Study reveals age-old secrets of Camas cultivation

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Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that Indigenous groups in the Pacific Northwest were selectively harvesting edible camas bulbs at their optimal growth stages as far back as 3,500 years ago. These findings, published in The Holocene, provide valuable insights into Traditional Ecological Knowledge and practices by demonstrating how these groups have been managing and nurturing natural resources for thousands of years.

The Ecological and Cultural Significance of Camas
Camas, a striking blue flower that grows throughout the Pacific Northwest, serves as an ecological and cultural keystone, supporting many different organisms playing a significant role in numerous cultural traditions.

Molly Carney, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of anthropology at Oregon State University, highlights its significance: “If you think about salmon as being a charismatic species that people are very familiar with, camas is kind of the plant equivalent,” she explained. “It is one of those species that really holds up greater ecosystems, a fundamental species which everything is related to.”

Based on her research, Carney says it’s clear that Native communities at the time were not selectively harvesting for the biggest possible bulbs, but rather stewarding camas to be sustainable over time. “They were trying to maintain the age structure of these camas populations within a pretty narrow window,” she said. “When I had the opportunity to harvest alongside tribal communities, as they harvest, they replant the smaller bulbs as they go. They’re really sowing for future harvest, and that’s what I think was happening here.”


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