Standing at Weippe Prairie, in northeastern Idaho, in the summer of 1806, Lewis admired a field of blue camas flowers. Nine months before, the Corps of Discovery had arrived at this same location exhausted and near starvation after an arduous crossing of the Bitterroot Mountains. At that time, the camas had represented survival, not beauty.
By the following summer, as they began their journey home, the men of the Expedition, like Lewis, could appreciate the beauty of the prairie that sat at the base of daunting mountains. Remembering his mission to document the plants and people of the west, Lewis took the time to write more than 1500 words about the Camas plant. He also described the Nez Perce technique for collecting and preparing the roots of the plant.
To the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu, the camas plant has a deeper meaning. For thousands of years, the Nez Perce made their home near Weippe Prairie and relied on the plant that once grew in abundance there. Today, the descendents of the Nez Perce who helped Lewis and Clark still harvest and roast the camas plant. With much of the Nez Perce homeland now used for agriculture or encroached upon by forests the sea of blue described by Meriwether Lewis is increasingly difficult to find. Nonetheless, tribal members, in partnership with researchers and biologists, work to preserve and expand this historic landscape.
More information about the common camas (Camassia quamash) is available in the following books and web sites.
Lewis and Clark among the Indians
Plants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition Written by Wayne H. Phillips and published by Mountain Press Publishing Company.
The Lewis and Clark Herbarium
Did You Know?
Jefferson expected the Expedition to learn about the people, plants and animals of the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. None of the men of the Expedition was a trained scientist, but fulfilling Jefferson’s instructions required skills in cartography, ethnography, botany, zoology, and meteorology.