Toxicoscordion venenosum

Meadow death camas, Toxicoscordion venenosum.

Name: Meadow Death Camas

Scientific Name: Toxicoscordion venenosum

This fairly common spring wildflower should be appearing on open meadow slopes about now, though it normally begins to appear in late March. It is found from British Columbia to Saskatchewan, and south to California, Utah, New Mexico, and Nebraska, and is the most widely distributed of the eight known death camus species in the U.S. All of them have white flowers and are deadly poisonous.

The genus name for all 8 species was changed about ten years ago from Zigadenus. The new name, Toxicoscordion, comes from toxic, meaning poisonous, and possibly from scordion, meaning similar to garlic. The species name, Venenosum, is Latin for poisonous.

This plant is known to grow up to 2 feet tall, however, around here it is usually 6 to 12 inches high. The flowers are white with pale yellow centers, and have 6 identical petals, though 3 of them are technically sepals. The plants are usually widely spaced or solitary, and the arrangement of the flowers is usually much longer than wide, unlike the example pictured here.

One other death camas species is present in Eastern Oregon. It has the flowers arranged in a branching panicle instead of being attached along a single central stem. It is important to not confuse the two death camas species with common blue camas (Camassia quamash) which is in the Blue Mountains. The blue camas has blue flowers about an inch wide, and likes to grow in the same open, moist or wet meadows as death camas.

The blue camas has a bulb that has long provided food for western Indian tribes. The bulbs were dug up in the fall for use in the winter. Unfortunately, the bulbs of the death camas and the blue camas are identical. The tribes would go to the wet meadows in the spring when both plants were blooming, and pull up and discard the white-flowered death camas bulbs. In the fall they could then safely dig and eat the remaining bulbs of blue camas.

Where to find: A good place to spot death camas would be in pastures or meadows at low elevations such as between Pendleton and Pilot Rock.

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