Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Lily Family: Death Camass, Wild Chive and Wild Onion
By Janelle Eklund
Little clumps of grass like leaves pop up throughout the forest and along the roads. As the season progresses stems emerge from the clumps reaching two feet toward the sky. The tops of the stems develop clusters of creamy greenish-white flowers with six petals.
This beautiful plant is deadly poisonous and is appropriately named Death Camass. It has an alkaloid that causes salivation, vomiting, muscular weakness, decreased body temperature, impaired breathing, coma, and usually death.
The distinct leaves are long, narrow and flat. Being in the lily family, the bulbs look very similar to wild chive bulbs but don’t have the onion smell of the wild chive or onion. Wild chive and wild onion flowers look like one umbrella like clump sitting atop its stem bathed in a pinkish-purple dress. A good way to tell the difference between death camass and wild chive and wild onion is that wild chive and wild onion have the distinct ‘onion’ odor from the bulb when the leaves and buds are bruised. Death camass leaves and bulbs don’t have the ‘onion’ odor; and the flowers are very distinct from the wild chives and wild onions. The leaves of the wild chive are round and hollow. Wild onion has similar leaves to death camass but the flower is an umbrella like bud like the wild chive.
Since the flowers of these two plants are good identifiers it is critical to positively identify them when the flowers are not visible in spring or fall. It doesn’t take too long in the spring for the buds to form on top of wild chive. One year on June 3 the wild chive at our cabin at Silver Lake formed some buds. When I crushed the round hollow leaves, the aroma of onion floated out. So I know they are not death camass and the leaves are ready to eat.
Wild chives are packed with iron and give a spicy flavor to spring salads, soups, egg dishes, potatoes, and any other dish. Just use them like you would an onion.
Troubled with aphids in your garden? Planting chives next to plants that attract aphids helps repel them. Want to get rid of those pesky mosquitoes dive bombing your body? Crush some chive or onion and rub it on your skin as a repellent.
If you have a wound you can disinfect it by applying juice from the chive or onion bulb, as it is an antiseptic.
Got chickens or turkeys? Chives added to their feed can be healthy for them.
Preserve chives for year round use by chopping and drying them in the oven at 200° until completely dry.
Remember to positively identify any plant before consuming, and then when safe, enjoy the fruits of Mother Nature.
From my light to yours-
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Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
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