, not Albert? Oh…sorry about that. Let’s begin again.

I love the flowers of death-camas. I love their Dr. Seussian protuberances, like false noses in bizarre and marvelous shapes. This close-up view contrasts sharply with the plant’s appearance from a distance.

Surrounded by graceful narrow leaves that give away its placement in the lily family, the whole lives up to the species name of elegans. Those odd-looking glands that encircle the centre of the flower are actually the source of the former generic name, Zygadenus – derived from a fusion of two Greek words: zugon, meaning ‘yoke’ and aden, ‘gland’.

Doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it?

It has recently been moved to a new genus, Anticlea, literally ‘without fame’. Perhaps there is some strange circular link back to Monsieur Albert, as the mythological Anticlea was the mother of Odysseus, and some accounts say that Sisyphus was his father! Phew.

On with the plants. On the surface I don’t see death-camas as reminding me much of anything I’d like to eat, but it is worthwhile discussing the similarities to edibles, because misidentification is the reason behind most cases of poisoning.

There is a basic similarity to alliums (onions, garlic and their relatives) which also have the long slender leaves with parallel veins characteristic of the lily family. Death-camas also forms a bulb, but doesn’t smell at all like onions or garlic. Trust your nose!

The other point of potential fatal confusion is mixing it up with the edible blue or common camas of the west coast. This plant, whose blue flowers distinguish it from the white blooms of death-camas, was and is widely used by First Nations from B.C. to California, and was even widely traded and transplanted outside its original range – not as far as the Yukon, however.

The only traditional use I have found for death-camas (besides being quite pretty) is in the form of a paste from the crushed bulbs as a treatment for rheumatism, sprains and bruises, not unlike the way we use arnica in a salve – another plant that is healing on the outside and toxic to our insides.

Death-camas is fairly common in the Yukon, frequently found in open woods and on river banks, but also up into alpine environments and even gravel pits, as long as there is a bit of moisture.

My guidebooks suggest it can get up to 60cm high, but in the Yukon I’ve never seen it to exceed 30cm, though the single inflorescence (flower stem) does shoot up higher than the leaves. The leaves themselves are blue-green, and the flowers are white, but not the bright white of a daisy, instead a they have a bit of a sickly, greenish tinge reminiscent of wintergreen and other parasitic plants.

So next time you’re out on a walk, look for the dried flower stalk standing stark above a ring of wilted, likely-frozen, lily-like leaves. Mark the spot in your mind and when you come back in the spring watch for the new growth so you can identify the plant in all its seasons, and enjoy it for its aesthetic value – without testing out its palatability.

White or Mountain Death-Camas

Anticlea (formerly Zygadenus) elegans

Deadliness: ☠☠☠☠ Two bulbs can kill a human

Poison: Zygadenine, zygacine (steroidal alkaloids)

Symptoms: Nauseau and vomiting, loss of muscle control followed by a decrease in blood pressure and temperature, eventual coma and death

Onset: Within 15 of ingestion

Treatment: Induce vomiting and get medical help immediately

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