Seeds of the New Burke

October 29, 2015 | Bridget McNassar

The camas prairie is a severely endangered ecosystem in Washington. Only five percent of the historic prairie lands are left, and many of the plants and animals are threatened. This is a loss in biodiversity and cultural heritage. Camas was an important food source for many Native American groups— with the added value that it is a very charismatic plant, with its stunning, but fleeting, display of purple blossoms in the spring.

It is incredibly rare to be able to collect wild camas seed in Washington. The San Juan Islands have some of the only remnants of camas prairies, but a lot of the areas are protected. Bill and Susan Potts generously offered to let us collect from their private property on Dinner Island, and our nursery staff spent a glorious July afternoon exploring the diversity of native plants near their home.

Summer is the perfect time to collect because the plants are dry but haven’t dropped their seeds yet, and a lot of the lily species hold their seeds in an upward-facing cup. You just clip the stems and put them in bags, and later you shake the seeds off, clean them and store them in the fridge until you are ready to sow.

We will sow in the next couple weeks. Camas is very slow-growing. It takes three to five years until they are big enough to bloom, and we have four growing seasons until the installation of the camas field planned for the New Burke. With these particular species, it’s a time commitment and a slow process of hoping and doing everything you can to ensure you have those plants ready to go.

The New Burke is going to showcase the living floral heritage of Washington state, and the camas field is a really unique landscape feature to attempt. The different ecosystems in the New Burke gardens—shady forest and sunny, exposed prairie—will show the diversity in our state and why that flora is important. It’s not just a landscape to passively look at—it’s something to actively experience.