LOLO PASS — Pull around a corner on the Packer Meadows Road near here, and the brilliance of the blooming camas hits you all at once.
With the plants at their peak this week, the normally green meadow is bluish-purple instead. The delicate flowers moving in the breeze produce a shimmering quality, much like water. Get closer, and the purple color becomes more intense.
“I think it’s gorgeous, beautiful, lakelike,” said Naomi Matten of Missoula, Mont., who visited the meadow with her family Tuesday to see the blooming wildflowers. “It’s so quiet up here — a great place to teach your grandchildren what a meadow is.”
Terry Bludeau, who was visiting from Connecticut, marveled at the sight. She and her friends had just finished a bicycle tour in northern Idaho and stopped by the Lolo Pass Visitor Center, where they learned about the blooming plants and their importance as a food source to American Indians like the Nez Perce.
“I think its beautiful. There is nothing like this we see back East,” Bludeau said. “This is so pleasant up here.”
She wondered if this is the time of year native people harvest the plant. The answer is yes, according to Sandra Broncheau-McFarland, administrator for the Nez Perce National Historic Trail and a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. Broncheau-McFarland said the protein-rich bulb or root of the plant is dug with a stick called a tú.kes.
“That action of digging the bulb out of the ground does redistribute the seeds back into the ground, so it’s a way of regenerating the plant itself,” she said.
Conversion of native grasslands on the Palouse, Camas Prairie and other places to farmland along with other development, grazing and weed infestations have reduced the geographic distribution of camas. But there are a number of places like Packer Meadows and Musselshell Meadows where the plants continue to flourish.
Broncheau-McFarland said while Packer Meadows is an important site to the Nez Perce, it was also frequented by the Kootenai and Salish people of Montana, who often came over Lolo Pass to fish for salmon in the spring.
“It was used by both people, and both of those people had lots of interaction trading and intermarrying,” she said. “It’s not uncommon for tribes to come to other tribe’s homeland on invitation to share resources and develop that kind of relationship.”
The harvested bulbs were baked in pits, made into loaves and cakes, dried or crushed with fruit like chokecherries and made into a pemmican. Broncheau-McFarland said the preservable food was critical to helping ensure people survived long winters.
Today, some people preserve them via canning or bake them in an oven or on a stove and often serve them at weddings, funerals and traditional events like the first roots ceremony that honors both edible plants and the women who collect them.
“That is not a tradition that has gone away,” she said. “There are people who continue that tradition.”
She said camas, while still abundant at places like Packer Meadows, faces a host of threats, including cattle grazing and the spraying of chemicals to treat weed infestations.
“The Nez Perce Tribe works closely with the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest and other forests in trying to make sure these areas are fenced off to keep cattle at bay,” Broncheau-McFarland. “I think we are all concerned about the future and what climate change effects are going to have on everything from salmon to elk to all of the plants.”
Barker may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.
If you go
When: Go soon; the plants are at their peak this week and will soon be on the decline.
Where: Packer Meadows is south of the Lolo Pass Visitor Center along U.S. Highway 12 on the Idaho-Montana state line.
Of note: Take in the view, but be careful not to tread on the delicate plants. More information is available at the visitor center, which is open Thursdays through Mondays.